Friday, September 24, 2010

Prison Rape

Yesterday was the sentencing of the young man who stabbed his ex-girlfriend at the school where I teach and I overheard someone saying, upon hearing the sentence and the facility in which he would be held, that he would surely become someone's bitch there. It caught my ear in part because I had been thinking about my friend Andy lately who passed away last year. He was a criminologist who in the last years of his all too short life had become a leading expert on prison rape for the bureau of justice statistics.

It is interesting that prison rape has become a cultural cliche. Comedians have overused the theme, in films from The Shawshank Redemption to My Cousin Vinnie it is used as a plot device, and my guess that if a "Family Feud" style question of the form "Fill in the blank: 'prison ______'" were asked, "rape" would be one of the top answers.

Why is this?

My guess is that it is our eye for an eye notion of retributive justice. We see it as turnabout -- even when the crime for which the person was convicted was not rape. This is because at a deep level, we realize that rape is not about sex, but about power. Prison rape especially is about enforcing power relations and we revel in the just deserts of the person who has been arrested being forced into the position of the person who is victimized from a lack of power.

Crime in the public mind has had different meanings at different times. In the 1960s and 70s, portrayals of crime and lives that had to deal with crime were focused on social stability, on the ability to live a meaningful life in a world of crime. The assassinations of JFK, MLK, and RFK and then the drug related crime wave of the 70s made places unlivable. Think of the effect in the opening sequence of Barney Miller in which the chief's wife opens the drapes to expose the bars on the apartment window. Nice people felt trapped by crime.

In the early 80s, with Michael Milken, Ivan Boesky and the wave of white collar crime, the concept of crime became about greed and the problem was not the transaction but being caught. Think of the portrayal of Gordon Gecko in Wall Street.

But in the late 80s, we began to see prison rape show up as a cultural icon connected to crime in the collective consciousness. Why? Like so much else in our culture, it comes back to class insecurity. We are not comfortable that we and our families will necessarily be able to maintain our places and lifestyles and this constant low-level fear hums in us at all times and creates a sense of powerlessness. That manifests itself in a number of ways, but leads us to resent criminals because being victimized exacerbates our sense of being out of control. We see criminals through the lens of control as those who wrongly seized it and seek revenge upon them by positing prisons not as a place for rehabilitation or for being kept out of society, but rather as a place where they will become powerless, where they will experience at the hands of someone else what it means to not be in control of your life or body.

It will be interesting to see whether in the next couple of decades, if the social dynamics change whether the meaning of prison to white middle class Americans changes as well.