A Moral Stain of a Punchline

How often does rape get used as a joke these days? Not often, except in one particular context — when the victims are men in prisons. Under those circumstances, the joke gets told over and over again, in movies, political speeches, late-night television, and so on. As Ezra Klein reminds us in yesterday’s LA Times, the easy familiarity that elicits broad laughter at these jokes indicts all of us as passive enablers of a human-rights atrocity that shows no signs of abating (via Instapundit):

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.

Hardly any of our current political class seem disturbed by this phenomenon in either party. My uncle Jim Morrissey tried to raise it when he served in the California Assembly in the early 1990s, but apathy doomed the attempt. The solutions — better enforcement, lower prisoner concentration, and alternatives for non-violent criminals — all cost too much money.

That cannot be the last word on this epidemic. The people we put in prison have earned their way into confinement, but we have a responsibility to protect them from sexual brutality once they get there. They become wards of the community, and widespread rapes happening with our full knowledge and tacit approval makes us complicit in the abuses. Bill Lockyer’s comments showed that tacit approval, coming from the highest law-enforcement official in California. What kind of message does that send to the rapists in prison, other than they’re performing part of the duties of the state in inflicting punishment?

We need to start making some tough decisions. Either we need to build a lot more prison space and hire a lot more prison guards to keep our current incarceration rates, or we need to start rethinking our criminal statutes with an eye towards eliminating violations that result in no violence to anyone else. We cannot keep laughing off prison rapes as some sort of sick joke without working to end them.