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Words of Hope From a Prison Rape Survivor

Michael Joseph Booth tells his story of sexual abuse behind prison walls in order to help other realize that they are not alone.

Most people have a hard time believing that I was raped. I’m a 52-year-old man with thick arms and legs—at my peak, I could curl 100 pounds and squat 400—that are covered in tattoos. I make a living as a handyman near Los Angeles, my hometown. My friends call me the Hollywood Redneck.

For more than 20 years of my life, I was a ward of the state of California. When I was 28, I committed a violent crime that landed me behind bars. After I was released, I was locked up again, this time for grand theft auto. Mythird and most recent stint was for making violent threats.

I’ve made many mistakes in my life, some of which caused harm to others. I accept my punishment for those mistakes. But what I was subjected to behind bars far exceeded what was in my sentence. In 2009, while I was serving time at a state prison in San Diego County, I was sexually assaulted, multiple times, over a period of several days. The person who raped me was my cellmate. His criminal record was filled with acts of sexual violence, both inside and outside prison. It was also widely known that he preyed on gay inmates—like me.

Fearing for my safety, I gathered up the courage to speak with a prison psychologist, requesting to be moved. Nothing was done. The next night, my cellmate raped me at knifepoint. That was only the beginning: Over the next three days, he raped me repeatedly. When I tried to get help, the staff ignored me, or treated me with hostility; they acted like it was a “lovers’ spat.” The assaults only stopped after my attacker was taken out of the cell to get treated for chest pains.

Those four days of nearly constant sexual abuse almost destroyed me. In many ways, the emotional toll was far worse than the physical abuse. I fell into a spiral of depression that caused me to drop below 150 pounds. My immune system, already compromised by HIV—I contracted the virus prior to my incarceration—was weakened considerably. It was during the aftermath of the assault that my CD4 count fell to 150, marking a change in my HIV status: I now had AIDS.

I remember the exact moment when I began to understand that there are people who care about me—and the hundreds of thousands of other survivors of prisoner rape. It was almost three years ago today.

Over the next few years, two things happened that helped me rebuild my life. The first is that I got help. Through the prison library, I learned of an organization, Just Detention International, which helps survivors of prisoner rape. JDI put me in touch with local service providers and other resources to get me support behind bars, and prepare me for life when I was out.

The second that happened is I came to realize I wasn’t alone.

I remember the exact moment when I began to understand that there are people who care about me—and the hundreds of thousands of other survivors of prisoner rape. It was almost three years ago today. I got mail regularly in prison—from my mother, from advocacy groups—but, on this day, I was flooded with letters. They were holiday cards, each one from a person I’d never met. These were men and women who, as part of JDI’s Words of Hope campaign, had taken a moment to write to me and other incarcerated survivors across the country, simply to tell us that we were not alone. After reading all of the cards, I wept with happiness.

Last week, I reread a letter I wrote to JDI from prison, thanking the people who sent holiday cards to me. Here’s what I said to a man named David:

Your heartfelt support has been a guiding light through a truly dismal period in my life. I want you to know that with your help, I am again a strong and healthy person. Thank you for fighting the good fight.

I haven’t met David. I don’t know where he lives, or what he looks like. But I think about him often, especially over the holidays, or when I’m feeling down. And I thought about him yesterday, when I wrote my first holiday card to an incarcerated survivor as part of this year’s Words of Hope Campaign.

When I think about the inmates who will get my messages, it makes me smile. I know that their lives, and the lives of so many other prisoners this holiday season, will be changed forever by the people who take a few minutes to send some hope their way. People like David. People like me. People like you.

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