Why Does Popular Culture Treat Prison Rape As a Joke?
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Believe it: There exists a board game called " Don’t Drop the Soap " in which players are tasked with fighting their way through a prison. John Sebelius designed it as a student at the Rhode Island School of Design. He is the son of Kathleen Sebelius, U.S. Secretary for Health and Human Services.
Gillius, Inc., the company selling Sebelius’ game online, promises a certificate of authenticity to the first 3,000 purchasers of the game that invites players to "steal painkillers from the nurse's desk in the Infirmary, avoid being cornered by the Aryans in the Shower Room, fight off Latin Kings in Gang War, and try not to smoke your entire stash in The Hole.
"The artistry of each handcrafted piece is matched with comparable humor & intelligence on every card. Stack your smokes, sharpen your shank, and get ready for an experience that only someone on the outside could appreciate." So goes the game’s promotional copy.
It’s certainly not the first time that rape in prisons is spun for humor (though perhaps it’s the first time that such humor is alleged as intelligent). Untold numbers of YouTube videos, Hollywood movies, and late night talk show monologues play off the soap meme. Meanwhile, Andy Borowitz just released the "Bernie Madoff edition" of his 2003 book, Who Moved My Soap?: The CEO's Guide to Surviving Prison .
This cartooning of abuse renders moot any sensitive and serious response to it. It’s also unique to abuse among male inmates; the ubiquitous caricature comes alongside a relative silence about rape in women’s prisons. There’s no soap-dropping counterpart "joke" referring to the abuse of female inmates. Ultimately, these distorted punch-line/silence memes enforce each other and perpetuate the reality of prison rape.
This isn’t news to Just Detention International , a nonprofit based in Los Angeles and Washington D.C. Once known as Stop Prison Rape, the survivor-led organization has challenged the perceptions, practices, and consequences of rape in prisons for twenty-nine years.
"Humor is part of the cultural attitude that (prison) is the one place where rape is okay," said Linda McFarlane, JDI’s deputy executive director.
McFarlane added that, "Jokes target the pain of a particular group of people and dehumanizes them. … It layers the discourse with a veil of acceptance."
This dehumanization trades on the well-being of the thirty-some individuals that write letters to JDI each week, telling their stories of abuse and asking for help. A 2007 survey from the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that nearly 1 in 20 inmates -- more than 60,500 people -- experienced some form of sexual abuse in the previous twelve months. That’s considered a conservative estimate since many survivors prefer not to admit the abuse they’ve suffered. As well, the study did not include people involuntarily detained in juvenile facilities, halfway houses, or immigration centers.
Given the prevalence of prison rape -- and the fact that there are 7.3 million people in prisons, jails and halfway houses across the U.S., most of which will return to their communities and all of which have a human right to safety -- the epidemic won national attention with the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 . PREA, which passed the House and Senate unanimously, was the first federal action that addressed prison rape. It convened the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission to delve deeper into the crisis and come up with a response.
After five years of comprehensive research, including an extensive public comment period, the NPREC presented its final report and proposed standards on June 23, 2009. While Congress proscribed the NPREC from making recommendations that required substantial money -- thereby torpedoing suggestions for single bunking and the redesign of prisons that are difficult to police -- a strong set of recommendations emerged.