The #MeToo Movement Has Reached Prison
Illustration by Hokyoung Kim
One day not too long ago, several other convicts and I sat in one of our sweltering prison day-rooms watching the communal television that hangs on a wall when a CNN news broadcast mentioned Harvey Weinstein and the #MeToo movement.
"What's the big deal," intoned a younger convict everyone calls Bugbear. "I mean, those bitches were dumb enough to go to that fucker's hotel room knowing what he was. They shouldn't have went. Dumbass hoes."
Some of the guys in the day-room laughed, mostly short-timers. But looking around, I saw that all the guys with any real prison time under their belts didn't appear amused at all, myself among them. After 22 years of prison, I felt like I knew something about what those women—and every other person who's ever had to work for or live with some evil, sexually demented boss—had to deal with. I felt like I understood why in some cases they might put up with the abuse for so long, why they may have "grinned and beared it."
That's because many prisoners have experienced it, too. Everything the system does to us convicts is designed to tear us down, to degrade us. I imagined a woman with a couple of kids. She needs a job. She has to keep a job to take care of her kids, to feed them and whatnot. So when she’s at work and her boss sexually harasses her, or grabs her ass, or whatever, she needs that job so desperately that she grins and bears it. That’s us, I thought.
I asked Bugbear how often he might have been told to do some crazy illogical shit by one of the guards and just put up with it because he felt like he had no choice.
He got quiet, but was still puffed up like a peacock.
When coupled with stories I’ve heard from other inmates, my own experience is illustrative. A guard once made me eat off the floor (literally). Others degrade us and don’t even know they’re doing it. Fifteen or so years ago there was a guard who used to stand in the chow hall and constantly belittle our food. She’d scrunch up her face and say things like: “That shit looks disgusting,” or “I wouldn’t feed that crap to my dogs.”
It wasn’t like we could go down the road to a different cafeteria. That’s why I can still see her disgusted face and hear her words after all these years: because she made me feel less than human.
But Bugbear just shook his head. “That’s not the same. None of this is the same. Those chicks. The ones that dude kept pulling his cock out on, they were actresses. They didn’t have kids, they didn’t need that money. I need the money from my job.”
“It’s not that simple,” I said. “How many times have you needed toilet paper to take a shit, but when you asked for it, the guard made you wait an hour or two? Like getting up out of their chair in front of the fan was too taxing, so they forced you to hold your shit. Screw you, you’re just a scumbag prisoner. In those actresses’ industry, men run the show, so if a woman wants to follow her dream and become an actress, she has to put up with shit from those powerful men, just like we do.”
“We should join the #MeToo movement,” one of the younger guys sitting with Bugbear blurted out.
I considered his words. And I thought of all of the stories over the years of guards and other staff sexually harassing inmates or pressuring them to have sex—I’ve even had to deal with those things myself.
Like many of those from the #MeToo movement, we prisoners have for years remained quiet about the abuses we’ve suffered. Some out of shame, others out of fear of retaliation, but most because that’s just the way it’s always been. The guards make it a point to label you a “rat” and destroy your peace of mind and what little you may own in a thousand different ways if you tell on them or one of their coworkers, yet when they tell on you by writing you a ticket, they’re “just doing their job.”
Just like with the #MeToo women, it’s a system-wide cover-up.
By the same token, we prisoners have also remained silent about all the many abuses we ourselves have committed against our girlfriends, wives and others. And that’s another thing the #MeToo movement is accomplishing: so many of us are beginning to discuss our screwed-up behavior, beliefs and attitudes.
When I was younger, I thought it was okay to slap any random girl on the ass. I thought it was okay to treat my girlfriend as if she were my property, instead of someone I loved. I thought it was okay to pass women around as if they were sexual objects to be traded, and not human beings who should be loved and cherished for their uniqueness.
If any of those thoughts lingered inside me, the #MeToo movement has helped wipe them out. The pain I saw in those women’s eyes on TV, the fear, the degradation—I never want to be responsible for making anyone feel those things.
It has been a real eye-opener, and not just for me. A Christian friend of mine who used to be a pimp—a real pimp—just the other day expressed to me how ashamed he feels for the horrible things he’s done to women, and admitted the #MeToo Movement had stirred emotions inside of him that he thought were gone forever. He told me that all the conversations we’ve been having lately about women and abuse have made him realize his “religious” outlook on women, in which the men are supposed to be in charge and women are supposed to do as they’re told, was something he’d been using to keep his mind set on dominating and abusing them.
Amazing, isn’t it, that a movement can ripple so widely?
Although the abuses I myself suffered all occurred when I was much younger, I still lack the courage to discuss them in much detail. This is not something that’s easy to talk about. But, thanks to #MeToo, we won’t allow our messed-up environment to keep us from growing and transforming into better men.
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Jerry Metcalf, 43, is incarcerated at the Thumb Correctional Facility in Lapeer, Michigan, where he is serving 40 to 60 years for second-degree murder and two years for a weapons felony, both of which he was convicted of in 1996.