Pres. Obama Just Blasted the One Joke About Prison You Should Never Tell

July 14th 2015

At the annual NAACP convention on Tuesday, President Obama made an impassioned call for reforming the criminal justice system. He also made a call to end a joke that most Americans have heard or told in one form or another. 

"We should not be tolerating overcrowding in prison, we should not be tolerating gang activity in prison, we should not be tolerating rape in prison—and we shouldn’t be making jokes about it in our popular culture," the president said. "That’s no joke. These things are unacceptable."

The reality of rape in prison is a patently unfunny tragedy. According to Human Rights Watch, one in 20 prisoners experience the dehumanizing crime behind bars, and that statistic only offers part of the picture which, taken together, looks nothing like the comical sketch that prison rape is often portrayed as. The Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 aimed to rid correctional institutions of sexual abuse by providing federal and state agencies with "information, resources, recommendations, and funding to protect individuals from prison rape information." But that number has held high despite increased preventative efforts.

The Obama administration has made clear its commitment to criminal justice reform this week, starting with the president's commutation of sentences for 46 federal prisoners—namely nonviolent drug offenders—and continuing on Tuesday with his speech at an NAACP convention in Philadelphia. President Obama is also scheduled to visit El Reno Correctional Institution in Oklahoma on Thursday, another historic first.


The administration's renewed interest in issues such as mass incarceration, mandatory minimum sentences, and drug laws has been met with enthusiasm by several advocacy groups, including the NAACP. 

In his announcement Monday, Obama said he believes that America is "a nation of second chances," and that message was reiterated in Philadelphia, where thousands listened to the president's speech before civil rights advocates. 

"There is long history of inequity in the criminal justice system in America," Obama stated at the outset of his speech. "What has changed though is that in recent years, the eyes of more Americans have been opened to this truth. Partly because of cameras, partly because of tragedy, partly because the statistics cannot be ignored. We cannot close our eyes anymore."

The president called for reduced sentences for nonviolent drug offenders. In discussing the mass incarceration problems of the country, he explained how disproportionate sentencing for people who commit these crimes is exactly the reason why prison populations are increasingly overcrowded. "In far too many cases, the punishment simply does not fit the crime," he declared. 

"If you're a low-level drug dealer or you violated your parole, you owe some debt to society. You have to be held accountable and make amends—but you don't owe 20 years. You don't owe a life sentence. That's disproportionate to the price that should be paid." 

Another theme of the speech concerned racial disparities in the justice system. Obama pointed to research that shows how African Americans are "more likely to be stopped, frisked, questioned, charged, detained." The consequence of this pattern is that "around one million fathers are behind bars," he continued. "Around one in nine African American kids has a parent in prison." 

Not only did Obama call for a reduction in sentences for nonviolent offenders and an overall reduction of the country's prison population, but he also signaled his support for the reinstitution of voting privileges for former felons and an end to mandatory minimum sentencing laws. 

"Our criminal justice system isn't as smart as it should be," the president acknowledged. "It's not keeping us as safe as it should be. It is not as fair as it should be. Mass incarceration makes our country worse off and we need to do something about it."

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