Several months ago, state prisons in New York announced that they would be showing orientation videos to incoming prisoners, aimed at helping them to avoid sexual assault. We published the films, which were developed with grants stemming from the 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act, and then we asked the lawyers and advocates who work on prison rape issues to weigh in. On other websites, thumbs were up: Slate called the videos “extraordinary” and The Good Men Project called them “stunning.”
The most important critics, however, are the actual prisoners who watch the films, and since most of them haven’t seen them yet, it is too soon to tell whether the advice will prove beneficial.
But this isn’t the first time a prison system has shown educational films to incoming inmates on the subject of rape. The Michigan Department of Corrections premiered a different set of films in 2007. Made in the wake of the Prison Rape Elimination Act with funds from the National Institute of Corrections, these films continue to be shown to new prisoners in Michigan.
Like the New York videos, they feature older prisoners who give new arrivals advice about the tell-tale signs of sexual predators and encourage them to report abuse to staff. T.J. Parsell, who directed the New York films (and appears briefly in the Michigan films), said he utilized more input from real prisoners. The New York videos also have much slicker production values.
How have prisoners responded to these films?
“Everybody was laughing,” recalled the young man who would later be named in court records as John Doe 11. John is now a plaintiff in a lawsuit that claims the Michigan prison system failed to separate young prisoners from older ones, which paved the way for them to be sexually assaulted. (I reported on the lawsuit in a February story on the Prison Rape Elimination Act). He arrived at the Charles Egeler Reception and Guidance Center, the state prison that handles intake for the whole system, in January 2011. He had been convicted of robbery at age 17. All the new inmates — the “fish” — watched the prison rape video while seated together at long tables in a big communal room.
John had heard about the prevalence of rape in prison, but in that room his fears were quickly dispelled. Many of the men around him were older and had been to prison before. They were talking over the video and giggling at how out of touch it seemed. “You tend to learn from the guys around you,” John said. “When these older men are blowing this off, it can’t be that serious. I didn’t think it would happen to me.”
John was transferred to Kinross Correctional Facility in Michigan’s remote Upper Peninsula. About a month later, he was attacked in the shower. One man served as a lookout while another held him down. “I was just so young and weak I really couldn’t get a grown man off me,” he said. “He manhandled me and did what he wanted to do.”
John Doe 1, another 17-year-old who went to prison for a couple of home invasions in 2012, saw the same video upon arrival. It looked to him like a public service announcement from the 1970s, and he said the dated aesthetic made it difficult to take the film seriously.
The film shows a prisoner who finds a candy bar on his bed — which he knows is an effort to make him vulnerable to assault by indebting him to another prisoner. He shakes his head, takes the candy bar out to a common area and announces “Hey, I don’t know who left this here, but I’m not really interested.” John witnessed prisoners making jokes like, “If somebody leaves you a candy bar, you know what time it is.” (The New York videos describe such a scenario, but do not feature such hokey acting).
Parsell, who appears in the 2007 Michigan film for males, said he had heard prisoners called the latter the “candy bar movie.” As a result, he tried to get more input from real prisoners as he developed the New York films. The stories of the two Johns illuminate how even well-meaning interventions like Michigan’s prison rape education videos have struggled to make inroads in the cultures of prisons, and not just among prisoners. Both Johns said that guards also made jokes about prison rape, and a common note in almost all of the plaintiff stories in the Michigan lawsuit is of correctional officers who were indifferent to sexual attacks. John Doe 11 told me that regardless of the video, rapes will continue as long as guards are not more proactive. Officials at the Michigan Department of Corrections, through their spokesman Chris Gautz, have said, “We are confident the assertions made in the lawsuit are false and we are vigorously defending the department.” The case is ongoing.
Ironically, the Michigan film directly addresses the difficulty of getting new prisoners to take the risk of rape seriously. “I’m sure there are a lot of people who are going to watch this and sit in the crowd giggling and laughing,” one prisoner says. “Just be aware that some of those people are the ones to look out for.”