The State of Public Humiliation

There isn’t anything new about public humiliation and its role in punishment. Throughout history, public humiliation was used to warn others away from committing a crime, while branding some criminals for life. In the United States, the development of Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia during the early nineteenth century was heralded as a reform in the prison system, because convicted felons were imprisoned anonymously. This, in theory, allowed them to reintegrate into society without the stigma that public humiliation created.

Despite such reforms, public humiliation remains a part of the system – and has been reemphasized as a method of punishment – and the dehumanization of criminals continues to be an ongoing issue. With the development of new forms of media in the twentieth century, the image of the criminal had become a popular figure for entertainment. Television shows such as Cops and, more recently, the circulation of images of criminals on social media, has put the felon on display with little information about their backgrounds, circumstances, or alleged guilt. People are subjected to these forms of public display before even facing trial, simply for the fact that they have been accused of committing a crime.

Maricopa County, Arizona has had one of the most controversial criminal systems in the country, and has been under the control of Sherriff Joe Arpaio since 1993. Referred to as “America’s Toughest Sheriff,” Sherriff Arpaio has implemented a series of practices designed to humiliate and dehumanize both convicted and alleged offenders. One of the features on the district’s website is its “Mugshot of the Day!” which features a collection of suspects and allows site visitors to vote on the best Mugshot of the day, bringing in perhaps as many as 200 votes. Consisting primarily of women, some as young as 18, the website gives the name, birthdate, and reason for arrest of the “candidates.”

The website brings public humiliation to social media, and exploits suspects for the benefit of Maricopa County, which continues to promote its “tough on crime” stance. The women lose their identities by becoming faces on a website where they can be objectified as “the pretty face” or “the drug addict.” The voters themselves are given personal information, but don’t have any information about the alleged crime involved, beyond the basic charge. Without knowing who any of these people are, the voter sees them as nothing more than objects for their own entertainment. The person featured loses pieces of their identity, before they have even gone on trial.

With such little context on the website, which uses those arrested as if they were part of game, there is certainly little room for dialogue regarding the state of America’s prison system. Sheriff Arpaio and others in this country use social media to promote public humiliation in order to help keep the accused and convicted in their place. There is certainly a sense of submission on the felon’s part when they’re subjected to such a website as “Mugshot of the Day!” Once convicted, prisoners tend to face even further humiliation by being forced to wear pink underwear, and by being put on display in public tours of Maricopa facilities. In return, people see these people as comical or sexy.

In fact, little information is prevented to the public, resulting in blindness as to what is occurring within the criminal justice system. Without context, people have little chance to learn about the situations the felons were facing when allegedly committing crimes, or what led up to their arrest.

Voting for the best mugshot doesn’t raise questions among voters. On one hand, the accused already facing dehumanization, and are depicted as criminals before they even have chance to face trial. In return, the stigma keeps the general public uninformed of the real underlying issue in these “games.” We are only humoring the situation by seeing public humiliation as a source of entertainment instead of a problem, allowing a vicious cycle to continue in America’s penal system.