Sunday, 6 November 2016

Being Gay and in Prison (Guest Post)

One of this blog’s most avid readers has kindly contributed a guest post on his own experiences as an out gay man serving a prison sentence. Hopefully this account will provide useful information for anyone facing time in prison in similar circumstances. 

“You’re looking at between 3 and 5 years.” Those few words changed my life. Forever.

Bad news from the QC
It was during a conference with my QC, barrister and solicitor that, after a legal battle lasting several years, it became apparent that I had no defence in law to a business-related offence and I was going to prison.

I had no idea of what to expect inside. I had never been inside myself, nobody I knew had been inside. All I knew was from TV (Porridge and the like) and violent US movies. I was terrified. Also, to add to my concerns, I’m gay.

My first few days inside were actually rather relaxed. After a long legal process, straight from court, I was oddly glad when the cell door closed behind me for the first time and the ordeal was over. For my first few nights I was in a single cell, I was able to put the legal turmoil behind me but I didn't know at that stage what the length of my sentence would be.

Being on an ‘induction’ wing I had no contact with any other inmates, no time out of my cell other than to collect food, no exercise, no showers, no TV, no kettle, no reading material, no personal possessions, no access to telephones and none of my prescribed medications were available. The prison was only able to provide smoking materials, for which I would have to pay over the coming weeks.

A few days later I was moved into a cell to share with somebody I’d never met, but whom I was well aware of. My legal team had worked on his case. He was a recently convicted fairly high-profile murderer.

Sharing a prison cell
We spent four weeks, 23 hours a day together in a small cell but we never really talked. I was certainly not going to ‘come out’ to him. Then, in a conversation with my solicitor some weeks later he referred to him as ‘Big Gay Nick’. It seems we did have something in common after all.

I was then moved to a pretty grim Victorian Cat-B prison where I was known due to local press coverage of my case. There was no way I could hide my sexuality, everybody seemed to know everything about me. I had nothing to hide, I’m not ashamed in any way whatsoever, but I’d rather tell my own story in my own time.

My experience there was incredible. Stories of dropping the soap in the showers, random rapes etc etc simply did not happen. Prison wings are very strange places. Keeping testosterone-fuelled, sex-starved men in very close confinement is a recipe for disaster. Coercive sexual encounters and even rapes do happen, but it is rare.

"Sex in prison is rife..."
Chris Grayling once stated that sex doesn’t happen in prisons. I have to admit to sniggering when I heard this idiotic comment. Sex in prison is rife. Being gay is probably easier than for the ‘straight’ guys inside. There were other gay inmates, some quite open, others not. Some in relationships, inside and outside. Indeed one couple entered into a civil partnership in a ceremony held within the prison walls.

There’s also the phenomenon of the ‘prison gay’. Straight in the ordinary world but anything goes in prison, given the choice between enforced celibacy or a little ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ sexual contact and relief.

More worrying is the issue of safe sex. Sex does happen in prison. Generally not safely. Condoms are available through healthcare. Whilst this is supposed to be anonymous there’s always an officer listening in on every conversation between an inmate and a nurse.
Condoms in prison: yes - and no!

Sex between inmates is banned, anybody suspected of having sexual contact will be separated, however, two inmates sharing a cell quietly indulging in consensual sexual activity maintains peace on the wing. Condoms are only available to those in a sexual relationship (which isn’t allowed) and so difficult to get hold of. Regular cell searches (pad spins) could reveal possession of condoms and clearly indicate the relationship between cell-mates. It wasn’t my finest decision to have unprotected anal sex with a recovering heroin addict in a prison cell. Prison does strange things to your thought processes.

Prison officers usually want nothing more than an easy life so such behaviour is often ignored. I recall one particular occasion when I was very much caught in the act and not a word was said by the officer concerned.

As previously mentioned I was absolutely terrified at the prospect of prison. Just prison alone, aside from my sexuality. I had to be openly gay but I never heard one single bad word said about me. Every single day there was blokey banter but nothing nasty.

Diversity and Equality in prison
The prison diversity department arranged monthly meetings for a couple of hours for gay and bisexual inmates. It was a chance to chat openly without fear of any retribution. They even arranged a buffet for us near Christmas. Admittedly it was only the usual dire prison food but it was served on a platter rather than in a carrier bag.

My time in prison was grim, it was unpleasant, it was – to be frank – horrible. However, I met some of the most amazing people I’ve ever met in my life. Several are very good friends to this day. I would never want to return but I can't thank the justice system enough for giving me the most amazing experience.

Nobody can appreciate the issues of incarceration unless they’ve been there. It’s horrible yet intriguing. I’ve met friends through work and the outside world, but I don’t think I’ll ever meet friends as important as those I met inside.