Mug Shot Nation

Humiliation without due process is no laughing matter

| July-August 2009

Every year, more than 14 million people are arrested in the United States—and you’ve probably seen half of them. On the web, in newspapers, and over the airwaves, the mug shot is king, the signature form of narrative in the Twitter Age. What else communicates so much specificity and mystery so concisely? What else packs so much into a single image: humor, tragedy, unparalleled guidance on which neck tattoos to avoid?

An ever-growing number of law enforcement agencies and media outlets are happy to capitalize on our voyeuristic interest. If you want to know which city has cuter hookers, St. Paul or Peoria, their official city websites regularly publish mug shots of recently arrested prostitutes and johns. (St. Paul wins by a nose.) If you’d like to see who’s doing most of the drunk driving or shoplifting on Long Island, now maintains an extensive gallery of local arrestees.

Specialized sites such as and curate their collections with a more discerning eye, featuring only the famous, or those with defiantly unrepentant hair, or those who, in addition to all the usual traumas and humiliations that come with arrest, have the misfortune of being heckled by their own clothing during their mug shot sessions. Smile, grim-looking sexual predator in the World’s Greatest Dad T-shirt: You’re about to become famous!

Before we had driver’s licenses and fingerprint files, mug shots served to establish an individual’s identity. They’re still used to identify, but now we also want them to punish, deter, and entertain—and, unfortunately, they do such a good job of the latter that we’ve been indifferent to the ways they short-circuit due process. While we’re gawking at the haunted eyes of a Midwestern meth freak or the haunted hair of Nick Nolte, cops across America are using virtual rogues’ galleries to normalize the idea that the government has the right to punish you without bothering to convict you of a crime.


In the crowning example of mug shot proliferation, the past decade has seen the creation of numerous ink-on-wood-pulp newspapers devoted exclusively to the form, with names like Gotch-ya!, Busted, Cellmates, and the Slammer. They’re typically founded by undercapitalized entrepreneurs with little or no prior experience in the newspaper business, and usually are distributed at gas stations, liquor stores, and corner markets in the sort of neighborhoods more likely to be featured on Cops than on HGTV. They go for a dollar apiece, and at a time when traditional newspapers can barely give their products away, they’re selling like hotcakes. What informed citizen isn’t interested in knowing exactly who’s getting arrested in his neighborhood, and for what?

William W Haywood_1
7/6/2009 11:50:23 PM

It does seem to be a harmless way of embarrassing those who have been harassed, or arrested, by the local police, but it is happening because the citizen's of this country are seen, by the wealthy and powerful who control the police, as dangerous people who need to be controlled before they try to break out into some kind of real, self inflicted, democracy! The ruling oligarch's would just love to be able to do, in America, what is happening in Honduras right now....they just do not know what to expect from the people...just yet. That is why all of these little actions, like the mug shot thing, all of the police are so wonderful, protect your rights, make the streets safe... are so important to it your pre-programming,(there is no such word either, it's actually reprogramming) for acceptance of advertised and open oligarchical rule here in the good ole USA. Those who control the media are putting material into your memory that you will someday be called upon to believe is the truth. Get that...believe it is the truth, because it will not be possible to prove it is true. After all, what you think is also the exact same material as what you are able to remember. Thinking is memory and visa versa. The difference is that intelligence will hold that you cannot be educated by the television at the same time as you are being programmed by it. Which is it?