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Framing Legitimacy: A Qualitative Analysis Examining Local Print-Media Portrayals of an Immigrant Family Detention Center in Texas

Published onNov 01, 2016
Framing Legitimacy: A Qualitative Analysis Examining Local Print-Media Portrayals of an Immigrant Family Detention Center in Texas


Research suggests that media portrayals can impact the opinions of adults (Dizard, 2000). However, media reports on aspects of our criminal justice system, such as corrections, are an understudied topic (Marsh, 1989), especially regarding the use of private prisons. The current study examines a sample of 12 local Texas newspapers that reported on the T. Don Hutto Facility in Taylor, Texas, between January 1, 2000, and December 31, 2013. This facility was once a state prison for males and local jail inmates before being converted into an undocumented immigrant family detention facility and later into a detention center for undocumented immigrant females. In this article we use the theoretical concepts of moral and instrumental legitimacy and of diversionary framing to explain the importance of the type of inmate population held in a facility. We explain the presence of framing techniques and the involvement of civil rights organizations and discuss how these factors affect the way local print media depict private prison companies and their facilities, especially private family immigrant detention facilities. These facilities, which typically hold undocumented illegal immigrants and their children on non-criminal charges, have received considerable criticism from media for providing substandard quality confinement.


Issues surrounding the criminal justice system are commonly reported by media outlets, including social media, internet news outlets, nightly news, and local and national print media. There are many scholars from several academic fields who have contributed considerable knowledge regarding the role that popular media play in reporting on aspects of the criminal justice system such as crime (Barak, 1988; Barak 1995; Frost & Phillips, 2011; Potter & Kappeler, 2006), policing and perceptions of police (Chermak, McGarrell, & Greunewald, 2006; Dowler & Zawilski, 2007), gangs (Esbensen & Tusinski, 2007), fear of crime (Dowler, 2003; Kort-Butler & Hartshorn, 2011), corrections (Jewkes, 2007; Cheliotis, 2010; Vickovic, Griffin & Fradella, 2013), terrorism (Lewis, 2005; Norris, Kern, & Just, 2003) and incarcerated religious groups (Umamaheswar, 2015). From the media outlet that introduces and frames a story to the ways that the public perceives and interprets a story, it is important to understand how these and other characteristics of media portrayal shape the presentation of information to the public. In regard to criminal justice, media are an essential tool used for influencing adults’ opinions (Dizard, 2000) and helping members of a population form opinions on issues such as crime rates, inmate populations, and new criminal justice policies and legislation.

By examining media reports from national television news broadcasts, internet news sources, local television news, social media, and national and local print media, researchers are able to study issues of criminal justice and how media outlets portray them. Often, a story is framed in a particular manner that shapes the message in a way that appeals to the expected population of readers (McLuhan, 1994). However, by doing so, media outlets often mislead the public in dramatic ways, not necessarily by presenting false information but by framing a story in a way that will engrain a certain message or elicit a certain response from the viewers and readers. Framing, in the general media sense, is defined as, “the shared cultural narratives and myths that a news story conveys via recourse to visual imagery, stereotyping and other journalistic ‘short-cuts’” (Jewkes, 2010, p. 282). Tankard (2001) points out two unique attributes of framing: (a) framing can elicit more complex and emotional responses from readers as it adds another cognitive dimension to the discussion, and (b) it allows visual or text media to “define a situation, to define the issues, and to set the terms of the debate” (p. 96). This study will focus on local (Texas) newspaper media reports on the T. Don Hutto Private Facility (operated by Corrections Corporation of America). It will discuss the framing used in discourse, the mention of support and involvement by civil and human rights organizations, and the change over time in the media’s coverage of this facility. The purpose of this study is to gain further insight into the ways in which local media portrayals favor or oppose the detention of certain populations of prisoners and the types of framing used when doing so.

Private prisons in the United States

The tough on crime movement, the war on drugs, harsher penalties for crimes, and indeterminate sentencing all led to unprecedented increases in the nation’s prison populations in the late 1970s and early 1980s. This increase led to overcrowding issues in prisons across the United States. Many states were strapped for funds to build new prisons and were in desperate need of a solution to their overcrowding issues. In 1982, President Reagan created the President’s Private Sector Survey on Cost Control, which focused on government waste and fiscal inefficiency, and provided a springboard for privatizing aspects of government, including the prison system. The first for-profit private prison company (Corrections Corporation of America) was created in 1983 in response to a court order that ruled overcrowding in Tennessee prisons to be unconstitutional (Hallett, 2006).

Corrections Corporation of America was co-founded by Thomas Beasley, an American lawmaker, attorney, and chairman of the Tennessee Republican party, and T. Don Hutto, Virginia’s top corrections director and president of the American Corrections Association. The company signed its first contract with the state of Tennessee and began operations with financial support from venture capitalist Jack Massey of Kentucky Fried Chicken and Hospital Corporation of America (Selman & Leighton, 2010). Private prison companies build, buy, own and/or operate correctional facilities under contracts with local, state, or federal agencies to house inmates at a per diem rate. Corrections Corporation of America is the world’s largest private prison company and operates 71 facilities in 20 states across the United States (CCA, 2016). Since the early 2000s, immigration has become a focal concern. For-profit private prison companies such as CCA and The GEO Group, Inc. have focused their attention on obtaining contracts to house undocumented immigrant detainees for ICE, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, and the U.S. Marshals Service. These companies have also been known to work with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in order to pass immigration reform legislation, which in turn ultimately increases their profits by placing more undocumented immigrants in detention (Furman et al., 2015).

Media portrayals of private prisons in the United States

Media reports of the criminal justice system often ignore what occurs within prisons and jails in the US (Marsh, 1988).  In particular, issues such as overcrowding, prison riots, correctional officer misconduct, abuse, the construction of new prisons, and methods in which different types of inmates (undocumented immigrants, sex offenders, drug addicts) are handled throughout the prison system are often neglected. This, in turn, shapes public perceptions about the criminal justice system. Given that by the end of 2014, there were 1,473,400 inmates in federal and state prisons, not including those held in local jails (Kaeble, Glaze, & Anastasios, 2015), we would expect the print media to report quite often on correctional systems. However, this is typically not the case. Other criminal justice matters such as crime rates and homicides are more commonly reported by the media and are considered by scholars to be standard topics of the news media, particularly nightly news and print media (Kappeler, Blumberg, & Potter, 1996; Surette, 1998).

Ross (2011) conducted interviews with five of the nation’s top corrections reporters to discuss the challenges of reporting on corrections issues and to help explain why this aspect of the justice system is not commonly covered in the print media (newspapers). The findings from the study suggest that the public is not interested in jail and prison issues and that the cost of having reporters cover these issues is not worthwhile. He also found that in the top ten journalism schools in the US, the only “course that is taught   on a semi-regular basis is one that introduces students to reporting on the criminal justice system” (p. 12). The results from the interviews suggest that the three main challenges of reporting on this topic are accessing the information, convincing editors to let them report on these types of issues, and “getting to the truth of the matter” (p. 10). Scholars have pointed out that different facilities allow different levels of access for the media depending  on the type of facility, who is operating the facility (public or private), and who is being housed in the facility (Hincle, 1996; Talbot, 1989; Yeung, 2003; Zaner, 1989).

It is important to note that the aspect itself has elicited ethical, political, and philosophical concerns by scholars (Casarez, 1995; DiIulio, 1986; Herivel & Wright, 2009; Logan, 1990; Marion, 2009; Matthews & Chambliss, 2014; Shichor, 1995). Although the realities of prison privatization are highly debatable, scholars have used quantitative research to examine and compare public and private prison costs, quality of confinement, recidivism rates, staff training, employee work conditions, grievances, and safety and security. Only three studies, however, have examined media portrayals of private prisons.

Welch, Weber and Edwards (2000) conducted a content analysis of 206 corrections-related articles that were printed in the New York Times between 1992 and 1995 to determine what particular aspects of corrections were being reported. The results from their analysis show that the top eight topics that were reported on were violence (19%), programs/rehabilitation (17%), healthcare (8%), get tough policies and campaigns (8%), privatization/industry (8%), overcrowding (5%), drugs (4%), and famous inmates (4%). They also noted that 62% of the 1,486 quotes in the articles endorsed the nation’s correctional strategies, and 38% opposed them. Interestingly, only 4 of the 19 topics that were found expressed more opposition than support for the government’s stance (overcrowding, history, famous inmates, Immigration and Naturalization Service. Their study discovered a mountain of evidence supporting the politicization of punishment and the criminal justice system by politicians and government officials. Such evidence, the researchers noted, bolstered support for politicians’ and government officials’ political agendas; it also functioned to “legitimize state power through the distribution of punishment” (p. 260; also see Foucault, 1977; Welch, 1999).

Blakely and Bumphus (2005) analyzed a sample of 129 newspaper articles written on the topic of prison privatization and printed between January 1, 1986 and April 18, 2002. The results showed that the percentage of articles that have titles and content favorable to privatization had declined since 1986, and that external characteristics such as financing, politics, and overcrowding were common, while articles related to the operational quality of correctional systems were less frequent. They attributed these findings to the difficulties in accessing information about the operational quality of private prisons and the fact that most of the media portrayals of private prisons in the sample came from official data. They pointed out that the private sector has been “increasingly unwilling to disclose even basic information about its operations” (p. 74). Their study also suggested that the media’s support for prison privatization has been declining. However, the authors were unsure why this has been happening. They were left to wonder whether the increasingly negative portrayals were perpetuating the private sector’s secrecy, or if their secrecy was fueling the negative portrayals presented in these newspapers.

Another study (Burkhardt, 2014) examined prison privatization in the news print media through a legitimacy lens by using a typology of moral ity framing (philosophy, ethics, role of government, etc.) and instrumental framing (cost, economies, jobs, etc.). Burkhardt’s study examined 706 articles published in the top four newspapers in the US (Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Chicago Tribune, and the Houston Chronicle) that discussed prison privatization from 1985 to 2008. The purpose was to use Lindemann’s (2009) assessment of moral and instrumental modes of argumentation to explore variations in the use of moral legitimacy and to compare these variations across different jurisdictions that use private prisons at different levels. Results suggested that instrumental framing was used far more often than morality framing (60% to 80% of the articles), with cost being the most frequently mentioned element of instrumental framing (37% of the articles). Morality framing declined over time with morality framing being most widely used in 1985, one year after the creation of the first private prison company in the US (Corrections Corporation of America). Interestingly, the morality frame was used most often in newspapers whose states did not use private prisons (Chicago Tribune, 22%; New York Times, 23%), while states that were at the forefront of prison privatization used the morality frame  more scarcely, and focused their framing approach on instrumental arguments (Los Angeles Times, 15%; Houston Chronicle, 5%).

Burkhardt (2014) reached three main conclusions:

  1. As privatizing prisons became more prevalent, discourse about the normative appropriateness of their use based on moral arguments decreased.

  2. The shift from moral framing to instrumental framing over time made it easier for policy makers and politicians to endorse the use of private prisons, especially in states where private prisons were used.

  3. When print media switched their focus from moral questions (such as are private prisons the right thing to do) to instrumental issues, those who supported privatization faced fewer challenges in furthering the growth of their use.

The last conclusion is a good illustration of how diversionary framing that focuses on the legitimacy of a particular entity does not need to be confirmed. Rather, legitimacy is implied if issues of illegitimacy are not brought to the surface (Freudenburg & Alario, 2007).

The shortcomings of the previous literature are that these studies examined national newspapers and that no research has been conducted on how local print media portrays private prisons in states that use them. The previous literature has provided examples of identifying moral and instrumental framing. However, our study includes diversionary framing and identifies topics of discussion, the favorability of articles within each framing category, and how these print media portrayals suggest legitimacy, or the lack thereof, in privatized prisons. We also examine the presence and mention of civil and human rights organizations and how mentioning these organizations can help frame the messages that are portrayed.

Current study

Background of Corrections Corporation of America and the T. Don Hutto Facility

Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) was the first private prison company in the US and was created in 1983 as a solution to the overcrowding issues that the US faced due to the massive increase in U.S. prison populations in the early 1980s. By 2001, the prison population had reached about two million inmates with an incarceration rate of 500 citizens per 100,000 (Beck, Karberg, & Harrison, 2002), and a total of 154 private prison facilities were operating across America with the capacity to hold up to 142,000 inmates (Corrections Corporation of America [CCA], 2001). As of 2016, CCA has 71 facilities across the United States, of which ten are located in Texas. Five of them are under Texas Department of Criminal Justice contracts while the remaining five CCA facilities have contracts with ICE, U.S Customs and Border Patrol, and the U.S. Marshals Service. As of December 2014, private prison companies house roughly 8.25 % of the nation’s federal and state inmates, not including those held in immigrant detention facilities (Kaeble, Glaze, & Anastasios, 2015).

Although there are differences between types of media and media coverage, the purpose of this study is to examine local Texas print media portrayals (newspaper articles) that include the term “Corrections Corporation of America”. This study focuses on the CCA-operated T. Don Hutto facility in Taylor, Texas, between January 1, 2000, and December 31, 2013. Between 1997 and 2006, this facility housed inmates for the U.S. Marshals Service, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, and Williamson County. As the facility’s inmate populations declined in 2006, CCA considered the option of closing the facility due to declining profits. Shortly after the discussion began, CCA reached an agreement with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to house undocumented immigrant families and children on non-criminal charges as they awaited deportation or until their asylum status was determined. This occurred in response to ICE abandoning the well-known ‘catch-and-release’ program after 9/11 (which essentially resulted in immigrants arrested for illegal entry being released with a court date) and adopting a ‘catch-and-remove’ program where undocumented immigrants are detained until their deportation or asylum status is decided (Martin, 2012).

The facility was renamed the T. Don Hutto Residential Center in 2006 and soon thereafter the facility began housing immigrant families. Due to considerable opposition by protesters, human rights organizations, and the U.N., among others, the facility (one of two in the US that held families at that time) was later renamed and repurposed to house only undocumented female immigrants and no longer held children. This study examines the print media portrayal of the facility that housed men, women, and children over this period, it asks how civil rights organizations and special populations of detainees (particularly children) may have an impact on the level of media coverage, and it identifies the framing techniques used when discussing special populations and the use of for-profit private prisons.

Conceptual framework and methodology

The conceptual framework used to analyze these articles is taken from Blakely and Bumphus’ (2005) analysis of how favorable, unfavorable or neutral the print media’s portrayal was of private prisons. This study also utilizes Lindemann’s (2009) analysis of moral and instrumental modes of argumentation and framing to indicate the presence of moral and instrumental legitimacy portrayed in the print media, as seen in Burkhardt (2014), as well as the presence of diversionary framing (Freudenburg & Alario, 2007).


The notion of delegating the power and responsibility to punish criminals to private prison companies in the mid-1980s brought about questions and concerns regarding the previous core responsibilities of government. Like other new forms of business, private prisons require a sense of legitimacy to remain successful (Suchman, 1995; Aldrich & Fiol, 1994). Legitimacy has been defined as “a generalized perception or assumption that the actions of an entity are desirable, proper, or appropriate within some socially constructed system of norms, values, beliefs, and definitions” (Suchman, 1995, p. 574). Suchman (1995) discussed several variations of legitimacy, including moral legitimacy which is used in this study. Scholars and members of the public have questioned the legitimacy of private prison companies since the creation of CCA in 1983, and some argue that punishment is an inherent responsibility of the government and should not be contracted to the private sector (Hart, Shleifer, & Vishny, 1996). Others suggest that allowing companies to profit from incarceration removes the goal of protecting citizens and replaces it with profit-based motives, which ultimately presents concerns about the efficacy and purpose of the U.S. criminal justice system (Stinebaker, 1995; Herivel & Wright, 2009). The following sections discuss three ways of framing legitimacy that are used to analyze the articles in this study.

Moral legitimacy framing

Suchman (1995) defined moral legitimacy as “socio-tropic, as it rests   not on judgments about whether a given activity benefits the evaluator, but rather on judgments about whether the activity is ‘the right thing to do’” (p. 579). Judgments, as portrayed in print media, typically reflect “beliefs about whether the activity effectively promotes societal welfare, as defined by the audience’s socially constructed value system” (p. 579). For the purpose of this study, moral legitimacy refers to the media’s support or contentment with this private prison facility based on the norms of a society and what society believes should be done (Burkhardt, 2014). The following example from an article in this study’s sample identifies the moral legitimacy frame. The purpose of the moral legitimacy frame is to influence the reader to focus on the moral and ethical considerations of a particular situation and what ought to be happening in a given situation.

If humane treatment is the goal, human rights activists and other critics say the Taylor facility has failed. “It is wrong for the United States to be detaining immigrant families with young children in a prison-like environment when they have alternatives,” said Rebecca Bernhardt, of the American Civil Rights League of Texas. “I don’t think most Americans are aware that we’re doing this. If they knew what the conditions were like, if they could see the families, they would find this pretty outrageous. (Houston Chronicle, 2/7/2007)

Instrumental legitimacy framing

Instrumental legitimacy framing focuses on the outcomes of a particular practice or what is instrumental to the efficacy of an entity in order to create legitimacy. Instrumental legitimacy may be related to costs, local economic impact, relieving pressures of overcrowding in public facilities, programs, and the appropriate treatment of inmates. The instrumental legitimacy frame is concerned with the performance or outcome of a practice rather than the norms of society and concerns for what ought to be, as seen in moral legitimacy. The following example identifies the instrumental legitimacy frame by focusing on the educational programs in the facility and points out that inmates are now receiving more education than before. This suggests that this is an appropriate and accommodating treatment of the inmates and that this practice is legitimate on an instrumental level:

Children held at a controversial immigrant detention center in Taylor are receiving four times as much classroom instruction as before under a change that federal officials made recently at the privately run facility (Austin American-Statesman, 1/24/2007).

Diversionary framing

Freudenburg and Alario (2007) suggested that individuals pay particular attention to media framing and what they describe as diversionary framing. They describe diversionary framing as a method of legitimizing a concept, idea, or situation by diverting the attention of the reader away from the possibility that the entity mentioned could be illegitimate while focusing on facts that bolster its legitimacy. This framing technique implies legitimacy by focusing the readers’ attention on aspects that do not touch on the morality of a situation. They suggest that diversionary framing is effective when   a discussion of morality is avoided. The following example of an article from the study’s sample discounts issues raised by rights organizations by focusing the readers’ attention on the positive aspects of the facility while ignoring the possibility of moral legitimacy, thus suggesting the use of diversionary framing.

Flags of countries from all over the world are painted on the cafeteria wall. Decals of cartoon characters are pasted here and there. Children sit at desks in a classroom and chat (Fort Worth Star-Telegram, 2/10/2007).


The data used in this study were obtained from a search of the Newsbank database, in which the authors searched for the term “Corrections Corporation of America” in Texas newspaper articles from January 1, 2000, through December 31,  2013. The search term must have been included in the title   or in the text of the article. The search produced 413 newspaper articles from 42 local Texas newspapers. Articles that had been reprinted from other newspapers were removed from the sample, keeping only the first copy of the article. Articles were also removed from the sample if they briefly mentioned CCA or any of its facilities as a geographical reference point and did not discuss anything else about the corporation or its facilities. The data set consists of 297 articles after removing those that were repeated or were contextually irrelevant. The text of each article was then read and placed into a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet. Several variables were collected, including the date the article was published, the name of the newspaper, the city that the newspaper is from, the title of the article, the tone of the article (favorable, neutral, unfavorable), the perceived framing type used, the categories within the framing type that was used, mentions of civil and human rights organizations and which facility/ies were discussed in the article.

We then selected articles that mentioned the T. Don Hutto facility (T. Don Hutto Correctional Center, T. Don Hutto Residential Center) and produced a usable sample of 62 articles which represent 20.8% of the dataset. This facility was chosen due to the fact that it was the most widely covered facility in the newspaper articles. The 13-year period of articles was used in order to capture the temporal context in which the print media portrayed the facility. The unique population held at this facility provides considerable insight into media portrayals of private prisons as this was one of only two facilities in the US that housed immigrant families and children on non-criminal charges at that time.

Conceptualization of moral, instrumental, and diversionary framing

This study uses the same conceptualization of moral and instrumental framing found in Burkhardt (2014). Moral framing was present if an article mentioned any of the following elements: (a) philosophy and/or ethics regarding private prisons; (b) imprisonment as the core responsibility of the government; (c) the proper role of the government in punishing individual; (d) private prisons undermining the legitimacy of the criminal justice system; or (e) injustice in privatization.

Instrumental framing was present if the articles mentioned any of the following elements: (a) control of inmates (escape, disturbance); (b) cost to government; (c) local economy (job creation/loss, effect on tax base, local business contracts with the facility); (d) relieving pressure on public facilities (private prisons as a means of accommodating growing prison populations); (e) programming (educational, vocational, rehabilitative); (f) staffing (including quality and quantity); or (g) treatment of inmates (health and well-being).

Diversionary framing was present when an article appeared to  divert the readers’ attention from questions of legitimacy of private prisons by not mentioning former allegations, discounting the validity and truth of former allegations, blaming their position on a policy or state or governmental actor, or strictly focusing on aspects of the instrumental framing technique. Articles were coded as using moral framing, instrumental framing, both, diversionary and instrumental framing, all three (which suggested a fair representation of all sides of the argument), or no frame at all (which suggested there was no perception of framing present in the article).

The other variable that was coded denoted the print media’s portrayal of the facility. We used the conceptualization described in Blakely and Bumphus (2005) for this variable in order to capture if the local newspapers portrayed private prisons or the facility as favorable, neutral, or unfavorable. An article was considered Favorable if the title or content was complimentary to privatization and/or the facility. An article was considered Neutral if the title or content was neither favorable nor unfavorable to privatization and/or the facility. This type of portrayal was also used if the article equally represented both sides of the arguments. An article was considered Unfavorable if the title or content mentioned negative aspects of privatization and/or the facility or presented privatization or the facility as a negative social phenomenon.


In this section, we discuss the findings from the study in the form of a content analysis and provide an overview of local Texas print media portrayals of the T. Don Hutto Correctional Center and the T. Don Hutto Residential Center.


Of the 42  newspapers included in the 297 article dataset, there were   12 newspapers that produced articles involving discourse about the T. Don Hutto Facility. The names of the newspapers, along with their location, the number of articles, and the percentage of the articles per newspaper (out of the 62 article sample) are contained in Table 1.

Table 1. Frequencies of Don T. Hutto Facility Discourse by Newspaper

Table 1 shows that the top three newspapers that produced articles of interest were the Austin American-Statesman (30.66%), the Houston Chronicle (24.20%) and the San Antonio Current (19.36%) accounting for 74.22% of the articles included in the sample. This finding is not surprising, as the Houston Chronicle (#14) and the Austin American-Statesman (#56) fall into the top 100 U.S. newspapers based on their circulation ( One intresting finding in regard to the newspapers that reported on this topic is that the Dallas Morning News (ranked #12 on the list of top 100 U.S. newspapers) did not mention this facility, and the local newspapers that did report on this facility were sporadic yet still closer in proximity in terms of the location of the city in relation to the T. Don Hutto Facility. Perhaps one explanation of why Dallas Morning News did not mention this facility was the fact that Hodges Mutual Funds (who owns stocks in CCA) is based in Dallas; after further examination into the original dataset, we found four articles between July 9, 2001, and January 18, 2005, published in Dallas Morning News that discussed CCA stocks owned by Hodges Mutual Funds and the increases in the value of these stocks over this period.

Media Portrayal

The articles were also coded using the typologies from Blakely and Bumphus (2005) that categorize media portrayals as favorable, neutral, or unfavorable. Table 2 shows that 12.9% (n=8) of the articles were favorable, while 22.6% (n=14) were neutral and 64.5% (n=40) were unfavorable.

Table 2. Frequencies of article favorability

The excerpts below provide examples of favorable, neutral, and unfavorable portrayals found within the articles included in the sample. The articles that were coded as neutral typically provided straightforward informative discourse or equal representation of both sides of the debate.

Favorable: Under a recently signed contract with the federal agency, the private prison owned by Corrections Corporation of America will hire employees and modify the facility  to accommodate the new inmates, company spokesman Steve Owen said. With the expected new jobs, the prison could be among the top employers in Taylor. (Austin American-Statesman, 1/26/2006.)

Neutral: Williamson County officials agreed Tuesday to prepare a notice telling the federal government they plan to end a contract next year for a detention center that houses immigrant families. The federal government pays about $2.8 million each month—or about $180 a day per person—to house the detainees. The bulk of the money goes to CCA. Announcement of the deal came as a trial was about to start over allegations the children were held in prison-like conditions  at the center. Some of the changes include installing privacy curtains around toilets, adding a full-time pediatrician and eliminating a counting system that required families to be in their cells 12 hours a day. (The Eagle, 10/3/2007)

Unfavorable: Call it Kidmo—a supposedly family-friendly version of the Guantanamo Bay detention center  deep  in  the heart of Texas. While the T. Don Hutto Family Residential Center houses mostly “Other-Than-Mexican” immigrant families instead of suspected terrorists, including more than 200 children from 30 countries, the policy of hide, deny, and dodge civil-rights law is unmistakably familiar. (San Antonio Current, 5/22/2007)

The findings in Table 2 suggest that newspaper articles that discussed Corrections Corporation of America and the T. Don Hutto Facility portrayed the facility and/or Corrections Corporation of America in an unfavorable manner (n=40, 64.5%). This is not consistent with the findings in Blakely and Bumphus, (2005) who suggested that over time, the print media’s portrayal of private prisons became more neutral. In this study, the favorable articles were found in the first few years of the facility being repurposed, renamed, and restocked with immigrant families and were virtually nonexistent after March 17, 2007.

Rights Organizations

It is not uncommon for civil rights organizations to assist with the procurement of prisoners’ rights, complaints, and lawsuits filed against prisons. This particular facility and its detainees, however, elicited assistance from several human rights organizations and legal resources. Table 3 shows the names of the 22 rights organizations and the number of times they were mentioned in the articles included in the sample. These percentages are not a direct representation of how involved each organization was regarding this facility.

Table 3. Frequencies of rights organizations mentioned

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) was mentioned most frequently (n=21, 31.35%), followed by the University of Texas Law School Immigration Clinic (n=10, 14.93%). Both entities helped file lawsuits against ICE and Corrections Corporation of America regarding the treatment of children and pregnant women while detained at the T. Don Hutto Residential Center. The third most frequently mentioned rights organization was the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children (n=5, 7.49%), followed by Grassroots Leadership (n=4, 5.97%), League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) (n=4, 5.97%), and Texans United for Families  (n=4, 5.97%).

Framing Typology

Table 4 lists the types of framing used to suggest legitimacy based on Burkhardt (2014) and Freudenburg and Alario (2007). Frames are divided into sections (moral, instrumental, moral/instrumental, moral/instrumental/diversionary, and instrumental diversionary). Combining these legitimacy framing techniques was necessary because many articles shared  traces of different kinds of legitimacy frameworks (mostly moral and instrumental), while others only expressed one type of legitimacy framing. At times, both moral and instrumental framing were used along with evidence of diversionary framing. However, it is interesting to note that moral legitimacy and diversionary framing were never used in the same article. The following table shows these different categories of framing, the number of times that each was seen as favorable, neutral or unfavorable, the frequency of usage for each category, and the percentage represented out of all 62 articles.

Table 4. Frequencies of legitimacy framing techniques and favorability

Table 4 shows that instrumental legitimacy framing was used most often (n=24, 38.71%). Articles that used this type of framing mentioned aspects pertaining to the facility (such as costs, local economic impact, relieving pressures of overcrowding in public facilities, programs, and the treatment of inmates) to suggest legitimacy or to question the legitimacy of the facility and the corporation. The following sections give an example for each scenario.

Suggesting legitimacy through instrumental framing

“The county will earn $1 per day for each inmate at the facility, which could mean more than $200,000 annually if the prison is at capacity,” Zinsmeyer said. That money will be put in the general fund, which pays for most county services. (Austin American-Statesman, 1/26/2006)

Questioning legitimacy through instrumental framing

They took her to Hutto, a place they described as like a home, with school, recess, doctors, good food and visitation with family. She says Hutto was nothing like that. She described rising before dawn, cold showers, tasteless food, heartless guards, lagging medical care and other conditions made even more difficult by the fact that she is eight months pregnant. (Houston Chronicle, 2/17/2007)

The second most common category of framing was moral/instrumental framing of legitimacy (n=22, 35.48%). Articles were coded as using this category of framing if they mentioned aspects or goals of the facility or corporation such as costs, local economic impact, relieving pressures of overcrowding in public facilities, programs, and treatment of inmates (instrumental) along with philosophy and/or ethics regarding private prisons, imprisonment as the core responsibility of government, the proper role of government in punishing individuals, private prisons undermining the legitimacy  of the criminal justice system, or injustices present in privatization (moral). The following excerpts provide two examples of articles that were coded in this way:

“Our objective is to shut this thing down and to shut down any kind of consciousness that would exploit humans who are  in desperate straits” … Frances Valdez, an attorney with the Immigration Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law who has visited clients at the facility, said detainees have reported receiving substandard medical care and becoming ill from food served at the jail. (Austin American-Statesman, 12/15/2006).

Another article with the headline “Same Dog, Different Collar” expressed similar sentiments:

But to Díaz, it’s semantics: The government concedes that children should not be imprisoned in “criminal” facilities, he says, so it renames the facility in order to make them more palatable. “In other words: Family Shelter Care Facility my butt.” “They can call it whatever they want to call it,” Díaz told the Current. “But if families are not free to go, it’s still a detention center”. “We used Berks as a template of what we wanted Hutto to look like but, in my mind, a golden cage is still a cage.” “If you’re not free, you’re not free.” (San Antonio Current, 8/12/2009)

The previous excerpt provides an example of moral/instrumental legitimacy framing because it touches on the moral aspect regarding the philosophy and ethics surrounding the exploitation of humans in this private facility as well as the instrumental aspect of the facility in terms of the treatment of inmates.

Instrumental/diversionary framing (n=6, 9.67%) and moral legitimacy framing (n=5, 8.06%) ranked as the third and fourth most used frames in the sample.

Questioning legitimacy through moral framing

The Houston Chronicle’s editorial board (Express-News’ brother, which actually makes reasonable declarations) has called for the closure of Hutto, stating, “It is inhumane and shameful and is a draconian response to an immigration issue that could and should be handled in a responsible, nonpenal manner.” (San Antonio Current, 4/3/2007)

Suggesting legitimacy through instrumental/diversionary framing

During the tour, Mead led visitors into a check-in room where teddy bears waited to be given to small children, through a clinic bustling with health workers attending to patients, and to a classroom where children worked on computers with flat-screen monitors. Reporters saw immigrant detainees playing basketball, pushing their children back and forth on   a swing and interacting with the staff during the one hour of recreation each day. (Fort Worth Star-Telegram, 2/10/2007)

The first excerpt touches on the moral aspect pertaining to the proper role of the government in punishing individuals and has overtones related to this private facility undermining the legitimacy of the criminal justice system. The second excerpt is from an article that briefly mentions opposition to the facility by rights organizations but then focuses strictly on the positive instrumental aspects of the facility which discount the rights organization’s claims and concerns. This example does not fully fit the description of diversionary framing since there is a mention of questionable legitimacy by civil rights organizations. We argue that the massive publicity of this facility after its repurposing, renaming, remodeling, and after the challenges by civil rights organizations necessitated a brief mention of opposition. However, the fact that the rest of the article focuses on positive instrumental aspects of the facility, such as the treatment of inmates, leads us to classify the article as diversionary.

There were only two articles that were coded as using moral/instrumental/diversionary framing which represented only 3.23% of the total number of articles. These two articles presented fair representations of both sides of the argument and were coded as diversionary framing due to the notion that ICE and CCA were given an opportunity to defend their position. However, this is not an example of true diversionary framing in its original definition. The following excerpt provides an example of an article that fairly represented both sides of the argument while providing ICE room for defending its position.

An Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency spokeswoman confirmed that daily classroom instruction has expanded from one hour to four at the 512-bed T. Don Hutto Residential Center, one of two in the country that detain families and children on noncriminal charges while the government determines whether they should be deported … “The primary focus of the education component is to make certain that these children are receiving the best academic structure they can during the time they’re in the facility,” Pruneda said. Rebecca Bernhardt, immigration, border and national security policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, said more can be done to make the detention center more humane. “But in the end, that’s not really the point,” Bernhardt said. “The point is that detaining young children and their parents who don’t have any criminal violations, in some cases for very long periods of time, is just wrong.” Federal officials say the T. Don Hutto facility was designed for families and is a humane way to maintain family unity while enforcing immigration laws. (Austin American-Statesman, 1/24/2007)

This article presents fair arguments for both sides of the debate and utilizes both instrumental and moral legitimacy framing while allowing ICE to counter or discount the claims made by the rights organizations. Finally, it  is worth noting that there were no articles that were favorable and used the moral/instrumental legitimacy frame. In other words, all of the articles that used moral/instrumental legitimacy were framed in a way that questioned the legitimacy of ICE and/or the facility and its operator (CCA). Further, no articles were published that focused on the moral necessity of this facility. However, arguments were made quite often regarding its instrumental necessity (“catch-and-keep”).

Framing typologies across newspapers

Different newspapers use different framing methods to portray a message in a particular way. For instance, Burkhardt (2014) noticed that among the four newspapers he examined, moral legitimacy framing was used most often by the two newspapers situated in states that did not contract out to private prisons (New York Times, Chicago Tribune). The fact that all of the articles included in this study are from local Texas newspapers adds a new aspect when exploring this phenomenon. Table 5 shows each newspaper’s frequency of usage for each framing typology. The three articles that did not appear to use any type of framing are not included in this table.

Table 5. Legitimacy framing use by newspaper

Table 5 shows that instrumental legitimacy framing was used most often in the Houston Chronicle (n=8) and the Austin American-Statesman (n=8) compared to the moral/instrumental legitimacy frame which was used four times in both newspapers. The San Antonio Current used the moral/instrumental argument twice as often as any other newspaper while neither San Antonio newspaper used any form of diversionary framing. In fact, two of the four newspapers that did use some form of diversionary framing are in the top 100 U.S. newspapers based on their circulation (Houston Chronicle, #14; Austin American-Statesman, #56). These findings suggest that newspapers with higher circulation numbers are more likely to employ instrumental legitimacy framing and diversionary framing than newspapers that have a smaller circulation, and that newspapers with higher circulation numbers are less likely to use moral/instrumental framing.

Our findings also suggest that the San Antonio Current may be using the moral/instrumental legitimacy frame due to Hispanics and Latino/as that reside in San Antonio and the fact that this newspaper is a more locally circulated paper compared to the San Antonio Express. This framing technique touches on both aspects of the facility including the ethical and philosophical concerns about legitimacy and the inner working of the facility including cost and the treatment of the “detainees,” which may elicit more sympathy from local minorities, especially Hispanic and Latino/a minorities. The facts that the San Antonio Express is among the top 100 U.S. newspapers, that it did not utilize moral/instrumental legitimacy framing as often as instrumental legitimacy framing, and that it only reported on this facility three times compared with the San Antonio Current (11 times) further support these suggestions. Using these data, it is reasonable to conclude that the demographics of a city in which a newspaper is circulated influence the type of legitimacy framing that is used. However, this premise is difficult to generalize to other papers and facilities due to the rare/unique topic of discourse included in this sample.

Framing aspects

The framing categories mentioned in the articles and their frequencies and total mentions are shown in Table 6 and Table 7 and are separated by the legitimacy frame to which they relate.

These tables show that the most common topic mentioned was the treatment of inmates, or in this case “detainees” (n=40), followed by mentions of the private facility undermining the legitimacy of the criminal justice system (n=17). Tied for third was discourse regarding the cost of government, the local economy, and programs within the facility (n=14). These findings show that the discourse within the articles revolved around aspects of instrumental legitimacy more so than moral legitimacy. This finding suggests that the treatment of “detainees” is a central focus followed  by  questions of private prisons undermining the legitimacy of the criminal justice system and aspects related to cost, earnings, and programs available within the facility. Some of these findings are consistent with the literature in regard to the media portrayals being closely associated with profits (Blakely & Bumphus, 2005). However, there is a unique aspect of this sample in that each article is focusing on an immigration facility that holds non-Mexican immigrant families including men, pregnant and non-pregnant  women,  and children on non-criminal charges while other research has focused on the broader spectrum of private prisons in the media. Adding to the literature is the suggestion that when a detained population includes immigrant children and individuals who are not criminally charged and are virtually helpless, the facility will not only receive considerable amounts of media attention but this attention will be unfavorable to all entities involved (Williamson County, ICE, DHS, and CCA).

Table 6. Frequencies of moral legitimacy by category

Table 7. Frequencies of instrumental legitimacy by category


This study examined print media portrayals of the T. Don Hutto Correctional Center from before its initial announcement of closure due to a loss of profits, through its repurposing and renaming as the T. Don Hutto Residential Center for non-Mexican immigrant families, and its eventual repurposing into a facility for female non-Mexican undocumented immigrants only. This study expanded on the limited literature surrounding media portrayals of prison privatization. Our findings are somewhat consistent with previous research. Supporting Welch, Weber and Edwards (2000), our study also suggests that programs and healthcare (treatment of inmates) were some of the most commonly reported aspects of private prisons. However, violence was the most common topic of discourse in their study while discussions of violence were virtually non-existent in our sample. Contrary to Welch, Weber and Edwards (2000), the current study did not find that the politicization of punishment and the criminal justice system by politicians and government officials bolstered any support for their political agendas, nor were there many articles that seemed to “legitimize state power through the distribution of punishment” (p. 260). The level of publicity and the involvement of civil rights organizations, along with the unique nature of this particular facility and the negative attention it received is what likely led us to have different findings. Our findings are based on the rare presence of articles that portrayed the institution favorably and used either instrumental legitimacy framing or instrumental/diversionary framing. This study also suggests  that perhaps the demographics of a particular newspaper’s circulation population may play a role in the decision to print articles in local newspapers that use moral legitimacy framing as opposed to instrumental legitimacy and diversionary framing. This may not hold true for other topics discussed in newspapers. However, it was apparent that this holds true for this analysis given the nature of immigrant detention.

This study also found mixed results when compared with Blakely and Bumphus (2005) in regard to print media portrayals of private prisons and the topics of discourse. For instance, our study found that unfavorable portrayals regarding operational quality (inmate treatment) were far more common than neutral portrayals and topics such as financing, politics, and overcrowding. However, our study does support their claims that private prisons have been “increasingly unwilling to disclose even basic information about its operations” (p. 74). Several articles in our study discussed the number of inmates along with their characteristics before the first media tour of the facility was conducted. After this media tour, CCA and ICE began limiting the information that they were releasing about the detainees and even denied United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants, Jorge Bustamante, access to the facility after the tour. This may be due to the agencies attempting to protect their proprietary information as    a private company, or it may have happened in response to lawsuits filed by rights organizations shortly after the tour. Regardless of the cause, our study shows support for this claim.

This study also supports Burkhardt (2014) in regard to the use of instrumental framing. Burkhardt noted that in his sample, instrumental legitimacy framing was used far more often than moral legitimacy framing. However, he found that cost was the main topic of discourse in his sample while our study found that the treatment of inmates was mentioned more often than cost, followed by the notion that private prisons undermine the legitimacy of our criminal justice system. In our study, government cost, local economic benefit, and discussion about programs all tied for third. This study also adds a unique contribution to what researchers know about the use of diversionary framing. In our study, we did not often see the use of diversionary framing, which we attribute to the level of publicity given to the concerns, lawsuits, and opposition presented by the rights organizations along with the unique nature of this facility (detaining children). We suggest that there was very little use of diversionary framing because it is difficult for the media to ignore the criticism of and opposition to CCA and ICE. True diversionary framing was only seen in six articles, of which two were written before the facility began housing this particular population. It is also worth noting that there  is no mention of the facility in the original dataset (January 1, 2000 through December 31, 2013) until March 26, 2004 when the Austin American-Statesman published an article about low inmate population numbers at the T. Don Hutto Correctional Center. The sample also showed that after the facility was repurposed to house only female non-Mexican undocumented immigrants, local Texas print media stopped reporting on the facility.

This finding suggests that the outrage was due to the implications associated with housing children in a prison setting on non-criminal charges. Our study also supports other research (Hincle, 1996; Talbott, 1989; Yeung, 2003; Zaner, 1989) in that different facilities allow different levels of access for the media depending on the type of facility, who is operating the facility (public or private), and who is being housed in the facility (Hincle, 1996; Talbott, 1989; Yeung, 2003; Zaner 1989). Our conclusion is based on lengthy discussions in several of the newspaper articles that mentioned the denial of access to United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants, Jorge Bustamante. Interestingly, after the first media tour was given at the repurposed facility, media was also denied further access. When speculating about why such a prominent newspaper such as Dallas Morning News did not report on this facility at all, we noticed that in the original dataset Hodges Mutual Funds regularly reported on valuable stocks that they owned, one of which was CCA stocks. This appeared in four articles between July 9, 2001, and January 18, 2005. Perhaps Dallas Morning News has an obligation to their customer (Hodges Mutual Funds) that outweighs any obligation they have to report newsworthy information to the public.

One limitation of this study is that it focuses only on local Texas newspapers and does not include other media sources such as local television news reports, which may have provided more information on how this facility was portrayed in the media. Another limitation is that these findings are not necessarily generalizable to all private prisons given the unusual nature of this particular facility and the unique nature of detaining immigrant children on non-criminal charges in a prison setting. 


In sum, this study provides unique insight into the ways that the local print media portrays private prisons, particularly the T. Don Hutto Residential Center. This study shows the power that the media have in shaping public opinion on this topic. Our study adds to the literature by examining the exclusive nature of this private prison facility when compared with other private prisons that do not house such specialized populations. We conclude that the unique nature of this facility’s population, concerns for the children being housed in it, the involvement of several civil and human rights organizations, and the use of unfavorable instrumental and moral legitimacy framing by the local print media contributed to the unfavorable attention ICE, CCA, and the facility received in local Texas newspapers.

We suggest that the factors discussed above, along with the help of the local print media, may have largely attributed to the eventual repurposing of this facility. However, the use of private undocumented immigrant family detention facilities has not slowed down. In fact, they have become more prevalent, particularly in Texas, as the South Texas Residential Center and the Karnes County Residential Center have opened. It is interesting to note that these facilities have received considerable criticism since their recent openings as well. Furthermore, there seems to be no end to advocacy group involvement and pending lawsuits claiming poor conditions and inadequate medical treatment at these facilities along with cases that cite Flores and argue for the release of children and mothers from these facilities. Future research should focus on public and private undocumented immigrant family detention facilities that have opened in other states by examining print media, social media, television news reports, and other media outlets to help determine if there are differences in which topics and framing techniques dominate media coverage. This would allow researchers the opportunity to explore how media portrayals legitimize or delegitimize immigrant detention facilities and to determine if there are different types of framing used when discussing public and private detention facilities.


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Layne Dittmann is a PhD student in the Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology at the College of Criminal Justice at Sam Houston State University. Research interests include media portrayals of corrections related topics, private prisons, solitary confinement, correctional policies, gangs, federal sentencing disparity, and measuring procedural justice within correctional settings.

Jurg Gerber is professor of criminal justice and Director of International Initiatives in the College of Criminal Justice at Sam Houston State University. For the last fifteen years he has also served as Professeur Invité at the University of Lausanne (Lausanne, Switzerland). Research interests include white-collar crime, criminology, drug control policy, and international criminal justice issues.


The authors would like to thank Trey Cawley, Travis Franklin, Bill Dittmann, the editor, and anonymous reviewers of this journal for their comments and suggestions on earlier drafts of this article.


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