As played by Richard Roxburgh in the ABC program Rake, barrister Cleaver Greene (reputed to be based on Sydney lawyer Charles Waterstreet) is a charming rogue. His outrageous transgressions are forgiven by viewers just as they are mostly forgiven by his girlfriends, his ex-wife, his son, the best mates/cuckolded husbands, the judges and the Bar Association.
His drug addiction, his frequent use of women in brothels, the one-night stand with the not-quite-legal teenage girl and murderer – despite everything, viewers kept barracking for Cleaver Greene. After all, he is surrounded by characters more powerful and despicable – and far less witty – than himself.
Series two of Rake ended with Greene being sentenced to 13 years in the slammer for a contract killing gone wrong, with the murder of a "sweet old man" instead of the rip-off merchant targeted for a mere bashing. But the Rake’s legal skills and eloquence come in handy in the prison’s Kangaroo Court. The opening episode of Series three sees Greene rather reluctantly speaking for the defence in the "trial" of Tonto, on what he calls "a, quote, 'charge of trying to slip one up Paddo while they were on laundry detail', unquote".
The "jury" of cons finds Tonto not guilty, won over by Greene’s "slipped in the shower" defence. He explains that the incident occurred when Paddo, "in what may have been an innocent bout of rambunctiousness, flung a bucket of water over my client and himself, rendering them both sodden … My client slipped, instinctively grabbing Paddo’s shoulders to break his fall. My client has absolutely no form in this area, whereas we all know Paddo's reputation for receiving swollen goods."
The head "judge" in the prison trial, George Corella (Bruce Spence, chewing the scenery), opens the trial by announcing, "This is a very serious matter that could affect the cohesion of our community." But the result is case dismissed, with double entendre.
The scene is played for laughs, with the audience cued to join in the merriment of the "jury", who chortle as the double entendres are traded at a rate that would make Benny Hill blush. Greene explains the expression "slipped in the shower" as "an allegory, a conceit", and we are flattered that we understand what the tattooed cons probably do not.
So we can then laugh knowingly, without guilt, at what is parody, except that this parody of a trial even includes the successful use of a victim’s sexual history against him in court. Classy.
Later in the episode, Greene slips in the shower – literally – after stepping on a bar of soap while surrounded in the stalls by laughing, naked inmates. Judge Kieran Webster, lately imprisoned for his role in a land scandal, is taking his first shower. Despite being comforted by Greene, deadpan, that "first shower is a real chuckle, isn’t it", the Judge is so terrified at the implication of the sexual innuendos yelled at him that he wets himself. Judge Webster understands only too well what the chuckling foretells.
A 1998 study of sexual assault in Australian prisons by David Heilpern (Fear or Favour: Sexual Assault of Young Prisoners, drawing on a sample of 300 prisoners between 18 and 25 over three years) found that one in four young male prisoners in NSW prisons are sexually assaulted. A 2001 report on US prisons by Human Rights Watch (No Escape: Male Rape in US Prisons) found that one in five prisoners had unwanted sexual experiences and one in 15 had been raped. The US study reported that prisoners who had been raped were 17 times more likely to commit suicide than the inmates in general.
David Heilpern’s research identified sexual abuse in prisons as ritualised, not random:
"The usual pattern for a young victim is pack rape followed by a long-term protective pairing “relationship” where sexual favours are exchanged for safety."
Or as Greene tells Judge Webster in assigning him a shadow, "This is how things get done in here. We look after each other, okay?". This is how rape culture plays out in prison, its existence measured not only in incidents of rape, but also in the threat of rape as an instrument of domination, humiliation and control. That threat is conveyed both through violence and through "jokes" and chuckling.
Despite the confidence of officials like the Queensland Attorney-General Jarrod Bleijie that no prisoners are raped in state jails, it is likely that the incidence of sexual assault in prisons has not significantly declined since Heilpern’s original study. Prison reform activist Debbie Kilroy responded with incredulity to Bleijie’s claim of the non-existence of rape, saying that he cannot be serious.
Rape is not funny out here, and it’s not funny in the prison shower. Nobody ever jokes about being raped. But Rake licenses its audience to laugh at the sexual assault of others – at least until a young man is brutally murdered, and we are left to wonder if this is a drama or a comedy (the ABC site files the program under three categories: drama, comedy, and crime).
Because we are meant to identify with Greene, his wit and his erudition, we can laugh safely at the thought that some of the most despised members of our society are serving sentences not only of imprisonment but of sexual assault and degradation.