Yesterday I noted some items related to the question of punishment and restorative justice in the American criminal justice system. And in the past we’ve looked here at the PowerBlog of the issues surrounding political and social activism on prison rape.

Now today Joe Carter, web editor at First Things, considers the Prison Rape Elimination Act and the broader cultural attitudes toward prison rape:

While such laws are a useful beginning, what is needed more than any legislation is a change in attitude by the American public. While jokes about conventional rape are always considered in bad taste, humor about prison rape is common and broadly accepted.

Joe makes an important case, and it is worth serious consideration. Given his position on water boarding and torture more generally, I’m sure that Joe agrees with what I’ve written previously on this issue: “Inmates are still people, and therefore need to be treated as such, with all the challenges and potential that face all human persons.” One of the things it means to treat someone with the dignity they deserve as a human being is to not subject them to conditions where the threat of rape is rampant.

With regard to the relationship between humor and prison rape, Joe is right to point to the double standard. One commenter on one of my previous posts contended, however, that “I don’t think the vast majority of people who joke or threaten about prison rape are seriously indifferent to it when it comes to making real decisions about the penal system. Instead, I think they are simply pointing out one of the ugly realities of any penal system.” You can judge for yourself the accuracy of that claim.

But I wonder too whether one aspect of why prison rape humor is so relatively prevalent in our culture is that, as Joe has noted in his always worthwhile 33 Things, comedy has something to do with “making immoral behavior seem harmless.” In this sense, then, the danger isn’t that humor about making prison rape seem moral, but rather that it makes prison rape seem inconsequential or “benign.”