What Prison Rape Jokes Mean

I posted an overly long comment to the comments of this blog post on prison rape [h/t Instapundit], so I thought I would turn it into a post here.

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.

9 thoughts on “What Prison Rape Jokes Mean”

  1. You are entirely right about the importance of fighting prison rape. The criminal gangs flourish partly because their members are able to regard their time in prison as tolerable; this is so partly because gang membership provides protection in prison, but also because gang members are able to perpetrate rape and sexual slavery with impunity on the weak and those who do not belong to gangs.

    Prison rape will probably not be curbed by the usual do-gooder type of appeals to the general population. It is a weak motivation — how many people will base their vote on what their legislator does about prison rape? The best point of leverage is using the issue to weaken the US Government’s ability to get suspects extradited from abroad. Documentation, such as the recent rape-threat video in New York, on rape risk should be made widely available to lawyers defending suspects against extradition in Europe, Canada, Australia, etc. The US Government has put a huge amount of effort into expanding extradition coverage around the globe in the past ten years. Once they start failing in extradition proceedings for having suspects they want, then you will have an entity with both power and motivation working on the problem.

    The recently-released Conrad Black happens to be a member of the legislature of a country that sees many high-profile extradition proceedings to the US. He is interested in using his insights to push prison reform. He has a great platform to start working on it.

  2. James C. Bennett,

    I think that pointing out that prison rape helps gangs would be a better motivator than forieign pressure. The latter tends to get people’s backs up more than motivating them to change.

  3. I have a modest proposal.

    Make the uttering of the threat of prison or jail house rape by a peace officer, a felony, punishable by some minimum time in the facility under which this threat is referenced. Given that rape is so endemic to our prison system that this is so engrained in the culture of our peace officers to utter this threat without thinking about it, perhaps this law, by threatening such peace officers with the thing they are threatening to obtain cooperation of a suspect or person resisting police orders, would incentivize the cleaning up of our prisons . . .

  4. I just don’t see the general population ever caring enough about the issue to bring effective pressure to bear, enough anyway to make real changes. Voters have issus that directly affect them — taxes, jobs, local infrastructure — and the percentage of voters who will vote on other basis is usually pretty low. The US Government acts when its real interests are threatened. You can tell what its real interests are by the amount of energy they spend on them. The US has spent a lot of energy trying to achieve universal extradition. They care about the issue, and it is a pressure point.

    The other approach might be a suit under the cruel and unusual punishment criterion. These have failed in the past. However, at some point a court may rule that being incarcerated in a facility with more than some finite percentage chance of being raped is cruel. We know that if the chances were 100% they would have to rule that way. Somewhere between 99% and 1% there may be a point at which they would also forbid it. What that would be, I don’t know. At least, they might raise the bar of how serious the danger to the public must be before they could incarcerate a prisoner.

  5. Prisons are run in cooperation with the prisoners. The threat of rape benefits the system by helping to keep prisoners in line. If prison guards rather than prisoners were being raped there would be major reforms yesterday. Politically, prisoners and ex-prisoners as a group are almost powerless — they can’t vote and no one represents their interests. Barring an increase in compassion by non-prisoners, which seems unlikely in the short run, maybe the best that could be done would be to:

    -Abolish unionization for prison employees (which should be done anyway).

    -Spend more public money to build prisons that are easier to police along the lines Shannon described.

    -Reduce the prison population, especially the population of softer individuals who are vulnerable to abuse by hard-core criminals, by not imprisoning people for nonviolent drug offenses.

    But these measures are currently as much long shots as is expecting the voting public to feel more sympathy for prisoners.

    Perhaps the best that we can hope for is a gradual shift in public attitudes.

  6. Widespread prison rape is the natural consequence of a refusal to execute violent criminals. It will exist in abundance as long as rape, murder, serial theft, drug dealing, racket ring, et.al. are punished by a few years behind bars. (Kenneth McDuff served, what 15? years for multiple murder; the Austin choker rapist less than 10 years for serial rape. Prison rape is nothing compared to merciful treatment these scum received.)

  7. The prison population should consist entirely of the “softer” criminals, those convicted of drug dealing, prostitution, theft, etc. The hard-core prison population should be confined to the cemetery.

  8. Thanks for the thoughtful post. Although stopping sexual abuse behind bars is not easy, it is also not impossible. Indeed, what could be the best set of tools available so far in the fight to end this violence is currently under review by the Attorney General. National standards recommended by a bipartisan commission and mandated by the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 (passed unanimously by Congress and signed by President Bush) could help reduce sexual abuse dramatically. Those standards are what the left-right coalition is calling for — learn more here: http://www.justdetention.org/en/raise_the_bar.aspx

  9. There is simply no way outside of isolation to end this. You have no idea how much inmate traffic there is. Isolation was once more common but it was too inhuman for the progressives and changed. They are still not happy. Go figure.

    Should you care to break this tool among prisoners for intimidation (a smaller percentage are sex offenders), then you have to make inmates serve their full time so they can not regard rape as a tool to influence and intimidate the inmate when they soon get released and return to gang activity. Also, kill the street gang.

Comments are closed.