March 02, 2004


The prevalence of rape in prison is fearsome. Line officers recently surveyed in one southern state estimated that one in five male prisoners were being coerced into sex; among higher-ranking officials, the estimate was one in eight. Prisoners themselves estimated one in three. . . .

Last year, Congress passed the Prison Rape Reduction Act, which allocates $60 million to support rape-prevention programs run by federal, state, and local corrections staff and to aid investigations and punishment of perpetrators. The bill, which enjoyed bipartisan support in the House and the Senate, also requires states to collect statistics on prison rape. Backers of the legislation hope federal oversight will make sexual assault prevention a priority for jail and prison systems across the nation. . . .

A higher hurdle, however, is the task of changing the way Americans think about prison rape. While San Francisco was honing its rape-prevention protocols, the state's attorney general, Bill Lockyer, was joking that he "would love to personally escort" Enron CEO Ken Lay "to an 8-by-10 cell that he could share with a tattooed dude who says, 'Hi, my name is Spike, honey.' "

While humor about conventional rape has always been taboo, jokes about prison rape remain common. A recent 7-Up ad, eventually pulled from the air, depicted a spokesman handing out 7-Up in prison. When he accidentally drops a can, he says, "I'm not picking that up." Later, the spot shows the spokesman sitting in a cell, being hugged by an inmate. "When you bring the 7-Up, everyone is your friend," he says nervously. "Okay, that's enough being friends," he adds as the cell door slams. The insinuation of what's going to happen next is clear—and it's played for a laugh.

Commercials like this one might merely be examples of corporate tastelessness, but there is ample evidence that they are symptoms of a more disturbing phenomenon: an indifference to the rights of prisoners or perhaps even an acceptance of rape as a de facto part of the punishment.

That's clearly Lockyer's position, which is unfortunate since he's the chief law enforcement official of California.

UPDATE: Ronnie Schreiber emails:

There is only one reason why jokes about prison rape are acceptable - because men are the victims. In our current popular culture, men are fair game for being the butt of all sorts of jokes and comments that would be completely unacceptable if they were about women. Almost every commercial on television or radio that uses male characters treats the men as idiots and women as the font of all human knowledge and good behavior.

Yes, this sort of systematic demeaning of men is well-entrenched in the culture, though people are starting to notice and complain.