In the months after Joe Booth was raped by another inmate in a California correctional facility, he recalls, he wrote somewhere between 20 and 50 letters to law enforcement agencies, prosecutors, and advocacy groups, looking for some kind of legal avenue to bring charges against his attacker.
The only helpful response he received wasn't from a lawyer or government official, he said — it was an anonymous handwritten Christmas card from a stranger.
"Right at that point I was literally just ready to give up," Booth told BuzzFeed News. "I can't tell you what it meant to me at the time. …
"When you're locked up, and you're sitting in a cell by yourself, and people are telling you that you're everything but a child of god, and nobody is saying anything good about you, it just really helps to know that you're not alone."
Booth — who was serving a three-year sentence for attempted armed robbery and making criminal threats — received the card from Just Detention International, one of the human rights groups he'd written to for help, through a program for prison rape survivors called Words of Hope. Last year, Just Detention International said it mailed out 10,000 notes.
After he received his Christmas card, Booth began exchanging letters with staffers at the organization. He told them about his attack — how guards placed him, an openly gay inmate, in a cell with an inmate who had a "documented history of assaulting gay cellmates." They told him about Farmer v. Brennan, a landmark Supreme Court case for LGBT inmates who fall victim to sexual assault in prison. Booth was eventually able to bring a minor charge against his attacker, he said.
When he was released from prison in 2010, Booth joined the Just Detention International council of prison rape survivors. And on Dec. 13, he filled his truck with gas and once again made the 112-mile drive from Bakersfield, California, to Los Angeles to participate in the organization's annual card-writing day, joining staff and volunteers, but also formerly incarcerated people like him.
"I see the same people one time every year, and it's always at these card writings," he said.
It's become a therapeutic reunion of sorts, said Nicole Wolfe, another former inmate in the California correctional system.
"You talk about domestic violence or sexual violence or rape in prison, and you're talking to someone who's had that happen to them," Wolfe said. At this year's event, she saw two women she did time with.
In prison, Wolfe was assaulted by a nurse and correctional lieutenant, she said. A former attorney, she connected with Just Detention International in 2000 and consulted the organization on the Prison Rape Elimination Act, which Congress passed in 2003 but was not implemented until 2012. Wolfe testified before a joint Senate Committee and held webinars on prison sexual assault. And when Just Detention International began its holiday card program in 2010, she was among the first recipients.
"Mail is a wonderful thing in prison," said Wolfe, who used toothpaste to tape her cards to her prison wall. "You don't just get one tiny card. You get this big package of cards. It's indescribable."
"These people don't judge you. You just feel so much love," she said. "My family totally abandoned me, and it meant so much to get so much nonjudgmental love."
Wolfe said she served "17 years, 2 months and 6 days" for the attempted murder of her allegedly abusive husband. After her release in early December 2013, Wolfe was living in a homeless shelter — where she still received holiday cards that year. Now she's employed as a communications staffer at an organization for homeless women and children in California's Inland Empire.
While most of Just Detention International's card-writing day is devoted to transcribing messages received through its website, Wolfe and Booth said they also write their own personalized messages. When he talks about what he writes to victims still behind bars, Booth begins crying.
"I just want people to know they made it past the hard part. They survived a very, very hard time. They don't have to stand alone," he said. "It's hard enough just being deprived of being able to turn on the light or pick up a fork or a can of soda — things that I now take so for granted. It's hard enough being in that environment with the amount of violence that is in there."
When Wolfe writes cards, her messages usually say something like "Don't give up hope. It's not over," she said. "I've been where you've been, and you have more strength than you believe."
Jessica Testa is a national reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Jessica Testa at email@example.com.
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