Last year I spoke to a guy named Shaun Attwood about making millions on the stock market and ploughing it all into a new career as a rave-organising ecstasy kingpin. One unfortunate side effect of selling drugs on a large scale, I discovered during our conversation, is that if the police find out about it, they're probably going to want to send you to jail.
While serving time for his offences, Shaun saw or heard about numerous rapes of inmates by their fellow prisoners – a major problem that he claimed isn't getting nearly the amount of attention it should from prison authorities. However, he told me about a friend he made who believes it's his Christian duty to protect weaker inmates from being sexually abused, and has been stabbed and beaten to within an inch of his life for doing just that.
T-Bone is a 6'5 ex-Marine who's become something of a legend in the west coast prison system for taking a one-man stand against rapists in American jails. He's currently serving time for robbery (he maintains his innocence), so I sent him some questions about his anti-rape crusade and the issues of sexual assault in American prisons.
VICE: Hi T-Bone. When did you first decide that you were going to make a stand against rapists in the prison system?
T-Bone: It was in 1986, when I saw a young kid of 18 being pushed around for food and being told to smuggle crystal meth and heroin into prison inside his butt. When the kid brought the dope in, the two guys who'd made him do it both got high and raped the kid, which made me decide to take action.
How common is rape in American prisons? As prevalent as TV and movies would have you believe?
It's very common, and it happens in a variety of ways. When I was in one particular prison here in Arizona, every single night someone was getting raped. All night long, I heard male flesh pounding against male flesh, guys getting fucked up the ass. Anyone who couldn't fight back was game. The rapists were the size of apes. They'd put the victim in a chokehold to make them unconscious. Regular guys – not homosexuals – were getting punked and were scared to admit it. I also saw big guys kissing little white boys on the lips and neck like they were women. Gang members would sometimes hold someone down and stick things in his ass – stuff like cans, soda bottles, shampoo bottles, broom handles or metal shanks.
Shaun has told me that your Christian faith played a part in inspiring you to take action against rapists.
My belief in God gives me the divine power to do all things through His spirit. Some people say that God doesn't hurt people and that I hurt those rapists on my own because I wanted to run things in prison, but I believe that God didn't tell the rapists I encountered over the years to force themselves on young inmates just because they could. I never ran across the yard and jumped on people because of their behaviour; I prayed, I talked to a lot of people on the yard who felt the same way I did, and I asked God for protection.
I'm not a Superman or someone special. God's power is much stronger than mine, and His will will be done. Making rapists stop hurting other people was God pushing and guiding me. I didn't win all of my fights with rapists – I almost lost my life more than once when I was stabbed and smashed in the skull with rocks in socks. I believe the only reason I'm alive is by God's grace.
Yeah, I've heard that you sustained quite a few injuries after sticking up for weaker inmates.
As well as being shanked and hit with rocks, I've hurt my hands a lot. I've been hit hard and had to take it easy for weeks until my body healed from blows and hits to the back of my head. I have several large scars, including one on my shoulder where I was sliced open. I've hurt my feet, knees, elbows, fingers and toes. I've had contract killings put out on me for being outspoken about issues that are common in the joint. I've been asked to leave yards. I've been locked down because certain people didn't want me around. I've found notes in my cell saying my life is in danger.
How did you end up in prison in the first place?
When I got out of the marines, I set myself up as a bodyguard and the cash started rolling in. I invested in the cocaine business and got addicted to it. I've lost over 20 years of my life due to the dumb decisions I made on drugs. I've hurt my wife and children by putting myself in here. Every time I've been released, I've come straight back. I'm not making excuses for myself, but most prisoners have drug problems and the prisons offer no help, drug counselling or rehabilitation. The system is designed so that prisoners come right back because it keeps the prison in business. That's part of the reason why there are more black guys in prison throughout the entire USA than are in college and more than were held under slavery before slavery was abolished.
Why do you think the US prison system has such high levels of sexual assault compared to other nations?
It boils down to human nature – people don't care about prisoners. Prison is a smaller version of what our society is like, with its extremes of power and poverty. There are laws in place to protect people in society, but in here, if a guy is forced to have sex, he has nowhere to turn, because if he tells the guards he's considered to be a rat, and that's worse than being labelled a punk. Rats get killed in here. That's why so much rape goes on but no one reports it.
T-Bone with his granddaughter in Tucson prison
Do you think the prison system could do more to protect weaker inmates?
The prison system does nothing to protect weaker inmates. It's a system that encourages evil.
There are a lot of racial politics within the US prison system – do you ever get any trouble for helping inmates of other races?
Yes, I've had to defend myself many times against gang members for helping inmates of other races. Here in Arizona's prison system, blacks are a minority. I experience pure hatred because of the colour of my skin. People seethe with vile contempt and want to kill me because I'm black, but I'm wearing the same clothes and doing the same time as them.
When I first came into the prison I'm currently in, glad to see a black man stop by, I said, "Hey, what's up, brother?" He replied: "Some of the white boys here are mad at you for smashing some whites who were raping a youngster at another yard. They said that was white-boy business and you shouldn't be interfering."
"How many brothers are on this run?" I asked, referring to black inmates. "You're looking at him," was the reply. "I guess I'm stuck between a rock and a hard place then," I said, wondering how best to defend myself.
Did they come after you?
Later that day, I was let out for a shower. Two whites approached me at the steps, making noise to attract my attention. Then, out of nowhere, another white inmate jumped on my back and put me in a strong chokehold – a precision attack. Another guy grabbed my legs and pulled me down. I tried to kick and pull, but someone laid across my legs and twisted my body to an angle that hurt my back. Another inmate held my arms down while lying across my middle. I could tell they'd done this before.
The first guy said, "Pull his pants down."
They started to yank my pants down, and I couldn't stop them. One produced a wooden broom handle shaped like a penis at the end. The sight of the phallus made me struggle with all my might, but I was pinned down too strong. Luckily, two Mexicans ran up the steps. One kicked the first guy in the face and I broke loose of the chokehold. He then spun around and stabbed a Mexican in the stomach. I leaned forward and hit the guy holding my legs down in the neck with my right hand. He tried to grab me, but I got a hold of his wrist, turned him over, pushed his arm up behind his back, dislocated his shoulder and snapped his wrist. I smashed his face into the pavement. I hit another guy in the oesophagus and he went down, then 20 cops materialised from nowhere.
Jesus. Finally, if you could change one thing about the US prison system, what would it be?
The prison system here has been set up not to allow God in. That needs to change, because God is love, and where there's love, there's peace.
Thanks to Shaun Attwood for putting me in touch with T-Bone. You can read about Shaun's own prison experiences in his new book, Prison Time.