Coming out: LGBT people lift the lid on life in prison
There may be up to 10,000 gay men in prison in England and Wales. Although a significant number of prisoners actively engage in consensual or coercive sexual relations with fellow prisoners, homophobia prevails. Officially the Prison Service has said that it “does not condone or facilitate sexual relationships between prisoners”, but every prison in the country has a “condom policy”, while staff generally follow the tacit “don’t ask, don’t tell” strategy.
This ambiguity and hypocrisy means that insights about the reality of the prison experience for gay men and women in prison are hard to come by..
When the Howard League for Penal Reform undertook an independent commission to review the nature and scale of sex in prison earlier this year, requests by researchers to speak to serving prisoners were blocked by the Ministry of Justice. Instead the evidence was provided by former prisoners..
One gay man explained how he was forced to live under the “protection” of another prisoner and subjected to “sexual torture” over a prolonged period. “I’ve wanted to talk about it for a long time,” he told the researcher, “but the means were not there. Because nobody wants to know, nobody wants to hear about this horrendous, horrendous abuse.”.
Another had no complaints, telling the researcher that, “prison was a fabulous sexual experience.”.
“I’ve never had so much sex. I was very popular, and I loved it.” Others said they had sexual partners who were outwardly “macho” and “anti-gay” and were sustaining relationships with wives or girlfriends through letters and visits – these were “jail gays”, they said, “gay on the inside”, but apparently straight on the outside. The commission reveals that little has changed since my own time in prison from 1984 to 2004..
As the years passed I became acutely aware of how painful, destructive and damaging the privation of opportunities for healthy sexual expression can be for prisoners. For five years I was a listener, trained by the Samaritans to offer a non-judgmental ear to fellow prisoners in distress. .
That’s when I learned how prevalent the suppression of sexual identity was in prison. Gay men ashamed of being gay, straight men feeling forced to pretend to be anti-gay. I saw transgender prisoners, already struggling to come to terms with their own complexities, left to the mercy of an exaggerated macho culture, trying to cope with being objects both of derision and desire. And through those 20 years inside, I never saw a single acknowledgment from the system that these were issues that urgently needed addressing..
A unique and enlightening new book of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) prison experiences, written by prisoners and staff from HMP Parc in south Wales, may finally bring about change. The book, Inside and Out, was the idea of the prison’s arts intervention and community inclusion manager, Phil Forder, himself a gay man who “came out” at work five years ago..
Forder has been running Parc’s monthly LGBT support group for more than two years. He brought in a creative writing teacher for a month, with amazing results, he says. “When the group read their pieces aloud at the end, you could feel the levels of trust building.”.
Forder, along with education and library staff, has been running a collaboration with the Hay Literary Festival for seven years, inviting authors into the prison. For this year’s Hay in the Parc, Forder invited the LGBT group to write about coming out. “I asked them to write their stories in the privacy of their cells and bring them to the group..
It was incredibly moving to see how much similarity there was, and the support and understanding generated as a result was obvious. It seemed only natural then to extend the project to include staff.” The result was Inside and Out..
Forder’s LGBT work in the prison has led to him being shortlisted from over 20,000 nominees for the positive role model award at this year’s National Diversity Awards..
His boss at the privately run Parc prison, director Janet Wallsgrove, expresses pride in what Forder and his colleagues have achieved. “This book is a statement,” she says. “It’s saying that we at Parc recognise and support everyone’s right to be respected as an individual. It’s both about tackling homophobia and challenging people who express views that are unacceptable and about getting people to feel comfortable with themselves and more motivated to buy into a rehabilitative culture in prison and in society.”.
In an era when good news stories about our prisons are rare, this courageous, pioneering book shines bright..
Anthony’s story Anthony, prisoner
I always knew I was gay – even as a small boy – but I also knew that in the Traveller community this was totally not acceptable and was seen as a mental problem. As a result I never spoke to anyone about it for fear that they would get angry..
Since I have come out there have been several attempts on my life by the Traveller community. I have been knifed in the hand (protecting my face), stabbed in the back, bottled over the head and hit by a car but, if anything, it has made me stronger. I used to think that being gay was wrong and felt ashamed of it, but I don’t anymore..
I’ve been inside now for 14 months. When I came into prison I never said either way whether I was gay or not. I don’t look camp so could easily pass as straight. Also I have photos of my children on my cell wall, so why would anyone think differently? My partner visits me every week with his sister. My partner’s family have accepted me as one of theirs, so much so that I see them as my own family now..
The only thing that does bother me in prison are the other Travellers. They tend to stick together in here as there is strength in numbers. The prison puts on regular events where my path crosses theirs, such as the Gypsy, Roma, Traveller support groups and Sunday mass. I still hold on to my Catholic faith. It means a lot to me..
I’d been in here about a year before my past caught up with me. I was walking back to my wing and I passed B block. As I did someone shouted out from one of the cell windows: “Anthony, you fucking queer”. I couldn’t see who it was but everybody in the the houseblock must have heard it. I wasn’t frightened, but more angry than anything that someone had the cowardly cheek to shout something out about my personal life and judge me for it..
They would never say it to my face. I went back to my cell and decided to put on a rainbow wristband I had been given by the equality team, which I’ve worn ever since. I’m fed up with having to hide and pretend. Although just a wristband, it is a big statement in here. A few people have raised their eyebrows but no regular prisoner has challenged me seriously. I guess I can hold my own on the wing..
Trans in prison Linda, prisoner
Before arriving here at Parc, it was like being on a motorway, only stuck in the slow lane, dragging along at a very slow pace, dodging scraps with others around me. It was not the sort of journey you would want to take. But it is your inner strength, self-belief and courage that keeps you getting up and carrying on, regardless of what other people think. In other prisons I often came to blows with men who picked on me. .
When that happened I never had any support from anyone else, not even others who were bisexual or gay. I think they were frightened that if they supported me they might get picked on in the same way as I was and get bullied..
The majority of prisoners felt that gay, bisexual or transgender people were sick and as a result you were constantly targeted just for being the way you are. Before I came here I did not believe that I would be treated the same as the other prisoners because I am a woman trapped in a male body. It was a surprise to be treated exactly the same, and staff have given me jobs..
The support is across the board, be it from the LGBT group, healthcare or wing officers. Having settled more into my gender, the journey on the motorway is speeding up and I am changing lanes. There are times I feel so relaxed and happy I am actually in the fast lane. It’s a lot down to the environment you are living in and the attitudes of those around you..
An officer’s view Ginny, prison officer
Maybe it’s because the gay community in the prison is rather small that relationships are so cliquey, or maybe it’s because this job is possibly only suited to strong individuals, that so many gay women fit in so well. I think maybe society expects women working in a prison environment to be gay.
On my first day of entering the prison gates after having been in the classroom with new trainnees for three weeks, I was asked by my trainer: “So do you fancy men, women or both?” This was said very openly and in front of everyone else. My answer was: “It depends what mood I am in”. This same relaxed attitude I have found in every department I have worked in..
As for the prisoners we have the pleasure of looking after, well, you get comments just like everyone else does. Some people will shout abuse through the window like “lezza” and “dyke” … but then a straight woman can walk past and they will call them a slag or a tart, so I never take anything to heart. I was told the other day by a client: “Leave some women for us will ya,”… news had obviously got out that I had a date on the weekend..
Cell relationship Daniel, prisoner
Being gay in prison is difficult. I have spent a lot of my adult life inside and although I am gay I never told anyone. As a result I have felt very lonely and alone. Other prisoners would crack jokes and say bad things about gay men and I would just have to listen. It used to get to me. I just wanted to get up on the roof and shout it out, but of course I didn’t because I was scared..
I am not the sort of guy that you would look at and say “he’s gay”, as I look like everyone else – a bit rough – and I have a reputation for being quite hard. But inside it is a different story..
One day I was working in the servery, dishing out the food, when another prisoner said to me “Come on admit it! I know you’re gay.” He was sort of messing about but I had had enough and snapped: “Yea! So what? What you gonna do about it?”.
He replied: “No, it’s cool with me, I’m still your mate.”.
But, pretty soon everyone on the wing was talking about it. During break this other guy came up to me and asked me directly, he called me “loverboy”. I went sorta [sic] nuts and said: “Are you taking the piss?” He backed off and after that no one dared confront me though I’m sure they all knew. This made me feel very uncomfortable, because if I started talking to anyone I was afraid that they would think that I was coming on to them, and make me feel a fool..
Eventually, I got two-ed up with another guy and we started a relationship. We thought no one knew but on a wing it’s hard to keep things private for long. I was really shocked when my personal officer asked me if I needed condoms and that I just had to ask. I was embarrassed. Also, other prisoners started asking: “Are you two gay?” I’d always deny it though it was, I guess, common knowledge..
We were in a relationship for 18 months. Then my pad mate got moved to another wing. I was upset as I cared for him. It was hard for us to stay in contact and then I got released..
I wrote to him regularly and got two letters back before I got recalled and came back to prison. I was looking forward to seeing him again. We were not on the same wing, however, and it wasn’t long before he was released. After that I never saw him again..
Don’t give up Mark, prisoner
I had a poem sent to me called Don’t Give Up. I find it helpful to anyone thinking of wanting to give up in life because of their fear of their sexuality. I have read the poem several times and I have done a drawing to go with it..
The drawing is about the way you are feeling if you haven’t come out about your sexuality, or you are scared and don’t know how to deal with it. It is a man stood there in tears not knowing where to turn and the bars are there expressing there’s no way out, or so he feels. This drawing could have different meanings to different people, but there will always be a way forward and a way out of the worries and fears you have in your head.