I am a queer, Blackfoot mother of four kids, three dogs, two ferrets and one nonprofit organization. Once, I had an amazing career as a costume designer in the Atlanta entertainment and burlesque industry. But in 2013, I was arrested and sentenced to 12 months in prison. Theoretically, that’s nothing. Everyone told me I could do my time, come home and get back to my life as if it never happened. Before I left for prison, my brother said, “It’s a cake-walk deployment, Sis. You’ve survived worse.”
I was shipped to a prison in south Georgia. A few months in, I was attacked by another woman in our dorm. She slammed my head into the concrete floor multiple times. She kicked me repeatedly, giving me several prison-issue combat boot bruises before my dormmates pulled her off. I was knocked unconscious and bleeding on the floor. I awoke to find a security officer standing over me, smacking me in the face and yelling, “Get your ass up to medical or we’ll drag you to lockdown.”
In the medical office, the doctor said I had a concussion and bruised ribs but refused x-rays. He gave me two Advil and sent me limping back to my dorm. The following year, that doctor was fired after being linked to the deaths of at least nine women, and it was revealed that he had previously been sanctioned for medical negligence in another state.
Later, a prison’s special investigator took my statement. I told him that I wanted to press charges against my attacker. He said “Nope, sorry. We don’t do outside charges here. What happens in prison, stays in prison.”
I got up on a rainy morning, put on my browns (most people don’t actually wear orange in prison), and went to the gym with my dorm. I was walking laps with a couple of girls when the male officer approached us. He pulled me aside and said he needed to speak with me. Everyone knows that one-on-one interactions are not allowed between officers and inmates of the opposite sex. He said, “This will just take a second.” He grabbed the sleeve of my shirt and led me down the hall.
He said that he had seen another inmate pass something to me and he had to collect it. I told him that I had nothing. Chills ran down my neck as he eyed my body from top to bottom and said: “I’m going to check you out anyway” with a smirk. I knew what was about to happen to me. I kept my eyes down and refused to look at him.
The officer opened the door to a storage room. I remember the smell… sports equipment and a utility table. He pushed me into the room and shut the door behind him. I was terrified, I kept my back to him and my eyes on the floor ‘cause I was not going to have this man’s face burned into my memory for the rest of my life. That’s when I began silently counting.
I was shaking when he started groping me over my clothes in a twisted version of what he called a “pat-down search.” He got to the waistband of my pants and pulled them down to my ankles, then started rubbing up my legs with his bare hands. By this time, I was crying… “Please don’t.”
He grabbed me by the throat and shoved my head onto the table, pressing his thumb into my voicebox, making it impossible for me to make a sound. He knew where to push and the exact pressure it took to keep me silent without cutting off air or leaving a bruise. He seemed to have done this before, many times. I heard him unbuckle his pants. I felt him spit on my ass and rub his penis in it before penetrating me. It was so forceful that he damaged my urethra and I was peeing blood for days after.
While he was raping me, he said, “If you say anything, you will never see your kids again. I will kill you. We know how to make accidents happen here.”
It was over in 7 minutes and 34 seconds.
When he was done, I silently stood, crying, and tried to fix myself. He said, “Wipe your face off, girl. Next time you see me, you’re gonna beg me to do it again.” I was desperate to get out of his presence and determined to report him to security. Then my mind flashed back to what the prison’s special investigator said, “What happens in prison, stays in prison.” I knew there was no point in reporting. I told no one.
After that, I did not leave my dorm unless it was mandatory. I went home in November 2014.
I’m also a survivor of childhood sexual assault. In 7 minutes and 34 seconds, the barriers that held back my childhood trauma for 25 years were crushed. Instead of just the trauma of my prison rape, I now have nightmares of being assaulted as a 6-year-old as well.
What happens in prison does not stay in prison. Within two weeks of coming home, I had to move out of the bedroom I had shared with my partner for 13 years. My children couldn’t hug me without feeling me flinch. To this day, I am terrified of most men and never stand too close.
I watched the #MeToo movement unfold before my eyes. I realized that the #MeToo movement cannot exist in prison, because speaking out could cost you your life. Then I thought about the people I had left behind in hell, people that I love. Trans people suffer some of the worst abuses. I heard the head of security tell a trans man that he got raped cause he needed to be reminded that he was “born with a pussy…. that’s what pussies are for.” Officers often encourage trans prisoners to commit suicide — they might slide a razor under a trans woman’s cell door, or drop a bag of pills into a trans man’s property. This is followed by relentlessly telling the prisoner to kill themselves.
Here in Georgia we lost 11 transgender and gender-nonconforming lives in one year. Officers seem intent on increasing this number by adding deaths in prison. Officers will leave a trans woman’s cell unlocked, so other inmates could have easy access to her, betting on if the woman would still be alive in the morning. These women face my 7 minutes and 34 seconds 20 times a day. I poured my heart into purpose and by 2016 I had started an organization that fights for the safety and medical care of trans prisoners.
This essay is one of the very few times I have ever described my own experience in prison, and I am unlikely to do it again. The officer who assaulted me was sent to work in another facility and eventually fired because another woman he assaulted was brave enough to speak up. I still feel shameful about not protecting the women who came after me and shameful about not having the courage to report him.
Now, I have a secret habit of throwing my activities into spaces of 7 minutes and 34 seconds. I try to fill that time with positive things that give life instead of taking it. In 7 minutes and 34 seconds, I can send a supportive letter to a prisoner. In 7 minutes and 34 seconds, I can read a bedtime story to my grandson. In 7 minutes and 34 seconds, I can write the most amazing hate mail to Department of Corrections administrators and even the governor.
I have helped save and affirm lives in those 7 minutes, over and over again. What can you do to give life in that time?