Life behind bars can be a terrifying experience for anyone. For a person who is openly gay, it is often pure hell.
I won't ever forget my first 24 hours in jail. I can block out the faces of the men who sexually assaulted me, but I'm still haunted by what they did. The attack happened in a communal cell that held about 50 other people. I had tried to avoid being noticed at all. I found a quiet corner of the cell and sat down, hoping to become invisible. That didn't work. Two men approached me, and when I tried to stand up, one of them stood over me and shoved me back down. He said, "You ain't fighting back, is you sweetness?" I was terrified.
My ordeal took place almost a decade ago, at a facility in my home state of Louisiana. I had been picked up for check fraud. I was a scrawny 23-year-old, and it was my first time in jail. These factors made me vulnerable to abuse, but what really made me a target was that I was openly gay. After that first assault, word about my sexual orientation quickly spread in the jail. I was marked as fair game for more abuse. My attackers made it clear that if I tried to resist, they would kill me.
The staff at the facility could have protected me. They could have recognized that I was at risk, and that I should never have been placed in a crowded cell with men who were predators. Instead, they did nothing. Predictably, things only got worse. On my fourth day in the jail, one of my rapists informed me that he had sold me to another inmate for $20.
This was, in a word, enslavement. My body no longer belonged to me, but to someone else -- to my "husband," a rapist who totally controlled my life with the constant threat of violence. I was raped repeatedly. If he had gambling debts, he used me to pay them off. If he wanted sex, he used me for that. The constant abuse and degradation robbed me of my dignity, and, a decade later, I'm still fighting to get it back.
A few years after my release from jail, I got in trouble with the law again. This time, the fraud conviction resulted in an eight-year prison sentence. Just as before, I became a target. When I tried to file a report, an official told me that I deserved it. At the time, I might have even believed him. My self worth was gone, and I spent a lot of time hating myself. There were moments when I wondered if I should have fought back harder. But at the time, I was too petrified to fight, and too embarrassed to ask for help. My life was shattered -- and all because I forged a check.
But there is much more to my story than just hopelessness and despair. In recent months, I've taken steps on the path to healing. Last year, Just Detention International helped link me up with groups that provide services to survivors like me. JDI and these advocates also encouraged me to write about my story, which I've found helpful and cathartic. I also received twenty holiday cards last year from compassionate people on the outside. Those messages, all of them from people I didn't know, gave me a sense of hope and a faith in humanity I hadn't felt in years.
I have a long way to go before I can feel whole again. Even though I'm now in a facility where I am relatively safe, I often feel a deep anxiety and dread. I have flashbacks and nightmares regularly. It's also painful for me to think about all the other inmates who have to go through what I did, many of them also LGBT people.
Prisoner rape is a gay rights issue. A recent government survey found that roughly 40 percent of gay former state prisoners were sexually abused by another inmate. That number doesn't even include gay men who were assaulted by staff, or inmates who were too afraid to report, even anonymously. It can be hard to speak out when your rapist threatens you with a knife -- especially when no one on staff believes you or even cares.
My experience is depressingly common, but the treatment of inmates is a largely hidden problem. I hope that by telling my story, it can open a few eyes to the horrors of sexual abuse in detention. Even better, I hope that it will help end the crisis of prisoner rape, so no one else has a story like mine to tell.