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April 19, 2017

America’s other rape culture

Accusations of sexual assault have been in the news as the 2016 presidential campaign continues in its depraved downward spiral. This column isn’t about Donald Trump’s demeaning and perverted comments from 2005, nor is it about whether or not Bill Clinton committed sex crimes that Hillary covered up. Today, I seek to comment on the ways in which we react to sexual assault committed in our prisons.

Rape culture is commonly defined as a setting in which sexual violence is normalized and blame is placed on victims of sexual assault rather than on sexual assailants. In most modern contexts, this refers to violence against women in society. I would invite the Collegian’s readers to view it in the context of violence against incarcerated citizens.

In 2000, after a survey of seven men’s prison facilities in four states, the Human Rights Watch estimated that 140,000 prisoners had been raped, with one in five prisoners being pressured into or forced to have sexual contact against their will. Following the passage of the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003, the Department of Justice reported that an estimated 60,500 inmates were assaulted in 2006. This is still a problem. It is a problem that leads to mental trauma, emotional damage, the exploitation of homosexuals and the spread of STDs among prisoners. There are consequences to the tolerance of this environment.

Is sexual violence against American prisoners normalized? When Jared Fogle, the former spokesperson for Subway and now known pedophile, was sentenced to prison time, jokes about him receiving “footlongs” were abundant. “Don’t drop the soap” jokes appear in several forms across popular culture, even Spongebob, a show for young kids. These jokes are common; it would seem that a prison sentence being a de facto rape sentence is both a source of comedy and a foregone conclusion in the United States, to such a startling degree that it is presented as a joke to our youth.

It is difficult to feel bad for this group of victims. Jokes about prison rape tend to be reserved for rapists, pedophiles and people who harmed children. It feels good to think about deplorable things happening to deplorable people. Following Jerry Sandusky’s conviction for child molestation, stories ran that claimed his fellow inmates serenaded him with Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall.” The prospect of prisoners singing, “Hey, teacher, leave those kids alone…” to the infamous former football coach is pretty funny, but twisted. Somewhere deep in our hearts, it feels like justified vengeance, and that Jerry Sandusky deserves worse than to spend the remainder of his miserable existence in a cell.

Of course, our justice system is not perfect; innocent people are sent to prison as well. Once there, they are subject to the same rape culture as the actually guilty prisoners. A popular Hollywood example of this comes from “The Shawshank Redemption,” in which the film’s protagonist is falsely convicted for murdering his wife and is then subjected to repeated rape by his fellow inmates.

That brings up another important factor: we do not tend to look at the other half of the equation. Every time one prisoner is being molested, another is getting away with it. Incarceration is punitive. It is meant to be a bad thing. You have been stripped of your liberty as a result of a crime against society. Sexual satisfaction is not part of the deal you cut yourself when you committed a heinous act.

The Eighth Amendment dictates that “cruel and unusual punishments” shall not be inflicted. It would seem to me that subjecting incarcerated citizens to an environment in which rape is prevalent exceeds what can reasonably be called just and usual. I concede that as a 19-year-old college student, I’m no expert on Constitutional law. Fortunately, former University of Chicago constitutional law professor and current President Barack Obama is an expert. In 2015 he said, “We should not be tolerating rape in prison. And we should not be making jokes about it in our popular culture. That’s no joke. These things are unacceptable.”

Nothing I have written here is terribly original. There has been a lot written about prison rape culture, but I have found that people don’t tend to think about prison rape as an actual issue until someone else brings it up, which is why I wrote this column despite many others having already done a better job than me. I would encourage readers to look into what others have said and to take it into consideration the next time you hear a “Don’t drop the soap” joke.

Dan Riley is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at dpriley@umass.edu.

Comments
One Response to “America’s other rape culture”
  1. David Hunt 1990 says:

    As a person who has taught industrial readiness classes in a jail, I learned about the “Prison Rape Elimination Act” passed by President George W. Bush in 2003.

    How effective it’s been, I’m not sure, but I do know it was mentioned several times in the training as something they really focused on.

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