The former operator of the G.W. Zoo, and star of Tiger King is apparently being deprive of medication and blood transfusions.
To those who haven't painted him a martyr, Joe Exotic of Tiger King fame is a selfish, entitled, cruel, and violent man.
Exotic—real name Joseph Maldonado-Passage—deserves to face justice not only for the crimes for which he was found guilty (murder for hire as well as killing and trafficking tigers), but for numerous offenses for which he has never been charged.
Along with various acts of animal cruelty, feeding people expired meat, tanking his mother's finances, and plying desperate young men with drugs in exchange for dubiously consensual sexual relationships, many people believe that Joe was responsible for setting the 2015 fire that killed eight alligators and crocodiles and destroyed Rick Kirkham's reality show footage. He is not a good man. But if we can believe even half of the details in the three-page letter Joe wrote to his "supporters, fans, loved ones"—which was recently obtained by TMZ—he doesn't deserve the hell he's currently living through. No one does.
If you prefer not to read the full extent of his suffering, a basic understanding of the cruelty and neglect within America's criminal justice system should give you a sense of what he's going through. He includes a description of his experience in Grady County Jail, where he was previously incarcerated and where he claims he was "stripped naked, tied to a chair until the skin came off [his] arms." Joe also invokes the memory of Justin Thao, a 20-year-old inmate who hanged himself in that jail in 2017.
Please sign our #petition so that #Oklahoma releases information about the death of Justin Thao. A jail sentence sh… https://t.co/wRfYhYqork— Justice4JustinThao (@Justice4JustinThao)1518006660.0
Thao was serving time for trafficking marijuana and was placed in solitary confinement where his screams for help were ignored for more than an hour before he took his own life. Despite taking place nearly a year before Joe's arrest, Joe presents the incident as though he witnessed it firsthand—"The cops beat him up. The screams for help will never go away." Still, the neglect that led to Thao's death is echoed in the experiences of any number of prisoners with neglected psychological or medical conditions—including Joe himself, who claims to be slowly dying from lack of medical attention.
Diagnosed with CVID (Common Variable Immunodeficiency) and anemia, Joe is used to monthly blood transfusions as part of his treatment—transfusions which Joe says he hasn't received since January, causing his body to slowly deteriorate: "I'm loosing [sic] weight, sores won't heal, I'll be dead in 2-3 months. It's like I've been sent to death row. They stopped all my medication except one. This place is hell on earth."
In April Joe was transferred to a prison medical center for isolation amid the pandemic—as his condition put him at higher risk. And while that transfer has seemingly not provided an improved level of care, the isolation is having its well-established effect: "They keep me locked down 24/7, with no phone, email, or comissary [sic] and you will never understand the mental abuse this does to a person." Joe goes on to bemoan the fact that people send him images of his husband, Dillon Passage, "having a party while I live this hell" and notes that he has had no contact from Passage directly, saying "the mental torture of being locked in this room alone and not even hearing Dillon's voice or a letter, I wish I could just have ended things when Travis [Maldonado] died."
While it's no doubt true that the intense suffering of solitary confinement is impossible to imagine if you haven't experienced it yourself, the traumatic impact it has on a person's psyche has been thoroughly documented. It can lead to hallucinations, paranoia, chronic depression, panic attacks, incidents of "derealisation," and persistent feelings of "impending breakdown." Calling it torture is not an overstatement, and it's no surprise to see Joe expressing suicidal thoughts considering the fact that in Texas—where Joe is currently imprisoned—the suicide rate for those in solitary confinement is five times higher than in the general prison population.
In the rest of his letter Joe displays much of the petty narcissism, delusional thinking, and spiteful nature viewers came to know through Tiger King. He claims to have done "nothing wrong," says that "the pandemic is over" and calls on everyone from Donald Trump to Cardi B to Kim Kardashian-West to help him gain his freedom. He complains that the staff of the G.W. Zoo—whom he mistreated and underpaid—has not written him letters of support, and he advises those who have profited off of his downfall to "remember how that knife went in my back, it will go in yours also."
He even wonders if he is "the wrong color" for his abuse to be acknowledged and—in perhaps the most unhinged line of the letter—equates himself to George Floyd, all but claiming to speak for him: "It's like George Floyd. His message got lost in the riots, my message got abandon [sic] for money and fame."
The final page of Joe's letter opens with two questions: "Am I stupid? Do I deserve this somehow?" The answers, obviously, are, "Yes you are" and "No you don't. No one does." Amid calls for foundational reform to America's policing system, Joe's letter is a reminder that we can't lose sight of the immense cruelty and mistreatment on the other side of our country's justice system. The conversation around prison reform has barely begun, and the testimony of prisoners (even awful prisoners) deserves to be heard.
In short, while Joe Exotic can't help but show us what an obnoxious, self-obsessed, and delusional man he is, we should be able to look past his flaws to do as he instructs in his letter's closing line—what Justin Thao's jailers failed to do: "Hear my scream for help."