All the way to hell and back in an American jail

While the authorities turned a blind eye, a man was appallingly abused by fellow inmates. His horrific story is almost certainly not unique

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Indy Lifestyle Online

Michael tried to commit suicide several times when he was in prison. He tried hanging himself. He tried an overdose. He tried slashing his wrists. Each time his fellow prisoners came to the rescue.

"They stopped me," he said, "because I was too valuable to die."

He was a tradable commodity during his stay at Menard Maximum Security Prison in the state of Illinois. For nine months he was a sex slave, raped between 10 and 15 times a week, rented out by inmates to other inmates in exchange for drugs, cash, alcohol or cigarettes.

The number of - as he put it - "customers" who took advantage of his services exceeded 50. On one occasion, on 22 August 1993, he said he was gang-raped by 15 prisoners in a shower. He has since been diagnosed as HIV positive.

His experience was almost unspeakable but hardly exceptional. An organisation called Stop Prisoner Rape cites numerous academic studies to estimate that 300,000 male prisoners are sexually assaulted in the United States every year. That estimate is considered conservative. No one is paying any attention. The general feeling seems to be, in this most retributive of Western societies, that bad guys have to take their medicine; that "you deserve everything you get", as he observed grimly. No one has ever been criminally charged in the US for raping a male prisoner.

He was set free on 3 January this year after serving four years and seven months for theft and lives now in a small, cluttered flat in the Chicago suburb of Crystal Lake, with three caged birds, a rabbit, and his wife. In a three-hour interview, he told his story.

The first incident took place on 15 May 1993, 10 days after he had been transferred from another, more benign correction centre to Menard. He was in a section of the prison where all the other inmates were black, all belonged to rigidly hierarchical gangs. His cell-mate was the leader of a gang called the Vice Lords. A small, skinny, light-skinned individual, he was known by the name Tyboo.

"We got up for breakfast and Prince Mike, Tyboo's bodyguard, came into the cell with another Vice Lords gang guy. Bodyguards came to pick up Tyboo and escort him out whenever he left the cell. That was always the routine.

"Tyboo had said to me a day earlier that he 'wanted a wife'. I didn't register at the time, but I quickly found out what he meant. Tyboo came up behind me, Mike started a discussion about something and the next thing I know I have a stinger [electrical] cord wrapped around my neck, and he's talking about 'take off my clothes', but even then I don't know why he told me to do that because he was in the process of doing it for me. I tried to fight and struggle, whatever I could do, but it wasn't lasting very long because I was losing oxygen. I ended up getting raped, by all three of them - anally and in the mouth.

"After that I was threatened. They said that if I told anybody I would get killed, and all that routine stuff. When they left, I brushed my teeth and washed off what I could because it was nasty. It was disgusting."

Nasty and disgusting quickly became routine, despite his efforts to fight back. "At first I fought, every time. I got hurt really bad. They put oranges and apples in a pillow case and beat me with it. They left no bruises but I had internal damage. I was vomiting blood. That was pretty much the end of my resistance."

WIRY, long-limbed, looking younger than his 28 years, Michael sat cross-legged on the floor, absent-mindedly stroking a cockatiel perched on his right shoulder, its periodic screeches intruding on an otherwise ordinary domestic scene. His blonde, attractive wife sat placidly on a sofa in T-shirt and jeans as he related his nightmare with the deadpan drawl of a mid-Western bank clerk recalling an uneventful day at work.

Tyboo arranged things with the prison guards ("the inmates run the prison, not the guards") for him to be transferred to a cell with a gang member called Johnny Cross, his pimp for the next nine months. "When it came to the issue of being sold by Johnny Cross, it would be a 'do it in 15 minutes and get back'. I had bodyguards with me. They would take me down to the cells I needed to go to, kind of like they were protecting their property, and they picked up the money - or drugs, or whatever - when I was done."

The emotional damage was evident in his attempts to kill himself. The physical damage, well before he learnt he was HIV positive, was appalling. "A man and a man are not designed to have sex. The pain and the agony of being repeatedly fucked like that, I can't begin to describe it. Imagine the most painful bowel movement times a hundred and you'll have a vague idea of what I'm talking about. When it came to my own bowel movements, after I was done I'd see parts of the inners of my rectum that had come out, and I had to feed them back in. I was torn to pieces inside because the customers wouldn't lubricate themselves."

How did he deal with it? How had he, apparently, managed to cling on to his sanity? "After a while it becomes routine," he shrugged. "Sort of like, 'let's get this shit over with, so let's go'. Though a part of me wanted to die, the natural impulse is to live and I figured that eventually I'd get out."

His wife, who had been largely silent, piped up now; she said that when she took stock of what was happening to Michael, six months after the horror had begun, she was physically sick for days: "What got me was that often it would be two guys at a time, one in front and one behind."

What also got her was the reason why he had been transferred to Menard. The two got married in October 1992, two months before his conviction. Now aged 43, she had been married twice before and given birth to four children, one of whom now has a child of her own. When, to her surprise, he was sent to jail, she "flipped". She decided she wanted a divorce, and, on learning the news, he was understandably upset. He says he was so upset that he started doing crazy things like smashing light bulbs, "scratching himself" and writing confused, rambling, gloomy letters tohis wife which the prison authorities intercepted.

This prison was a low-security institution, appropriate for a felon whose non-violent crimes included burglary and buying a car with a forged cheque. For his tantrums, however, he was sent to Menard, a prison with windowless cells built 45 feet underground in an old rock quarry. The majority of the inmates were murderers and other violent criminals condemned to sentences ranging from 30 years to life.

No concern had been shown to rehabilitate him. At no point did the judicial or prison authorities display any sensitivity to the fact that he had been brought up in a broken home, that he had spent his teens in foster homes and - periodically - psychiatric wards, that when he was cast out into the world aged 18 he was homeless and unemployed. None of that. They packed him off to Menard, an innocent thrown to the lions, and looked the other way.

It took six months of relentless mauling before he summoned up the courage to inform the authorities what was happening to him. "I told the guards, the internal affairs officer, everyone in authority that I came across. But they didn't care about me. Their only concern was that they might be able to use me to intercept the drugs flow into the prison." Finally, in April 1994, he was diagnosed as HIV positive and, following the intervention of a state senator in Chicago, was transferred to a safer, gentler prison from where he was sent to hospital to have warts in his rectum and genitals surgically removed.

On his release he sued the authorities at Menard for having ignored his repeated requests for help. The defence argument is that he took pleasure in homosexual sex and sold his favours to sustain a drug habit, charges he firmly denies. The case awaits resolution.

Michael and his wife remarried on 13 August this year. She works as a manager in a jeweller's shop; he seizes whatever part-time labouring jobs come his way. They appear happy, consoled and nourished by a shared and profound faith in Christ. So profound that his wife cheerfully admits they engage in unprotected sex. "We're hoping to have a baby some day," she smiled. "Not yet, but some day."

Her husband is convinced, and she believes him, that - no matter what the tests might show - he will not develop full-blown Aids, which happens to be the leading cause of death among inmates in Illinois. "I'm healed!" he said, suddenly animated, suddenly irrational. But not at all contemptible, because reason and logic can be trite, unhelpful faculties when a man who has endured the torments of hell is battling to return to the land of the living. "I don't take medication, nothing. I believe what God says. I believe the spirit of doubt comes from Satan and his dominion. I believe Jesus died on the cross for me so I would be healed.

"And this, this," he proclaimed, with the exultation of the saved, "this I believe with all my heart: I have defeated Satan. As Jesus did, I have defeated Satan, too."