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Prison rape isn't a punch line

Smirking at sexual attacks on inmates makes us all less safe.

March 30, 2008|Ezra Klein and Ezra Klein is an associate editor at the American Prospect. His blog is at EzraKlein.com.

'From the studio that brought you 'Brokeback Mountain,' " intones the preview for the light comedy "Let's Go To Prison," "comes a penetrating look at the American penal system." In case that was too subtle for you, the DVD box features a dropped bar of soap, just waiting for some poor inmate to bend over to pick it up -- and suffer a hilarious sexual assault in the process.

Or maybe you're not feeling up for a movie. It's more of a board-game afternoon. How about picking up "Don't Drop the Soap," a board game created by the son of Gov. Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas. The game "is simply intended for entertainment," said Nicole Corcoran, the governor's spokeswoman. What, after all, could be more entertaining then trying to "avoid being cornered by the Aryans in the shower room" (one of the goals of the game, according to its promotional material)?

Here in Washington, however, the weather has been beautiful lately, so if you were bored last week, you might have wanted to do something out of the house. One option would have been going down to the Department of Justice, where, on the third floor, officials were holding hearings on prison rape, interrogating administrators from some of the worst prisons in the nation about the abuses that go on within their walls.

These hearings are held annually. This year's transcripts aren't online yet, but in 2006 you could have heard a man named Clinton explain, "I had no choice but to enter into a relationship with another inmate in my dorm in order to keep the rest of them off of me. In exchange for his protection from other inmates, I had to be with him sexually any time he demanded it. It was so humiliating, and I often cried silently at night in my bed ... but dealing with one is better than having 10 or more men demanding sex from you at any given time."

Clinton's testimony wasn't very funny, and it wasn't for entertainment. Nor was the 2001 report by Human Rights Watch, "No Escape," which included a letter from an inmate confessing that "I have no more feelings physically. I have been raped by up to five black men and two white men at a time. I've had knifes at my head and throat. I had fought and been beat so hard that I didn't ever think I'd see straight again."

Prison rape occupies a fairly odd space in our culture. It is, all at once, a cherished source of humor, a tacitly accepted form of punishment and a broadly understood human rights abuse. We pass legislation called the Prison Rape Elimination Act at the same time that we produce films meant to explore the funny side of inmate sexual brutality.

Occasionally, we even admit that prison rape is a quietly honored part of the punishment structure for criminals. When Enron's Ken Lay was sentenced to jail, for instance, Bill Lockyer, then the attorney general of California, spoke dreamily of his desire "to personally escort Lay to an 8-by-10 cell that he could share with a tattooed dude who says, 'Hi, my name is Spike, honey.' "

The culture is rife with similar comments. Although it would be unthinkable for the government today to institute corporal punishment in prisons, there is little or no outrage when the government interns prisoners in institutions where their fellow inmates will brutally violate them. We won't touch you, but we can't be held accountable for the behavior of Spike, now can we?

As our jokes and cultural products show, we can claim no ignorance. We know of the abuses, and we know of the rapes. Research by the University of South Dakota's Cindy Struckman-Johnson found that 20% of prisoners reported being coerced or pressured into sex, and 10% said they were violently raped. In a 2007 survey by the U.S. Department of Justice, more than 60,000 inmates claimed to have been sexually victimized by other inmates during the previous 12 months. Given the stigma around admitting such harms, the true numbers are probably substantially higher.

But by and large, we seem to find more humor than outrage in these crimes. In part, this simply reflects the nature of our criminal justice system, which has become decreasingly rehabilitative and increasingly retributive.

In the 1970s, as economist Glenn Loury has written, "the corrections system was commonly seen as a way to prepare offenders to rejoin society. Since then, the focus has shifted from rehabilitation to punishment and stayed there."

On the campaign trail, Mike Huckabee put it even more pithily. "We lock up a lot of people that we're mad at," he liked to say. "Not the ones we're really afraid of." Criminals aren't sent to prison so they can learn to live outside of prison; they're sent to prison to get what they deserve. And that paves the way for the acceptance of all manners of brutal abuses. It's not that we condone prison rape per se, but it doesn't exactly concern us, and occasionally, as in the comments made by Lockyer, we take a perverse satisfaction in its existence.

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