Invisible imprisonment: Government legitimacy in television news representations of riots in Victoria’s youth justice centres

Ms Catherine Treloar1
1University Of Melbourne, Melbourne, Australia

Prison riots are a form of resistance in which rioters demand to be seen, often physically tearing down the structures that make them invisible. On television, these resistive acts are decontextualized, with the oppressive harms of prison never entirely known to the public. Beginning from the notion that riots force a visibility upon the prison system, this research examines whether this visibility disrupts the politics of imprisonment. With a multimodal critical discourse analysis approach, and in applying van Leeuwen and Wodak’s (1999) recontextualisation analysis framework, this research focuses on how television news representations of riots in Victoria’s youth justice centres frame government legitimacy. This thesis constructs rioters as communicators, and examines whether they are seen in riot news coverage. It argues that, despite riots being an exercise in visibility, reports render the prison and the prisoner invisible, implicitly legitimating the harms of punitive government policies. Riots are often constructed as a crisis of youth crime, and security, but are less often seen as a crisis of the penal system. While these crises of crime and security delegitimate the government in the short term, they enable a subsequent legitimation through punitive policies. Although this paints a grim picture of the contemporary operation of penal populism, a recognition of prison as harmful rather than rehabilitative does emerge, highlighting, at least, conflicting discourses in youth justice policy and punishment practices.


Catherine is a creative writing and criminology Honours student at the University of Melbourne, and unfortunately does not enjoy crime fiction. Her interest in visual and cultural criminology justifies the many hours she spends watching bad procedurals. Her thesis explores our mediated relationship to prisons, and how it shapes criminal justice policy.


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