Joke’s over: Prison rape is a serious problem, needs answers

While watching Saturday Night Live, hosted by Betty White, this past weekend, I couldn’t help but be torn about the skit that used prison rape as a punchline.

The idea of Kenan Thompson and this grandmother Betty White — the “McIntoshs” — teaching some punk kids a lesson about prison has the potential for some laughs, as it did when it started out with Thompson recollected a childhood memory that mimicked the plot from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. But when the “kids” laughed at this, he responded that inmates would be:

Wonking your willy, touring your chocolate factory, and giving you an everlasting buttstopper. They gon ride you like a Wonkavator — sideways, slantways, three ways and ten ways.

This is when the uneasiness starts to settle in, and I can’t help but think about how prevalent prison rape actually is and how it isn’t funny for the people who are being raped by fellow inmates or by staff members in prison.

The numbers vary, from a 2007 study done by the Bureau of Justice Statistics that estimates 4.5 percent of the prison population was sexually assaulted in 2007, to the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003, which estimates that of the total prison population, at least 13 percent of inmates in the U.S. have been sexually assaulted in prison.

That means anywhere from one in 20 inmates to 1 in eight prison inmates — if not more — have been sexually assaulted in prison. Recently, there has been more talk about implementing the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003, which has a zero-tolerance policy for sexual assault in prisons.

The two main categories of prison rape are inmates sexually assaulting other inmates and staff members sexually assaulting inmates. As Amanda Hess outlined on The Sexist, two major ideas to combat these problems are separating inmates based on weight (therefore inmates can’t prey on other inmates who are substantially smaller and weaker than they are) and better employee screening (so that employees are hired who will focus on stopping prison rape and following the rules).

She also mentions how these ideas aren’t really new, but just difficult to get off the ground:

Prison rape doesn’t keep happening because anti-rape activists are lacking in good ideas, but rather because correctional facilities have been reluctant to implement them.

We are still focusing on the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003, and it’s already almost halfway through 2010. Some people assert that prison rape isn’t a priority because criminals are second-class citizens, committed a crime, and for some reason then deserve to be sexually assaulted, but that assertion doesn’t help rehabilitate criminals at all.

In fact, condoning prison rape, as Toni Doswell explains (I highly recommend reading the entire article), causes physical and psychological harm to the inmate and also harm to society as a whole. Most of the time, prison should be a place for rehabiliation so inmates can rejoin and become productive members of society. Prison rape, however, adds an extra burden to the prison system and the public that makes this goal more difficult to achieve:

Prisoner rape also costs taxpayers dearly in the form of higher rates of recidivism and re-incarceration, increased violence, higher rates of substance abuse, lawsuits brought by victims, mental health services, and medical care including treatment for HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. These high cost have still failed to inspire most facilities to implement even the most basic measures to address the problem.

So while we joke around about “not dropping the soap” or “becoming someone’s bitch,” the reality is that those people in prison, those people we use as the punchline for a joke, can’t help themselves within the confines of prison. The victims of sexual assault — often young, new, weak, small, thin, homosexual, or transgender inmates — are often helpless within a system where the rate of staff sexually assaulting inmates rivals the rate of inmates sexually assaulting other inmates.

Whatever the prison system is supposed to be doing, it isn’t — it often turns its back to inmates and allows them to be sexually assaulted, even as punishment:

Male inmates have testified that they were forced into cells with known sexual predators as a form of punishment for unrelated misconduct.

And how is one to try to report being sexually assaulted or raped when A) the person who sexually assaulted you might be a staff member whose word will likely be taken over yours and who might continue to target you if he finds out you are the one who reported him; B) when you might be put into solitary confinement for your own protection, which is the same place people get sent for extreme misbehavior because it is so psychologically taxing and unbearable; or C) when the report might cause trouble with your family or personal relationships, such as a spouse or partner.

I’m reminded of an episode of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit when a recently released parolee targets Detective Benson and tries to frame her for murder. When they finally come face to face, he says that he is convinced she told someone in his prison to rape him, and he wanted her to go to prison for a crime and endure the same humiliation and suffering.

The grudge stemmed from her saying that “a pretty boy like him is going to be real popular in prison,” which was meant to scare him and ultimately made him think she had planned the entire sexual assault. But it’s casual slips like this — where we try to use prison rape as a scare tactic or as a joke — that avoid addressing the serious and systematic social problems that prison rape creates for prisoners and society as a whole.

Although maybe, as in the “Scared Straight” skit from SNL, the prison system is reluctant to adopt a zero tolerance policy on prison rape because it’s one of the best scare tactics they have in trying to deter crime. Except it’s only hurting the criminals who are vulnerable based on size or sexuality, causes a huge burden on society, and in some cases leads to murder in prison — so instead of advocating this behavior, we need to start eliminating it.

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