We Need to Stop Joking About Prison Rape

Last week, Barack Obama outlined his commitment to criminal justice system reform with a rousing speech at the annual NAACP convention in Philadelphia. No sitting President of the United States has ever spoken so powerfully about prison conditions in such a heartfelt manner. But one caveat of this historic speech passed by without so much as a murmur from the Press.

"We should not be tolerating rape in prison and we shouldn't be making jokes about it in our popular culture. That's no joke. These things are unacceptable."

Bravo, Mr. President. You are quite right to hold a mirror up to the inexcusable nastiness of society. For we have all laughed at prison themed rape jokes at some point or another in our lives.

The fact of the matter? In any way, shape or form, rape is, was and never has been a joke. Yet why do we crack these tired old gags about Bubba and not bending for soap in the showers? The material is lame, done to death and not even that funny to begin with.

Why do we continue to giggle and snort about the very real phenomenon of prison rape? It is almost as if we have switched off all feelings to those who have suffered. No matter what crime someone has committed, rape should not be part of the penalty. Its survivors are fellow human beings. Family members. Friends. Neighbors. It could just as easily be you or them.

And consider their not too unsubtle homophobic subtext. People can't joke about men being "poofs" or "faggots" anymore in gaystream western society -- but they can crack sadistic jokes about men facing the prospect of getting "turned out" behind bars.

We laugh but the figures alarm. 21 percent of U.S. cons say that they have been pressured into sexual activity during their incarceration. Up to 40 percent of prisoners are infected with hepatitis C. 7 percent have been buggered.

But according to a two-year study, commissioned by the U.S. Justice Department, sexual assaults in the slammer might be commonplace in Hollywood movies and TV shows but are rare in real life. Inmates who cry rape are usually lying, looking for a transfer, pay out or publicity.

Tell that to T.J. Parsell, board president for Stop Prisoner Rape. Aged 17, he was sent to a Michigan lock-up for armed robbery and raped by four inmates on his first day. "When they were done, they flipped a coin to see which one I belonged to."

Is life behind bars a case of fight or fuck? Blame the conditioning of popular culture for making you believe that. Almost every feature film, TV show and documentary series about the subject matter has some young felon being preyed upon by pansexual convicts. It is now an essential component of the prison genre because the story can only be told with brutality and erotic violence.

Sexual bullying and rape are no doubt visceral and real in the prison environment. But it is the constant depiction of being a sexual victim, unable to talk your way out of rape; it's cruelty and disempowerment that film and documentary makers constantly flock to. There is no mixed message, subtlety, or contrasts. Just the same old plot, over and over, again and again, until no one knows anything but fear and fear drives out reason.

Having written about the subject matter, and done time behind bars in America as an undercover voluntary detainee, I learned something about the respectable mass of law-abiding people. They do not want to hear about overcrowding, the misuse of solitary confinement or the large numbers of ethnic minorities in custody. They only want to know one thing. They only ever ask one question. "Did you get raped?"

I laugh because who can blame them for asking? The subject scares us and that's why we joke about it. No wonder rape is a romantic icon of life in prison. As for my friends and acquaintances, they seem genuinely disappointed when they learn that I was not gang-banged by a division of Nazis or a ghetto of African-Americans. Fantasies of schadenfreude are soon shattered when they hear me bore on about bad food, privatization and the growth of the prison industrial complex. They only want tales of rape. Rehabilitation or recidivism rates, or even the total waste of their tax money? No thanks. But were you raped?

Unfortunately, the joke is on them. People really have no idea, no clue, what prison is like. All they know is the crap they have seen on TV. And the one thing they all have in common, it seems, is a fear of sexual violation. Hence the rape question.

And so by unofficial decree from the President of the United States, prison-themed rape jokes are hereby declared lame. Moreover, as a society, we really need to stop jailing so many people and laughing about it. Daring plans. Bold hopes. A bum's rush on bad jokes. We've got our work cut out for us. We've still got a long way to go.