Former zookeeper turned reality star and federal inmate says the US prison system is corrupt
EXCLUSIVE: Big cat wrangler and "Tiger King" star Joe Exotic says drug sentences should be capped at three years and that a "two-party" criminal justice system in the U.S. is unfair to the accused as he challenges President Biden to a debate on the issue.
He also told Fox News Digital in a phone call from the Federal Medical Center in Fort Worth, Texas, that he is innocent of the attempted murder-for-hire charges and animal abuse for which he is serving a 21-year federal sentence.
Exotic, now 60, was convicted in 2019 on charges that included trying to hire an undercover FBI agent as a hit man to kill his Netflix series rival Carole Baskin.
Behind bars, Exotic said he gets nearly all news from the outside over the radio or via email.
"It's not a fair system," Exotic said. "It's a two-party justice system."
He claimed that the system treats criminals more leniently in Democrat-controlled states — and too harshly in Republican ones.
"It doesn't matter, if I'm in Oklahoma, and I get sentenced by a Republican judge, I'm going to jail forever," he said. "If I get a sentence in, you know, New York, by a Democratic federal judge, I'm out in three."
He argued that plea bargains unfairly result in longer prison terms for low-income defendants than those who can afford private attorneys.
The poor people of this country are being blackmailed to plea bargain out," he said. "Use my case as an example. They indicted me with one charge to start with. OK, and I didn't want to plead guilty because I didn't do anything. So I asked for a trial – just like the Constitution says, I have a right to a fair trial. The minute you ask for that trial, they superseded me with 20 more charges."
He also claimed a profit motive encourages holding more inmates for longer periods and that sentences are too stiff to begin with.
"Sentencing guidelines is screwed up," he said. "I got sentenced by the same guidelines, as a 55-year-old man that has never been in trouble, as an 18-year-old who just robbed a bank – so I got no credit for being a not even a speeding ticket in 55 years."
In federal courts, the guidelines are the same across the country, and criminal history does play a role.
In 2021, Exotic had a year shaved off his sentence after an appeal arguing that sentencing guidelines had not been properly followed in his case.
"I'm fighting every day just to just stay alive in my head. It's the mental s--- that you go through in here, that's what's crazy."
— Joe Exotic
"You should shut down and forget the war on drugs because you're never going to keep drugs out of America with an open border – or even if it's a closed border – between the crooked cops, the drones, the boats, the smugglers," he said.
"You can't keep drugs out of a five-acre, fenced-in federal prison. How the hell are you going to keep them out of America?"
Along with ending the war on drugs, he argued nonviolent drug offenders should get clemency after no more "than three years."
"This is nothing but a cesspool of corruption," he said of the federal prison system. "And if you don't arrive here as a drug addict, the chances are you're going to leave as a drug addict."
Exotic, who said he is running for president as a Democrat from behind bars, also challenged President Biden to a debate. He has previously said he was running as a Libertarian.
"President Biden just announced that he's now going to run for a second term," he said. "I'm legitimately a Democratic candidate, and I challenge him to debate me face-to-face on his failed promises of his last election that he was going to do prison and justice reform."
He blasted his own stalled appeal, the conditions of his incarceration and claimed that guards tied him down in a chair for so long "the skin came off my arms."
He claimed his prosecution came to "further an agenda" and pass the Big Cat Public Safety Act, which was signed into law in December.
After activists and celebrities successfully lobbied for that new law, he argued, high-profile advocates for criminal justice reform should do more in their push for results there.
He singled out Instagram and reality mega star Kim Kardashian, asking for her to look into his case while arguing that she has more influence than the past two presidents. He said her recent trip to a California prison alongside a group of young influencers and the REFORM Alliance, a group focused on parole and probation improvements, prompted him to speak out on criminal justice reform himself.
"Either shut the hell up or jump in with both feet," he advised. "Our lives are not a hobby. The system is broken and it's so corrupt."
Kardashian famously lobbied former President Trump on several criminal justice reform measures – including the First Step Act, a bipartisan criminal justice reform bill that Trump signed in 2018.
However, Exotic previously criticized Trump's record on the issue, telling Fox News Digital last month that they amounted to "nothing."
"Let's see if Kim can use her 85 million followers to influence the political spectrum of this country to step up and do some criminal justice reform," he said. "She has more followers on just her Instagram alone than both President Trump combined."
Trump has 23.4 million, Biden has 17.5 million, and Kardashian actually has a whopping 353 million, larger than the population of the U.S., as of Friday.
Exotic, whose real name is Joseph Maldonado-Passage, also offered a health update.
He said that the prostate cancer he was treated for seven months spanning 2021 and 2022 is in remission, but that he is currently awaiting the results of another test.
I'm waiting on a biopsy to see if I have bladder cancer, which I hope I don't, because I'm going to throw in the towel and I don't know how much more of this I can do," he said. "I'm fighting every day just to just stay alive in my head. It's the mental s--- that you go through in here, that's what's crazy."