“Don’t drop the soap!” That phrase, with its origins in prison, has made its way into popular culture. Comedians invoke it, and even spin it. Chris Rock, for example, in one of his skits, talks about the “tossed salad” in prison. In the HBO Series, OZ, there’s an episode where not only is an individual raped, but the rapist also brands him with a tattoo: “Your ass belongs to me!”
Prison rape is real, and only recently have we as a society seem to have taken it seriously. The Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) was unanimously passed by Congress in 2003, a mere 18 years ago. Often, when we think of prison rape, we might think of an older person in prison, usually male, sexually assaulting a younger, more vulnerable person in prison. (There is the scene from the Shawshank Redemption where a new jack is repeatedly raped. One person comments that this is practically a ritual in prison, that it happens to almost everyone.) It happens in women’s prisons, too, with the added element of male guards raping the women in their “care.”
In the famous, award-winning prison news magazine, The Angolite (out of Angola Prison in Louisiana), a 1976 expose, “The Sexual Jungle,” spoke to the prevalence and horrors of prison rape.
People in prison, as a formerly incarcerated individual reminded me, often become desensitized to the brutality that’s present behind the walls everyday. Additionally, the famous prison gallows humor comes into play, where some laugh, because they are desensitized to the violence, and to prevent themselves from crying, which would show them as vulnerable and thus put on the “watch list” of those in prison who prey on others.
During the heyday of AIDS, a bootie bandit, as these rapists are called in prison, confided in me that he had to retire from being a bootie bandit, as if it was a profession, because of AIDS. He was notorious for seducing younger persons in prison, as young as 16, who had not yet discovered their sexual identity. (Those in the know will testify to the fact that this “seduction” is often the tactic used to rape younger people in prison.) This bootie bandit was well read, and in these matters acted like, and invoked, Roman Emperors, think Caligula.
Prison is the absence of ________ (fill in the blank with everything you hold near and dear, and you just get a glimpse into the world of prison, a place not only of brutality, but also ignorance).
Angela Davis, in her autobiography, If They Come in the Morning, writes that jails are “senseless places.” She goes on to write that they are senseless in the sense that no thinking is done by their administrators, and that the void created by this absence of thought is filled with nonsensical rules, and the fear of establishing a precedent, meaning a rule they have not yet digested.
To illustrate the point above, a number of years ago I was at a fundraiser of a friend who started a nonprofit organization serving women impacted by the criminal legal system. Ernie Hudson was the keynote speaker. As some of you may know, he played the Warden in OZ. He recounted how he got phone calls from real wardens, asking him for advice on how to run their prisons. I remember laughing hysterically, and thinking of the above quote by Angela Davis.
But prison rape is no laughing matter!