Prison Rape in Popular Media

By Ben Helford

This article is part of a series on prison rape.

Because the victims of these crimes are prisoners, most Americans do not take the issue seriously. However, the fact is that prison rape is a severe infringement in this country. I will eventually write posts that detail the prevalence of prison rape, the social harm, and, most importantly, what can be done to prevent prison rape from occurring.

This first post, which is of particular interest to me, discusses how prison rape is treated in popular media. Prison rape is often the subject of jokes and not taken seriously. Back in college I took a class in History of the Third Reich, and on my previous blog, did a series on Third Reich jokes that we discussed in class. These particular jokes were brought to the public’s attention by a man who sought to disprove the notion that most German citizens were unaware of the horrific acts by the Nazis.
I mention them in this article because I think the element of human nature that caused German citizens to joke about Nazi war crimes is the same that causes us to joke about rape in prisons. A more cynical outlook would be that the jokes minimize the inhumanity of horrendous acts, therefore justifying people’s apathy towards their perpetrators. I prefer to think, though, that jokes reflect the need of people to justify the existence of inhumanity that they are seemingly helpless to prevent.

In any case, we cannot cut through the public’s unwillingness to address the issue of prison rape without analyzing how jokes and images in popular media contribute to that unwillingness. With that in mind, this article analyzes four pieces of popular art that address prison rape. This is not to say that these are horrible pieces of art, because each is a piece of art I personally enjoy. But, for the most part, they hurt the cause of preventing prison rape.

The Shawshank Redemption
Video here.

Based on a Stephen King short story, The Shawshank Redemption is the story of Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), having been falsely accused of murdering his wife is sent to prison on a life sentence, where he befriends fellow inmate Red (Morgan Freeman). It is a tale of friendship and the resilience of the human spirit in the face of brutality, corruption, and abuse of power. Early in the movie, Dufresne is repeatedly raped by a group of prisoners, who act with impunity. But, after Dufresne helps the warden with an illegal money laundering scheme, the leader of the gang is brutally beaten and left paralyzed.

I start with this movie because it is one of the most powerful depictions of prison rape in popular culture. The rape is brutal and frightening, and it is perpetuated by the unwillingness of those in power to do anything about it. There is a scene early in the movie where Captain Hadley (Clancy Brown) beats a new inmate to death. The act is shrugged off by the inmates, and like the rape scene, becomes just another example of the dehumanizing experience of being incarcerated. It is hard to find fault with the depictions of rape in this film.

Date Rape – Sublime

The song “Date Rape” is about a man who gets a woman drunk, rapes her, then is promptly sent to prison, where he is raped. It is a truly unfortunate end to a song that is, up to that point, quite refreshing. The song doesn’t devolve into victim blaming; instead, it is a fun romp about an asshole getting his comeuppance .

From my perspective as a feminist, there is no end to the joy I feel when I hear the line, “it doesn’t pay to be drunk and horny,” being directed at the rapist rather than the victim. The problem comes with the prison rape at the end of the song, which serves as an ironic punishment for the rapist:

Then one night as it was getting late
He was butt raped by a large inmate
And he screamed
But the guard paid no attention to his cries

The song finishes up with the lines, “I can’t take pity on men of this kind / Even though he now takes it from the behind.” This fits in with the generally fun, raucous tone of the song; but, it is still heartless, and helps reinforce the idea that prison rape is not a human rights issue since it only happens to people who, in the majority view, deserve it.

The Boondocks

(Warning: video not quite safe for work)

When Aaron McGruder translated his daily comic into a half hour cartoon on Adult Swim, the result was a funnier, edgier, no-holds-barred look at black culture and race relations in America. One aspect of the show that was too risqué to ever make it into the newspaper strip was Tom Dubois’ crippling, all-encompassing fear of being raped in prison.

Tom is a neighbor of the Freeman family, and is a black man married to a white woman. He’s a prosecutor and, overall, a bit pitiful. His overly cautious approach to life and politics is often humorously contrasted with Huey’s outright radicalism.

Tom’s fear of prison rape comes up in two episodes: in one, Tom is arrested after being falsely accused of being “The X-Box Killer”; in another, he takes a group of kids into a prison for a Scared Straight session and tries an immersion-therapy approach to getting over his fear of prison rape. Tom is ill-served by his reputation as a rather pitiful man; no one takes his fear of prison rape seriously, even when it becomes clear that Tom is in imminent physical danger.

The problem is that the show never really takes a serious look at prison rape, instead focusing on the irrational fear of one of its characters. It fosters an attitude that prison rape is an unavoidable part of imprisonment. Unlike the Sublime song, The Boondocks doesn’t directly consider rape as a natural punishment for criminals. However, it still promotes apathy towards victims of prison rape.

This attitude does not arise just because The Boondocks is a comedy show. Compare the depiction of prison rape to this scene describing the arrest of Shabazz K. Milton Burrow, a character based on Mumia Abu-Jamal.

In both cases, the focus is on humor. But, by being so over-the-top, the Burrow clip doesn’t quite invite the audience to accept the wrongful arrest and prosecution of black men as an “unavoidable” part of life, unlike the show’s treatment of prison rape.

Norm MacDonald – Comedy Routine on Weekend Update

(Video above is not the original joke, but an adaptation of it from the film Dirty Work.)

I’m not sure how many people have seen this video. I add it here because, for me, it was the first time I remember being so overtly amused by a series of prison rape jokes. Back in the olden days when I was in college, and Napster was still big, I downloaded this routine as an audio file and listened to it repeatedly until I had most of it memorized. For whatever faults it has, it is a great illustration of Norm MacDonald’s dry humor. The routine finishes with MacDonald imagining what would happen to a poor guy who doesn’t know about rape in prisons being caught by surprise: “But you know what hurts the most? It’s that I trusted you, that’s what hurts the most. Well, actually the, uh, anal rape hurts the most. But trusting you comes second. A distant second, I’ll tell you that.”

But the issue isn’t whether it’s funny – it most certainly is. The problem with prison rape jokes is that they minimize a very real problem. Like The Boondocks, MacDonald assumes that prison rape is unaviodable, that it is something we either cannot or should not do anything to prevent. It’s okay to laugh at these jokes, but we still must understand the effect.

5 comments

  1. Thanks for posting this– prison rape is a serious problem, and most Americans don’t want to know about it.

    I’d like to see your whole Third Reich Humor series, but there doesn’t seem to be any convenient way to search for it. Is there one? I’ve found 1, 3, 4, and 5.

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