Monday, May 02, 2011

Just like Club Med, but with more frequent shiv attacks

There's a blog post at This Ain't Livin' called The Myth of Cushy Prisons that is well-worth reading.  It focuses on the material conditions of the prisons themselves, but the way prisons are run is worth bringing up as well, because in that area the myth goes from being merely mistaken to downright nonsensical.

The popularity of the belief that prisons are some sort of swanky resort or the like- "country club" seems to be the most common term- involves some very weird doublethink, because the fact that prisoners are often subjected to horrendous violence and degradation while in prison is hardly some sort of secret. It's not even something people generally know but avoid talking about.

On the contrary, open acknowledgments of it are pervasive.  Prison rape is not an official part of the legal system, but it's so common and so tolerated that it might as well be. References to it, both serious and comedic, are ubiquitous in pop culture; referencing it is risque, but hardly shocking or taboo. Protagonists on prime time network cop shows threaten uncooperative men with it, and this is generally not considered shocking or unheroic because everyone understands- even if they do not say- that being raped in prison is a de facto component of many prison sentences.

Now, it's true that this sort of incoherence is not unique in political matters. As Roderick Long has pointed out, modern statism in general  depends on people's belief that the state is a peaceful, consensual institution and their knowledge that it actually isn't, existing side-by-side. But while the reality of the nature of the state is obscured by a veil of ideological obfuscations, that's not the case here. People may try to rationalize or justify or condone the prevalence of violence in prisons, but rarely if ever try to claim it's not violent, or isn't horrible for the victim.

It's also true that people trying to deny an intolerable reality can develop irrational, absurd, or blatantly and obviously self-contradictory beliefs to keep themselves going. But this isn't about denial- most people know about it and will acknowledge it if the subject comes up, and some outright revel in it. The subject is not taboo. People may not know the precise details of how prevalent it is, but it's widely understood that it is not a rare, unusual occurrence happening in a generally peaceful and safe environment.

If anything, there seems to be a positive correlation between openly acknowledging what prisons are like and the stated belief that prisons are "country clubs"; my own experience is that people who lament the overly luxurious conditions of the American prison system are more likely than average to openly chortle at the prospect of someone they dislike being raped in prison. Somehow, they're able to reconcile the two. Country clubs are less genteel than popular stereotypes have led me to believe, apparently.

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der Blaustrumpf said...

er here's a working link:

der Blaustrumpf said...

Feel free to contradict me, but I've observed that men are more likely to joke about this than women are. I guess that they are more likely to tell risque jokes in general, but do you have any other ideas why this may be the case? Is it the old chestnut that we joke about things that make us anxious?*

I also find it interesting that people are likely to joke this way about schoolyard bullying or parental "discipline" of children. On the one hand, children are considered spoiled and privileged because they are not yet allowed to assume adult responsibilities, but the abuse of them in that responsibility-free setting is considered comic and/or trivial. I suppose prisoners are also regarded as coddled because they have been forcibly relieved of the responsibility to earn a living.

*Right after writing that, I googled the anxiety thing, and got this:
Survivor Adds A Name, Face To Prison Rape

MARTIN: Lovisa, I want to ask you - as we said, this issue is made light of so often. I mean, it's movies, jokes. I mean, the first thing people will say if the issue of prison comes up is, you know, don't drop the soap. But why do you think something so clearly cruel and abusive is tolerated or is made light of?

Ms. STANNOW: I think it's partly that we tend to joke about things make us anxious, and sex certainly does, prisons do. And homophobia, I think, also plays a big part in these jokes, that they tend to be about male inmates raping other male inmates.

John Markley said...

Spam filter caught the first part of your comment; my apologies.

My experience is also that men joke about this more than women. A lot of it is anxiety, but I think a major added factor is this: To treat the issue both seriously and sympathetically entails taking adult male sexual vulnerability seriously. For a man, that means thinking of himself as a person who is vulnerable in that way.

But a proper man, as commonly conceived, isn't weak or vulnerable or passive in that way. Ever. A man who's vulnerable to sexual harm and trauma (or believes himself to be) isn't worth much as a man, by conventional standards. So, for a man to think about sexual violence and exploitation against members of his own sex in a serious and sympathetic way entails thinking of himself as- by those same standards- a failure as a man. The more a man accepts those standards, consciously or otherwise, the higher the potential psychological price.