I don’t think the vast majority of people who joke or threaten about prison rape are seriously indifferent to it when it comes to making real decisions about the penal system. Instead, I think they are simply pointing out one of the ugly realities of the real-world penal system.
I think that politically most people would like to reduce prison rape but they have a lot other evils they would like to reduce first. It is not that they don’t care, it is just that they have so many other things to care about as well.
Prison rape is second only to torture and murder as one of the awful possibilities of prison and people know it. More importantly, it is really the only circumstance in which an adult male faces a serious risk of rape. That seizes the male attention as does few other things. Risk-seeking young man are not deterred by the thought of the loss of freedom, death or even torture but they quail at the thought of loss of masculine self-pride that is inherent in rape. When you want to impress a young male with consequences of their actions, you emphasize rape and not other the physical punishments that young men believe themselves capable of mastering.
People may fantasize about rape being one of the punishments for the most vile criminals, but the vast majority of people realize that it is the 18-year-old doing two years for pot possession who gets raped and not the serial killer or drug lord.
Prison rape persists not because of social or institutional indifference but because it is very, very hard and very, very expensive to prevent. The only way to seriously reduce it is to segregate individuals almost entirely, e.g., private cells, individual showers and the elimination of any space not visible to guards or cameras. This requires rebuilding the entire prison and is very, very expensive.
People don’t like the idea of prison rape but they are more concerned about other issues that require government spending. They think it is awful when an adult male prisoner is raped, but they think the rape of a child is much, much worse and they will divert resources from protecting the prisoner to protecting the child.
Reducing prison rape has been an institutional goal of prisons since the mid-1800s. Generations of corrections officials have known that the rapists are usually the worst and cruelest of the prisoners while their victims are usually the least offensive. Letting the cruel and sadistic find sexual pleasure in prison reduces the deterrent effects of imprisonment for these worst of the worst and it reduces the overall sense of order and control that the safe operation of the prison relies on. Corrections institutions have always had an incentive to reduce rape given the resources allocated to them.
When individuals get involved in a particular issue, they tend to develop tunnel vision about the issue and they lose the ability to see the problem in the larger context. This tunnel vision causes them to see the issue as far more important in the grand scheme of things than it seems to ordinary citizens.
I think this has happened with prison rape. People who concentrate on it as their special issue attach too much importance to the popular mentions of the crime. Instead of making people take the problem more seriously, it comes off as sanctimonious and self-righteous and alienates people who are insulted at the implication that they approve of the crime.
You will not accelerate the ongoing reduction in prison rape by alienating the very people who have to vote to move prison-rape prevention up in the list of government priorities. Jokes aren’t the problem. People joke all the time about things they hate. Telling people that they cause the problem because of their jokes may make you feel good about yourself but it doesn’t motivate people to solve the problem.