Why Does Popular Culture Treat Prison Rape As a Joke?


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.

Beginning with an attitude of zero tolerance for any kind of sexual abuse in any facility, the commission’s priorities include: improved hiring practices for facility staff; consideration of the inmates’ risk for rape (including physical stature, sexual preference, gender identity, and age) when placing them in bunks and programs; stringent internal and external oversight; staff training; and medical and mental health services for survivors.

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. has one year to examine the standards and, if adopted, put them into effect and enforce accountability in local, state, and federal detention facilities. JDI is among the organizations working to put these standards in place. The final standards will be binding for federal facilities, but not for state and local ones. However, correction systems that do not adopt the standards will have their federal funding cut by five percent.

More than just offering up common-sense protocols, the commission made a direct connection between the prevalence of prison rape and casual cultural rhetoric that accepts rape as part of a prison sentence.

 "… (T)here is an attitude of indifference on the part of a lot of people who feel that just because somebody has committed a crime and they’re incarcerated that it’s appropriate for them to be abused while they’re in detention," said U.S District Judge Reggie B. Walton, the commission chair, at the June 23 press conference.

"We also have to change attitudes of the American populace about this problem. We cannot and should not tolerate jokes being made about prison sexual abuse. We should take offense when the movie industry produces movies that portray this as something that is a comedy. It’s not," Walton said. "The impact on the people who are abused is significant both physically and psychologically."

While Walton stressed the importance of hiring practices to select for those who recognize that "individuals who are incarcerated have basic human rights," it’s impossible to fathom that the enormous numbers employed in the U.S. corrections system could wholly escape the influence of "the veil of acceptance" perpetuated by a gendered dichotomy of jokes and silence about prison rape.

The fact is, while federal parties step up to face the pervasiveness of prison rape, public rhetoric is still mired in permissiveness -- and the NPREC standards cannot succeed until that changes.

"The rape crisis movement worked very hard to make it so rape is never okay, to say that no one deserves it," McFarlane said. "But … if you’re arrested, all bets are off. Survivors hear, ‘What did you expect? You’re in jail." They’re told to learn to fight. This is not acceptable."

McFarlane said that JDI focuses a great deal on facility response to rape, specifically how someone is treated when they report assault. When those who report are treated well, the message gets out to other inmates. When they aren’t treated well -- that is, when staff doesn’t separate the survivor from the perpetrator, or tells jokes in the hall, or treats the survivor in a punishing way -- then other inmates who suffer rape feel less safe reporting the crime and the message sent is that rape is acceptable.

Ultimately, McFarlane said, appropriate response to rape is part of prevention.

The culture of jokes about rape among male inmates is juxtaposed with a discomfiting quiet about abuse in women’s facilities -- a fact not addressed by NPREC as explicitly as it addressed the perception of male rape.

"There’s still a great deal of silence of sexual abuse in women’s institutions," said McFarlane. "But still sexual abuse happens at fairly even rates in male and female institutions, and rape is perpetuated by inmates in both of them."

There is almost zero acknowledgement of sexual abuse perpetuated among inmates in female facilities.

"The domestic violence movement had to work very hard to get battering in lesbian relationships taken seriously," said McFarlane.

But as is evident from the void of information about sexual violence perpetrated by female inmates, the relationship between the abused and the assaulter are still largely ignored -- and so, the abusive acts are ignored too. If anything, rape between female inmates is sexualized, as seen in such films as "Born Innocent," "99 Women," "They Call Her One Eye," "Last House on the Left," and "Chained Heat 2."

And it is here, in popular culture portrayals of prison rape, that we see most plainly how homophobia and misogyny are the foundations of the permissive public attitude about the abuse of inmates.

While sexual abuse and rape have nothing to do with sex, soap-dropping jokes and their ilk permit people to escape their discomfort with male-male sexuality by cloaking it in cheap laughs. In turn, female-female sexual abuse does not register as significant in any way -- unless it’s sexualized for the enjoyment of voyeurs. It’s a self-enforcing cycle -- misogyny affirms a narrow view of masculinity as "not womanish" that in turn creates a loathing for the feminization that is presumed to be implicit in male-male sexuality. This idea enforces the notion of femininity as something that is abnormal and lesser, which of course is a misogynistic attitude.

While female rape is ignored or exploited in popular culture, McFarlane said that the public is hearing more about officers who assault female inmates. Still, though, that issue remains politically loaded "because its not just involving prisoners. With prisoners assaulting each other -- it’s like, ‘put the animals in a cage and let them sort it out.’"

Michela Bowman is the Project Director for the Washington, DC office of the Vera Institute for Justice, a 47-year-old nonprofit center for justice policy and practice that the NPREC consulted while developing its standards and final report. She emphasized that the NPREC understands how public perception of prison rape impacts what actually happens inside the walls.

"The general apathy certainly serves to perpetuate (prison rape)," said Bowman.

She added, "The jokes people tell in their homes leads to the prosecutor that’s not willing to take a case of rape in a prison, not willing to see the rape as a crime rather than part of a punishment."

Bowman said that while the NPREC can’t enforce standards on public attitudes, she hopes it will bring national attention to the issue.  And she has real reason to back up that hope. Bowman said the NPREC and PREA have resulted in more serious media coverage about prison rape -- coverage that doesn’t subscribe as neatly to the punch-line/silence dichotomy.

As well, Bowman said that she’s seen substantial attitude changes about prison rape within prisons themselves. Since the passage of PREA, she said, more grants have gone out and more programs have been initiated that target rape culture within facilities. In her frequent visits to prisons and jails, she said she hears how facilities are giving a great deal of attention to the issue.

"I think this is a case where the change will move from the inside out, rather than from the outside in," Bowman said.

Indeed, McFarlane said that there are some correctional departments that are very receptive to working with JDI to stave off prison rape culture. Not every facility sees rape as a laughing matter, she said. Indicative of the potential of positive partnerships was an op-ed in The Oregonian published on June 21 and co-authored by Max Williams, director of the Oregon Department of Corrections, and Lovisa Stannow, JDI executive director. The headline? "Rape is Not Part of the Penalty."

"PREA helped because it gave a federal mandate," McFarlane said. "There isn’t a prison, jail, or detention facility that can say it doesn’t have to deal with (stopping prison rape)."

McFarlane acknowledges that there is a "really, really long way to go" before the public adopts the same zero tolerance attitude towards prison rape that the NPREC expects from all people directly involved with detention facilities. But she said she’s noticed that the pushback against permissive attitudes is growing stronger and more intersectional.

"Our organization is working with other organizations including rape crisis centers and LGBT groups that understand that this issue impacts all of our work," McFarlane said. "We cherish and count upon our colleagues doing this work.

"I couldn’t say for sure that there are fewer jokes, and movies referring to rape as humorous (today, compared to ten years ago)," McFarlane added. "I don’t know that. But I know there’s responses to them coming from people other than us."

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