Monday, March 31, 2008

Prison Rape in American Culture

Ezra Klein writes about the banality of prison rape in America's prisons and popular culture:

This year's transcripts aren't online yet, but in 2006 you could have heard a man named Clinton explain, "I had no choice but to enter into a relationship with another inmate in my dorm in order to keep the rest of them off of me. In exchange for his protection from other inmates, I had to be with him sexually any time he demanded it. It was so humiliating, and I often cried silently at night in my bed ... but dealing with one is better than having 10 or more men demanding sex from you at any given time."

Clinton's testimony wasn't very funny, and it wasn't for entertainment. Nor was the 2001 report by Human Rights Watch, "No Escape," which included a letter from an inmate confessing that "I have no more feelings physically. I have been raped by up to five black men and two white men at a time. I've had knifes at my head and throat. I had fought and been beat so hard that I didn't ever think I'd see straight again."

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.'"

It is not simply the pervasiveness of prison rape that brings shame to our nation -- although that would be enough -- it is that we joke about it that plumbs the depths of moral depravity.

I've written before that the Church should rarely get involved in political issues. The Church should stay out of issues of which faithful Christians can legitimately dispute. But prison rape is not among these debatable subjects. There is no Just Rape Theory.

Prison rape is a subject that the Church can and must take an aggressive stance on.

HT: Instapundit


John Wilks said...

Unfortunately, I think this issue will remain unresolved because even the attempt of a frank discussion on the subject will force an odd alliance between segments of two groups not known for cooperation: feminists and "tough on crime" conservatives.

The article you quote deals with the second group accurately- there are those who act is if prison rape is just chickens coming home to roost.

The first group is the one which stuns me. As a student at a very progressive seminary, I thought there would be room discuss issues of abuse affecting both genders. I have been repeatedly told that the "statistically insignificant" occurrences where men are the victims of sex crimes or domestic violence should never be discussed in pastoral care classes because doing so somehow diverts attention from the overwhelming tide of such attacks against women.

Personally, I think standing against every form of violence and injustice is always a good thing- even if you're talking about a smaller pool of victims. To shed light on any victim is to raise awareness for all victims regardless of gender. But what do I know?

Anonymous said...

I do not disputre John Wilks' account of his experience in seminary, but I pray that it is not representative of the church at large.

Of course, the church should oppose rape. Indeed, I believe it does.

The location of the rape and the characteristics of the victim should not even be issues.

It is not a joking or laughing matter.

Dan Trabue said...

I know of NO feminists, myself include, who would consider prison rape acceptable.

truevyne said...

Tagged you to write a six word memoir if you are interested:

John Wilks said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
John Wilks said...

Dan, by no means am I saying that ANY feminists find prison rape acceptable. (I did say that some in the "tough on crime" crowd seem fine with it, but I didn't say feminists felt that way.)

What I said was that SOME (not all) feminists don't want to discuss the subject for fear that discussion male victims of sexual assault or domestic abuse takes focus away from female victims.

The logic is this: the vast majority of victims of such violence are women, so keep the focus there.

I just happen to disagree with that logic.

But I am not slamming feminism.

Michael said...

I think this is an issue unto itself and cannot be categorized outside its walls of the prison institution. For my way of thinking, it has its own animalistic rules within its own community and is unique in that escape or even avoidance of a particulary dangerous area is virtually impossible.

The state takes custody of the incarcerated; therefore the state is responsible and can, in my humble opinion, be sued by the victims. However, the state is going to be able to do very little until it is willing to pay decent wages to security personnel AND hire a lot of them. Otherwise, we (the citizens of the state) get what we pay for: a system that can adequately keep them locked up and away from us. We should not expect much more until we're willing to pay for it.

John said...

Fair enough, Michael. I am willing to pay higher taxes in order to significantly diminish the incidence of prison rape.

truevyne said...

About this post. I know black liberation theology has been in question these last few weeks with the Obama pastor fiasco. However, JUSTICE, as taught is this theology, is not meant to be delayed. Justice is to be worked for now. I don't see America as just or free until things like prison rape eradicated.

Larry B said...

I agree that this is a moral issue worthy of effort by the church.

I also think the best way to reduce the incidence of prison rape is not to spend money adding more security to a broken prison system. The fact that the need for prisons is outpacing the ability to build prisons should signal that maybe we ought to look at ways to not need prisons in the first place. Which would then reduce the incidence of prison rape.

I think the church can be far more effective in addressing the situation by working towards reducing the causes of imprisonment than trying to address an issue that is a byproduct of a broken system.

Michael said...

Larry B,

That is a worthwhile, if lofty, goal, but it will not address the immediate problem. The fact is there are some humans who are predators, pure and simple, and society - as well as those locked up with them - has an inherent human right to be protected from them; hence the prisons which have been a reality for hundreds of years. Reversing a trend that has been on-going since the beginning of time is only going to happen when "Kingdom comes".