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Last weekened, I watched a few episodes of Law & Order SVU. As in the past, the lead characters Det. Eliot Stabler and Det. Olivia Benson seemed to delight in telling their male suspects--sometimes during interrogation and sometimes after conviction--that they were going to jail where they would be raped.

Sometimes they use it as a threat to try to leverage cooperation--"Tell us or you'll go to jail, where you'll get to know your cellmate intimately."

The screenwriters seem to enjoy trying to come up with clever lines to convey the message "You're going to be raped in jail."

They never say this to the women. In fact, Det. Benson went undercover in a women's prison to catch a guard suspected of raping female prisoners. In the episode, she was nearly raped and it traumatized her terribly, and she had post-traumatic stress disorder in subsequent episodes.

Apparently, the screenwriters do not find the rape of female prisoners to be amusing or something that law officers should wield as a threat.

That weekend, I watched Saturday Night Live, which had a skit with Taylor Swift and Kenan Thompson playing prisoners trying to scare 3 "young" troublemakers into taking the straight and narrow path. The joke was that the two prisoners' comments kept devolving into how awful it was going to be to be raped in prison. The audience laughed every time.

Then there was the scene in Harold & Kumar Go to Guantanamo, with prisoners being forced to fellate the guards and subjected to sexual abuse--all presented for the audience's amusement.

Although women are victims of sexual assault in prison by guards and fellow inmates, the movies/television never depict this as anything other than what prison rape really is: horrifying.

Prison sexual assault is now considered an inevitable consequence of serving time in prison and has become ubiquitous in pop culture. Police really do use it as a threat to try to leverage confessions--especially when interrogating youths.

Rather than showing concern about this problem and affirming a commitment to protect inmates from rape, the law enforcement officials are essentially sanctioning it by making sure prisoners know they will not stop it from happening. Because that's just what happens when you go to jail.

Consider the proposed video game "Mathis Detroit Street Judge," a concoction of television judge Greg Mathis and the filmmaker Matty Rich:

Mathis explains that "The main difference between our game and Grand Theft Auto is that players will have to deal with the justice system and consequences for their actions . . . When you go to prison, you gain credibility when you come back on the streets. On the other hand, when you go to prison you can also be raped. So take your chances. We may see young people who make the wrong choice and go to prison and are assaulted repeatedly (in this game)."

Note: There are some reports that Mathis later backpedaled from his earlier statement after it created a furor.

The Prison Rape Elimination Act was passed in 2003, but little action has been taken to address the problem.

The National Prison Rape Commission released a report in June 2009 that offered statistics and concerns on prison rape. ( )

*In 10 facilities, 9.3 percent to 15.7 percent of the inmates reported being sexually abused

*Only 6 facilities had no reports of abuse.

*At adult facilities, there were 2.91 substantiated reports of sexual abuse per 1000 prisoners in 2006. [Note: This rate is lower than the real rate of rape; rapes are likely underreported and most were NOT substantiated but that does not mean they did not happen.]

*In juvenile facilities, there were 16.8 substantiated reports of sexual abuse per 1000.

In 2007, 63,817 inmates completed a Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) survey:

*4.5% of prisoners surveyed reported experiencing sexual abuse at least once in the previous 12 months (or since they had been incarcerated if less than 12 months)

*Extrapolated to the national prison population, an estimated 60,500 State and Federal prisoners were sexually abused during that 12-month period.

The primary victims are young people, men with slight builds, and homosexuals or transgenders. Other common victims are inexperienced prisoners and people with mental disabilities or mental illness.

A 1982 study in a medium-security men’s facility in California found 41% of gay men were abused compared with 9% of straight men.

*BJS interviewed 645 youth at 9 facilities. Nearly 1 of every 5 youth (19.7 percent) reported at least one nonconsensual sexual contact (by peers or staff) in the preceding 12 months or since arriving .

According to BJS, every day there are nearly 8500 youth <18 confined with adults.</p>

Civil rights attorney Deborah LaBelle told the Commission that 80% of the 420 boys sentenced to life without parole in Michigan, Illinois, and Missouri reported being sexually assaulted by at least one adult male prisoner in the first year of incarceration.

In Law & Order, the premise is always that the guy deserves it because he is being acused of sexually abusing someone. Some Americans buy into the notion that people in jail deserve what they get. But not everyone is imprisoned for a violent or sexual crime. Some are addicts or guilty of theft or even "white collar" crimes. Some are just there overnight, maybe for a suspected DUI or maybe because they are suspects. Here is a chilling account from the Report:

Air Force veteran Tom Cahill, who was arrested and detained for just a single night in a San Antonio jail, recalled the lasting effects of being gang-raped and beaten by other inmates. "I’ve been hospitalized more times than I can count and I didn’t pay for those hospitalizations, the tax payers paid. My career as a journalist and photographer was completely derailed. . . . For the past two decades, I’ve received a non-service connected security pension from the Veteran’s Administration at the cost of about $200,000 in connection with the only major trauma I’ve ever suffered, the rape."

Immigrants are also sexually abused in detention while waiting to be deported. This includes unaccompanied minors.

Just like noncriminals who suffer sexual assault, prisoners who are sexually assaulted live with the mental trauma for decades, or even lifelong. Sometimes these are brutal rapes, involving more than one assailant. Other times, they are repeated.

Sometimes it is not considered rape because the prisoner consents--to avoid a beating or worse. Other times, a younger prisoner will hook up with someone and perform sexual favors in exchange for protection. While technically not rape, it is still a traumatic experience.

Then there is the physical trauma, including communicable diseases that rape victims are subjected to. Some prisons (not federal ones) have tried to deal with this by distributing condoms. This is either because it is easier than preventing rape or because officials simply accept it as a normal part of prison life.

Where is our outrage about this? Our media has reported on the rape of political prisoners in Iran recently, but men and women in our prisoners are raped every day. And our society deals with it by turning it into a joke.

I wonder what Mr. Cahill felt if he were watching Saturday Night Live a couple weekends ago. Did he laugh?

It is time for our society to stop tacitly accepting these depictions of the "normalcy" of male on male prison rape and hold television networks or film companies accountable when they seek to trivialize it as a joke.

When was the last time you saw a comedic scene in a movie in which a woman is raped in prison?


As some people have correctly noted below, prison rape is vastly underreported. According to the Commisson's report, many rape victims are threatened by the other inmates or, worse, by the jailers. I read an account from one man who said the jailer laughed and said he probably wanted it.

When you consider that homosexual and transgendered men are among the most likely to be abused and the extent of homophobia in our society, it is not hard to imagine that some guards are contemptuous of homosexual men in general and do not care about their sexual mistreatment.

Originally posted to CatM on Fri Nov 20, 2009 at 07:50 PM PST.

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