Matt Kelley, What's So Funny About Prison Rape?, Change.org, August 18, 2009

An excellent post yesterday from Anna Clark at Alternet explores a question I've grappled with for a long time: Why is it ok to make jokes about rape in prison?

Pop culture and casual conversation are rife with references to the sexual assault of prisoners by fellow prisoners or corrections officers, and this lighthearted treatment of such horrible violence is complicit in the problem itself. What's more, the jokes reveal a deeper belief held by some that prisoners deserve this as part of their punishment. Commenters here at change.org have responded to previous posts about sexual assault in prison with this sentiment. I can't imagine a more repugnant and counterproductive idea.

Speaking of repugnant, Clark points in her piece to one of the more disturbing treatments of prison rape in recent years - a board game sold by John Sebelius, son of Kathleen Sebelius, the misspeaking Health and Human Services Secretary. John Sebelius developed a game called "Don't Drop the Soap," which invites players to "escape prison riots in The Yard, slip glass into a mob boss' lasagna in the Cafeteria, 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..."


Linda McFarlane, the deputy executive director of Just Detention International and a change.org contributor, told Alternet that the pop culture treatment of prison rape is a major reason it is still such a pervasive problem.

"Humor is part of the cultural attitude that (prison) is the one place where rape is okay," McFarlane said.

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."

Clark also makes the important distinction in her post that for all of the jokes about the rape of men in prison, there is an overwhelming silence about sexual assault of women. She writes:

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.

Prison rape can be stopped, and ending pop culture's lighthearted treatment of the issue would be an important step in the right direction. A federal commission on prison rape released its recommendations in June for the first-ever binding national standards on the issue. Attorney General Eric Holder has a year to review the proposed standards. The commission's recommendations include:

* an attitude of zero tolerance for any kind of sexual abuse in any facility
* 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
* medical and mental health services for survivors

But you can do your part to stop prison rape by calling out casual jokes about the issue when you hear them and refusing to support movies, TV shows and wacknut board games when they make light of this injustice.

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