Debunking Myths About Rape In Prison

Prison rape: it’s a common trope in television and movies. How often is the “don’t drop the soap,” joke casually tossed around?

But what’s the reality for sexual survivors in prisons? We spoke with El Jones and Mooky Cherian to learn more.

El Jones is a spoken word activist and teacher, and a former Halifax poet laureate. She is dedicated to using poetry in prison outreach and youth engagement.

Mooky Cherian has with Prisoner’s HIV/AIDS Support Action Network (PASAN) since 2002, doing harm reduction work in Ontario with the prisoner/ex-prisoner population.

Interviewer: What conversations in the media have you heard — if any — on sexual assault in prisons?

El: “I can’t say that I’ve seen anything in the media. What you tend to see is prison rape as a joke. People frequently saying comments like, ‘Oh, I hope he drops the soap…’ Prison rape is treated as always male-on-male… [But] sometimes there’s coercion between female and male guards. I don’t think people know that or think too hard about it.”

Interviewer: How are prisoners affected by rape culture?

Mooky: “Rape culture trivializes [peoples'] experiences. It turns into a joke. There’s this idea that [sexual violence] is a part of your punishment, and that you should get whatever you deserve in prison… Things like deprivation from health care or being placed in an environment where you become hyper-vulnerable to sexual assault — there’s not a lot of compassion from people who aren’t affected.”

“It['s] isolating for someone who’s experiencing sexual violence inside because society is saying, ‘you deserve that because you’re in prison’… There’s hyper-believing that rape happens to everyone inside prison, but also invalidating it and not believing and saying that, ‘Well, you’re just gay; you just want to have sex with guys’… And for people at the receiving end of [violence], there’s no option, no recourse, no support… And it doesn’t do you well to… try to hold people accountable, or press charges because your life becomes so much worse.”

El: “It’s hard to get accounts, , from men, because of . is a kind of control mechanism in prison… But at the same time, people have this idea of masculinity being very violent in prison — it’s not that way either. There’s a lot of hope… generosity between people, people helping each other out. This dehumanizing idea that prisoners must be animals, therefore they just go around raping each other — that nobody can control themselves, nobody has any kind of standards — that’s not true either.”

Mooky: “There’s a misconception that every single sexual act that happens inside is rape, that there’s no such thing as consent inside, which is completely not true. There is sex going on inside that is consensual and that people do want to have…. Because sex is criminalized, it makes it very difficult for people wanting it to try to get harm reduction supplies… It also creates this environment where a lot of people are having sex but no one’s it.”

Interviewer: What are the challenges you have seen in media reporting on sexual violence against incarcerated people?

El: “I can’t recall seeing any stories… A lot of women who are getting raped by guards, coerced by corrections officers, are certainly not going to talk about that. Especially people who are on parole: they can go back in… So it’s not coming from the inmates… There’s no conversation on rape or sexuality in prisons.”

Mooky: “When you look at rape culture in the prison system and how that intersects with folks who are trans, it’s really complicated… Essentially, folks are housed based on their genitals up until recently [in Ontario]… What that does for a lot of trans women is… that they’ll go inside and they’re being referred to by [men's names and male pronouns] and subject to all kinds of abuse, discrimination, transphobia, violence — sexual violence — from other prisoners or from staff.”

“The system was designed off of this gender binary model, and if you’re not someone who fits into either box ‘A’ or ‘B,’ or if you’re a genderfluid person or genderqueer person — those types of institutions are really not made to meet ’s needs — but they’re certainly not meant to meet your needs. I also don’t want to see trans people inside as victims only.”

Interviewer: Most survivors do not report. Why is it important to show representations of survivorship?

Mooky: “I’ve never worked closely with anyone inside who has not a lot of abuse growing up, or extreme neglect: violence, sexual violence, incest… I’m working with a population who has such a disproportionate amount of unaddressed and unacknowledged trauma… It’s an intense thing to put people who have those collective experiences inside of an environment where they’re more likely to experience things like that, and without any type of support or recourse whatsoever.”

El: “We have this huge population of indigenous inmates, which is a result of colonization and sexual violence, and then the violence of the prison system is put on top of that… There’s 500 years of violence, including sexual violence.”

Interviewer: There’s been a swell in media coverage of rape culture recently. What do we still need to address?

El: “The way [many feminists] think of combatting rape is through the prison system… But we don’t talk about what happens to someone who’s convicted of rape [once they're] in prison and how vulnerable that person is… Is the way to hold rapists accountable through the prison system, knowing what our prison system does?… I’m not pro-rape. But I’m also not pro-prison.”

“Prisoners need to be centred and given that space to be recognized as people that are capable of speaking.”

Mooky: “Talking about sexual assault in prisons is important. It doesn’t always fit in neatly with talking about other types of sexual assault. But we need to keep it on the table.”

This blog is part of a series of interviews femifesto is publishing on media reporting and sexual violence in diverse communities across Canada.

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