Prison Rape: “That Check I Wrote Cost Me My Life”

“I’ve already accepted that I’m going to die, but before I do, I want to see justice in the prison system. The only way to help me now is to put an end to rape in prison.”

These were the words of Bryson Martel, testifying before the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission in 2005.

Bryson, convicted of check fraud, was repeatedly raped and beaten in an Arkansas prison. As a result of those attacks, he walked out of prison with a death sentence — not handed down by a judge or jury, but by the corrections staff who failed to keep him safe; Bryson contracted HIV because of the rapes.

Last June, he died of AIDS-related illness. “I know I had to pay the price for what I did, but I’ve paid double the price,” said Bryson before his death. “That check I wrote cost me my life.”

Tomorrow is World AIDS Day, when advocates around the globe will work to raise awareness about the need for universal access to treatment. Among those with the least access to HIV prevention and treatment are adults and children behind bars, resulting in a deadly connection between prisoner rape and the spread of HIV. Inside U.S. prisons, the rate of HIV is more than four times higher than in society overall, placing survivors of sexual violence at great risk for infection. In other words, prisoner rape constitutes both a public health and human rights crisis.

Despite the challenges he faced living in poverty and battling AIDS and leukemia, Bryson was an outspoken advocate for the dignity of all inmates. He joined JDI’s Survivor Speakers List and shared his story widely, emphasizing the shameful failure of prison staff to provide basic safety for inmates. Bryson also participated in JDI’s “Portraits of Courage” project — you can see his portrait and read his story on our website. “They took my life, but they didn’t take my ability to live my life,” he told the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission.

Find out more about the work of Just Detention.

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