Dan Gardner, Prison rape isn't funny, The Ottawa Citizen, March 05, 2008.

A burly, tattooed man in an orange jumpsuit hands a piece of paper to another hulking convict. "I want you to sign this non-compete agreement," the first con says. "The new guy Conrad is all mine."

Ah yes, prison rape.

Always good for a gag. But the really funny thing is who's laughing.

Writing about criminal justice and prisons over the last few years, I've found the old don't-drop-the-soap punchline is a pretty reliable indicator of a person's political leanings and nationality.

In general, Americans find prison rape a lot funnier than Canadians, and conservatives more than liberals. A complete list of American conservatives who have made jokes about prison rape would fill this page.

The latest is the son of the governor of Kansas, who is marketing a prison-based board game cleverly called Don't Drop the Soap. "Fight your way through six different locations in hopes of being granted parole. Escape prison riots in The Yard, slip glass into a mob boss's lasagna in the Cafeteria, steal painkillers from the nurses' 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." Hours of fun, no doubt.

But the cartoonist who thought it hilarious to mark Conrad Black's incarceration with a gag about prison rape is not some vicious American reactionary. He is Theo Moudakis. And his unspeakably crude joke was published Monday in the impeccably liberal and very Canadian Toronto Star.

For years, an American organization called Stop Prisoner Rape has pleaded for an end to these wisecracks. They "trivialize and dehumanize," the group says on its website. "Such flippant attitudes about sexual violence in detention (are) one of the major obstacles to ending this type of violence." Doesn't that sound like something the Star would say in one of its earnest and upright editorials? And yet, it seems, no one at the Star saw anything amiss in Monday's cartoon.

A non-compete agreement between rapists? Stop, you're killing me!

Of course, this joke featured Conrad Moffat Black, Lord Black of Crossharbour, the corporate titan whose pomposity and arrogance long ago made him one of the most loathed men in Canada. And that makes all the difference.

Last year, before Black's conviction, I found myself seated at a dinner table with some grandees of the newspaper industry and the Toronto Establishment. Good liberals all, they despised Black. When they talked about his trial and his subsequent prospects, they were positively giddy. They didn't laugh so much as cackle.

Fair enough. There's plenty to loathe about Black. But when I attempted to move the conversation to the American mania for incarceration - the ridiculously long sentences, the brutal prison conditions, the swelling population behind bars - there was no interest and no outrage. There was, instead, glee at the prospect of Conrad Black being swallowed by the beast.

Black was ultimately convicted of a relatively minor fraud in the amount of $6.1 million. The losses this inflicted on even major shareholders - rich folks, in other words - were pretty small.

It's safe to say that someone convicted of a similar crime in Europe or Canada would have gotten a light sentence - something along the lines of restitution, a fine, and a criminal record. He may not spend a day in prison.

But this was an American court and so Black got six-and-a-half years. That's more than half the time served by a typical European murderer. And even in one of the better American prisons, he will be subject to conditions and material deprivations unknown elsewhere.

In newspaper columns and editorials, nice Canadian liberals declared the outcome fair. "It's not a wrong sentence," wrote the Star's Rosie Dimanno. "There was no violence done, Black has no prior record, he's not a public threat and, frankly, a longer prison term would probably have no deterrence effect on other corporate scalawags with greed on the brain."

The man got a sentence wildly out of proportion to what he would have gotten in this country or anywhere else in the Western world and yet Dimanno thought it only necessary to explain why it wasn't more severe.

I suppose one might say, well, that's just the way the American justice system is: Do the crime there, take the punishment there. But nice Canadian liberals usually jump on a chance to condemn the excesses of American justice.

Only in this case did they fail to raise the theme. Only in this case did they find it fair and reasonable that a man convicted of a minor white collar crime should serve half as much time as a European murderer in conditions twice as awful.

Only in this case do nice Canadian liberals think prison rape is funny.