What Life Is Like For Joe Exotic Behind Bars

The following article includes references to addiction and allegations of sexual assault and emotional abuse.

There's quite a lot to absorb while watching Netflix's "Tiger King." The docuseries' first season alone gave us a polygamous marriage, a missing husband, a fake music career, a strangely shirtless interview, and a celebrity-connected, big cat-peddling peer, just to name a few of the jaw-dropping aspects of what viewers have witnessed onscreen. Needless to say, it's been a roller coaster of a real-life story. 

However, surely the most outrageous part of the docuseries has been the murder-for-hire plot. In January 2020, Joe Exotic (whose legal name is Joe Maldonado), the star of the doc and former owner of the G.W. Exotic Animal Park, was sentenced to 22 years in prison for selling cubs and killing five tigers. He's also spending time behind bars for attempting to have his nemesis and the woman behind a famous big cat sanctuary, Carole Baskin, killed. During a meeting in December 2017 with an FBI agent working undercover, as argued by the prosecution, Exotic struck a $10,000 murder contract, in which he apparently was recorded saying (via the New York Post), "Just like follow her into a mall parking lot and just cap her and drive off." 

Although Exotic has claimed that he never really wanted any harm to come to Baskin, the jury deciding his fate obviously didn't believe him, which is why he's now in prison ... and he's certainly been open about not enjoying his stay. Here's what life has been like for Joe Exotic behind bars.

Joe Exotic said jail is 'worse than you can ever treat an animal'

While Joe Exotic was initially taken to Oklahoma's Grady County Jail by the time Season 1 of "Tiger King" wrapped up, he was later transferred to a federal prison in Texas in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, before relocating again to the Federal Medical Center, Butner in North Carolina (more on this transfer below). Regardless of his whereabouts, Exotic has made it clear is that he's not happy with his circumstances.

"They strip you butt naked, put you in a six-by-eight-foot concrete room with no windows, no blankets, no nothing," Exotic said in a clip from the docuseries (via Newsweek). "I've been stripped of my clothes, my rights, my identity, [and] my dignity." In another clip, Exotic could be heard crying while saying that he needs to get out of the slammer. "It's worse than you can ever treat an animal," he said. "... I can't do much more of this." 

That's surely why he soon began appealing his lengthy sentence.

He filed a $94 million lawsuit and wanted a presidential pardon

Joe Exotic has long claimed that he's innocent and that he's had every intention of being released. "At some point the U.S. Attorneys office and Agents involved will have to answer to the fact that they participated in Perjury to obtain this conviction," he said in a statement shared on Facebook in January 2020. "I was punished for taking advantage of my Constitutional Rights to not plead guilty to their very well-orchestrated frame job of murder for hire."

According to The Blast, Exotic filed an appeal in federal court that March. He also filed a $94 million lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and against Jeff Lowe, his former business partner, and other colleagues. While he ultimately dropped the suit in August 2020, there's still one more thing: Exotic has long wanted a presidential pardon. "The Trump Administration must be made aware of the Overreach, perjury, abuse of power and the failure to uphold the Oath of their position which is truth and Justice for all," he wrote in another Facebook statement that March. "I have been illegally charged with these crimes and the Trump Administration, the United States Department of Interior along [with] the Federal Wildlife service must be held accountable for what they have done to me, my parents, and my family, along with my animals."

Though Exotic clearly remained upset about his circumstances, at this point, he was also supposedly enjoying the attention and support he'd attracted from celebrities like Cardi B.

The Tiger King was 'over the moon' about his newfound fame

Following the viral popularity of "Tiger King" in March 2020, the docuseries' co-directors and writers, Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin, spoke to the Los Angeles Times about Joe Exotic's reaction to his newfound fame. Apparently, the "Tiger King" star couldn't have been happier with it, as well as with how the doc itself turned out. While noting that the Netflix star had been calling him regularly, Goode said, "He's absolutely thrilled.

Chaiklin backed that up, saying, "You can hardly talk to him without him mentioning the amount of press he's getting. He says people are asking to see his Prince Albert [piercing] and girls are sending him sexy bikini pictures even though he's gay." With something positive to focus on amid his imprisonment, Chaiklin added, "He's over the moon." 

"Joe definitely did some horrible things to his animals. He was very abusive to them and he shot five tigers, no question about it," Chaiklin allowed, before going on to say, "But what has happened to him has also been hard."

Donald Trump let Joe Exotic down

When it was time for Donald Trump to release a list of presidential pardons in January 2021, Joe Exotic was ready. The Tiger King's friends had reportedly prepared a limo for him and waited outside the prison all day, but no pardon came. "I was too innocent and too GAY to deserve a Pardon from Trump," Exotic furiously claimed on Twitter. "I only mattered to Don Jr. when he needed to make a comment about me to boost his social media post." He continued by accusing the Trumps of only giving last-minute pardons to their friends and business associates, rather than anyone who had actually been locked up unfairly.

The woman he tried to have murdered had her own perspective on the outcome, however. "I'm taking a deep breath because I feel such a sense of relief," Carole Baskin told Fox News after the Trump administration left Washington, D.C., adding that she had been afraid of a last-minute pardon setting Exotic free ever since he first went to prison. "When today at noon a new president was sworn in, I felt like I was finally safe from that threat," Baskin continued. She also insisted that Exotic's sentence of 22 years was too light given the nature of the zookeeper's crimes, claiming that he should count himself lucky that he didn't get more.

Still, Exotic's campaign to win his freedom continued, as he swiftly turned his attention to President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris.

He has claimed that he was assaulted in prison

Joe Exotic has been outspoken about how miserable his experience in prison has been from the start. In 2020, the Netflix star alleged that he had been sexually assaulted at Grady County Jail in Oklahoma. In a letter to Donald Trump Jr. — which was included in Exotic's pardon case plea to then-POTUS Donald Trump and later published by TMZ — he asked to be rescued from these conditions and apologized for his handwriting, explaining that his hands had been damaged during the alleged attack. "I have been sexually assaulted by jail staff, beat up and tied in a chair to the point the skin came off my arms," Exotic claimed. 

Law enforcement sources claimed to TMZ that the allegations were completely fabricated: one federal prison insider insisted that "there was no such assault," while another source at the jail argued that it would have been caught on the surveillance cameras. However, in January 2023, Exotic opened up about the alleged assault again on the "Lauren Interviews" podcast, insisting that eight guards had allegedly overpowered him. "They beat the f*** out of me," he claimed, adding that they "tied me to a chair butt naked, put me in a shower for so long that I blacked out, and I woke up with skin off my arms from the straps."

If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN's National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

Joe Exotic went through a divorce

Although Joe Exotic went into prison happily coupled up with Dillon Passage, who had appeared in the Netflix documentary, they split in March 2021. "Dillon thinks having to sleep alone and not have me out there is so rough and hard to deal with to the point he has to leave me," Exotic wrote on Instagram at the time, insisting that he was the one who had really suffered during his time in prison and alleging that he had paid for Passage's comfortable lifestyle rather than his own legal defense. "All I ever wanted was to mean something to someone," Exotic added. "Why is that so much to ask?"

Passage later shared pictures of his new boyfriend, John, on Instagram. That August, Passage accused Exotic of emotional abuse and manipulation. "I started to realize I was another animal in a cage that Joe wanted to control that he could come to when he wanted to play," he insisted in an Instagram Live, further alleging that he wasn't allowed to see his family or friends during the course of the relationship. 

However, Passage also reflected on Exotic's generosity and reaffirmed his belief in Exotic's innocence. "I hope and I pray that Joe gets out of prison because he doesn't deserve to be there," Passage said. "He doesn't deserve to suffer in prison, but I also do not deserve to suffer in a relationship where I'm constantly being belittled and torn down and have things held against me and over my head."

If you or someone you know is dealing with domestic abuse, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233. You can also find more information, resources, and support at their website.

The Tiger King held an online version of The Bachelor

After his divorce from Dillon Passage, Joe Exotic declared that he was going to find husband number three in an online "The Bachelor King" contest. "Men over 18 years of age can fill out an application online to possibly be the next romance in Joe's new life," his website announced in July 2021, revealing that Exotic was on the hunt for someone to share his life after he was released from prison. 

"I have been through hell in three years and I intend on making my new life something I have always dreamed of," Exotic stated, adding that he dreamed of forming a new relationship and having an adventure with someone once he was free. "I want to share this with someone great," he continued, confident that his sentence would be overturned soon.

During the second season of "Tiger King," Exotic said with a laugh, "We'll see how many thousands of people apply." He reportedly received applications from around the world, but the winner was a young man from Arkansas called Seth, who Exotic described on the docuseries as "drop-f***ing-dead gorgeous." Although they couldn't meet in person, the pair spoke often over the phone and quickly formed a relationship. "The Bachelor King" contest seemed to be over — until a new man came into the picture.

Joe Exotic found love with another prisoner

The Tiger King has never had a straightforward, conventional love life — and that didn't change once he went to prison. After running his online competition, Joe Exotic then fell for another convict in the same prison.

In a letter published by TMZ in April 2022, Exotic explained that he had been with his new boyfriend, John Graham, for over a year and that they had gotten engaged in August 2021. He called Graham, who was reportedly interested in witchcraft and wanted to get married in an ancient forest, "extremely romantic and caring." Exotic also described their connection as being similar to the supernatural romance series "Twilight."

They were in the same unit at FMC Fort Worth and saw each other constantly before Graham was sent away, although Exotic clarified that they still spoke through letters and over the phone. In an Instagram post from February 2022, he spoke about Graham's struggles with addiction, revealing that his then-fiancé had worked on his sobriety and repairing his relationship with his son, John Graham Jr.. So even though they weren't in the same prison anymore, Exotic was still happy to give himself Graham's last name and speak about them being each other's family. "John Graham Sr. is my heart," he wrote. "I will now and forever love this man, with God's help we will get home."

If you or anyone you know needs help with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

He went back to his online boyfriend

Despite Joe Exotic's public declarations of love toward fellow convict John Graham, the relationship didn't last as long as the eccentric zookeeper had hoped. Graham, who had been imprisoned in 2012 for burglary and possessing a firearm, had been released from their federal prison in Texas, as Exotic's lawyer told TMZ in June 2022. The romance may have fizzled out once he was free, but Exotic insisted at the time that he would stay friendly with Graham and his son.

However, Exotic's feelings toward Graham may have changed by the time he publicly revealed his next relationship. In a now-deleted Facebook video, Exotic declared that he only dated Graham "because he was older and rock bottom," adding of the ill-fated romance, "But unfortunately it turned out to be all fake." Following this, the online contest winner of "The Bachelor King" — Seth Posey — and Exotic reunited, and the Netflix star described his on-again beau as "twice the man as the last two in my life" in reference to ex-fiancé Graham and ex-husband Dillon Passage. 

Exotic also joked that if this latest relationship didn't go the distance, he was going to blame Carole Baskin. "I don't expect anyone to respect this," he added, "but I would like to have everyone let me just be happy for a change."

Joe Exotic was diagnosed with cancer while behind bars

In May 2021, Joe Exotic revealed that he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer and argued that he should be released from prison early due to this medical emergency. "The prison has approved testing to verify what stage it is in," he told his fans on Twitter, explaining what symptoms he was already showing. "My body is tired, I have lost a tremendous amount of weight, the mouth sores are out of control, I throw up more than I eat." He also explained that doctors had found a tumor below the ribs on his right side and would be performing a biopsy, as well as other medical procedures like a colonoscopy and endoscopy.

Exotic didn't hesitate to use this diagnosis as part of his "Free Joe Exotic" campaign, now focused on President Joe Biden rather than entreating with ex-POTUS Donald Trump. "I don't want anyone's pity," Exotic said in another tweet, adding that what he actually needed was for Biden to let him out on compassionate grounds. Claiming that the Department of Justice was just as full of corruption as local police, he argued that the president needed to "make this right and sign that pardon that Trump left behind so I can go home and get proper medical care and proper food." 

That August, TMZ reported that Exotic might not have received that medical care, with attorney John M. Phillips stating that the prostate cancer could have spread to his pelvis and stomach already.

He was given a new sentence in January 2022

Since he was first sentenced to 22 years for murder-for-hire and violating animal rights law in early 2020, Joe Exotic has publicly insisted that he would be freed as soon as he had a fair trial. In July 2021, a federal appeals court did look into his trial and found that he should have received a shorter sentence, ruling that his two attempts to hire a hit on Carole Baskin should have been judged as one conviction rather than separately since they had the same aim, per AP News.

After the three-judge panel reached this conclusion, another federal judge had to decide how long his sentence should really be. Exotic pleaded for a shorter term due to his prostate cancer diagnosis, alleging that he wasn't receiving proper medical treatment in prison. "Please don't make me die in prison waiting for a chance to be free," he begged (via AP News). But Carole Baskin argued that she was still at risk, especially now that Exotic had an army of fans behind him, with the "Tiger King" docuseries making their feud public knowledge. "He continues to harbor intense feelings of ill will toward me," Baskin said.

In the end, the judge reduced Exotic's sentence in January 2022 by only one year to 21 years in prison, and his lawyers promised to appeal the decision.

Joe Exotic may not be receiving treatment anymore

After being diagnosed with prostate cancer, Joe Exotic was moved from his Texas federal prison to be treated at North Carolina's FMC Butner in late 2021. According to a letter from Exotic published by TMZ in February 2023, his doctor was afraid that it had spread to his bladder. 

"I want to stay here and just let it take its course," Exotic wrote of his disinterest in pursuing further treatment, claiming that he might become an example of how corruption in the legal system could lead to medical needs being overlooked. "If I have to be the one to die innocent in here fighting for the truth maybe people around the world will finally speak up for the truth for once," Exotic's letter read, concluding with, "I could care less about dying, my birthday is coming up soon and all I want is to see Seth."

Earlier that month, Exotic had already seemed to be planning for the worst, as he told TMZ of his funeral arrangement plans and that he'd asked for a Do Not Resuscitate order in his will in case of a medical emergency. He had also arranged for his fiancé, Seth Posey, to be the sole benefactor in his new will, with Posey's son next in line after him. Expressing his frustration with his ongoing imprisonment, but his gratitude for Posey, Exotic told the outlet, "There's so many of us in here that don't belong here — we should be out with our families, so I appreciate your support. Be my voice!"