Personal Perspective: Freed From Prison, But Not Free

Michael Booth

I am one of the 216,600 people who are sexually abused each year in prisons, jails, youth facilities, and immigration detention. In the fall of 2008, I went to prison in California for attempted armed robbery. I had been in prison before so I thought I knew what to expect. I was wrong. I never expected to be housed with a convicted rapist who would torture me repeatedly for days. I was already living with HIV when I went back to prison. The stress and depression caused by the assaults burdened my already deficient immune system and sent my body into a downward spiral. My diagnosis changed from HIV+ to AIDS. I was sentenced to three and a half years for my crime. I've served my time, but I'm still living a life sentence -- the nearly unbearable psychological pain that I carry with me.

My rapes -- like most instances of rape behind bars -- were preventable. California prisons are required to separate likely victims from likely perpetrators in their housing assignments. The person who raped me is a convicted rapist who had a documented history of assaulting gay cellmates. I'm gay and small statured and I should never have been housed with this vicious man.

I was scared from the first day I was moved into his cell. Before I went to bed that night, he tortured a mouse right in front of me. I told my psychologist the next day and she said she would talk to custody staff about having me moved. But it didn't happen.

The second night, he raped me for the first time. He pulled me off my bunk, held me down, and threatened me with a knife when I resisted. When it was over, he told me that he would kill me if I told anyone. He made it clear that he was serving a life sentence and had nothing to lose.

The following days were hell. Each night, he found new ways to humiliate and abuse me -- each assault worse than the one before. During the day, he would brag to other prisoners about what he was doing to me and offer to "pass" me along to them. They talked about me like I was a piece of property. I felt so low.

When I thought it was safe, I tried multiple times to get help from staff. They just made me feel like I was the problem. The officers ridiculed me and shrugged off my pleas for help. They acted like I was just complaining about a "lovers' spat".

Luckily after several days of this, my rapist was taken to the medical ward because of chest pains. I begged the first officer I saw to help me, but he ignored me. Luckily, a second officer who happened to be passing by took me seriously and got me out of the cell.

Now out of immediate danger, I began to sense the devastating consequences of the assaults. It was very difficult for me to deal with the overwhelming anger, stress, and depression. The emotional and spiritual defeat that I experienced led to a complete mental breakdown. My doctors tell me that the physical and emotional trauma from the attacks worsened my HIV status and resulted in changes to my viral load. When I entered prison, my viral load was undetectable and my CD 4 count was 700. After the attack, my viral load was over 70,000 and my CD 4 count dropped to around 200. I don't have words to describe what this decline meant to me; my attacker had shattered my soul -- and stolen my health.

I've heard of people who are HIV positive who go ten or more years without having to go onto medications. Before I was assaulted, my doctor and I agreed that I could be one of those people. After the attack, I had no choice but to begin a regimen. And once you start one, you have to stay on it. When I think about the inconvenience of taking daily medications and the side effects, I feel like my rapist robbed me of my future.

As I slowly started to regain touch with reality, I made contact with a human rights organization called Just Detention International. They are the only organization dedicated to ending sexual violence behind bars and they held my hand through the mail as I tried to put my life back together. They put me in contact with rape crisis services and were also able to help me find legal resources to seek justice.

I can be strong now because the folks at JDI, my mom, and some close friends believed in me. Their support gave me strength. I am also a much healthier person; my viral load is undetectable again and my CD 4 count is back up over 500. Even now, almost two years later, JDI still provides me with the support I need.

Not everyone is so lucky. Of the hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children who are sexually abused each year in U.S. detention, most do not get even the delayed response that I got from prison staff. Many do not have the benefit of support from family and friends. For them, the impact can be even worse than what I've suffered.

Knowing first-hand the devastation of prisoner rape, I want to make sure this kind of abuse doesn't happen to anyone else -- ever. The prison where I was incarcerated should have never let a rapist get near me. When he raped me, they should have listened to me and responded quickly and professionally.

It's not easy to share this story. But if another survivor of prisoner rape reads it and feels less alone, or if it inspires an AIDS service organization to become more involved with HIV-positive prisoners, or if it motivates anyone to contact a prison official or elected representative and ask what they're doing to end prison rape, I will have done my job. Through sharing my story, I know I am making a difference.