After the 2016 mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando FL, our prison showed TV coverage of the tragedy. As the story played on the evening news, the choir leader at my prison stood up and applauded. He remarked that murdering gay people was justified.Nothing can prepare a person for prison — and especially for these kinds of indignities.
There are no reliable guidebooks, navigation systems or methods that are universally applicable. It is all trial and error behind bars; and for LGBTQ people, the stakes are high.
Like sex offenders, we are often a prime target for victimization. Jeers, taunts, and muttered threats are thrown at us by fellow inmates and prison staff. Too often, we are targets of abuse and violence.
Several years ago, I was the complaintant in a Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) charge against a corrections officer (CO) whose verbal abuse had reached intolerable levels. He referred to me and other gay people as “cupcakes,” “fairies,” “twinkletoes” and a slew of unprintable names.
PREA was designed as a “zero tolerance” policy to protect and prevent inmates from all forms of sexual abuse and sexual harassment by other inmates or staff. This includes verbal, emotional, and physical abuse.
I was assigned an advocate staff member, who met with me on a regular basis. But the investigating staff member made it clear from the start that I would not prevail; when it’s the word of an inmate versus a corrections sergeant, the former tends to lose.
Despite months of interviews, signed statements by staff attesting to the verbal abuse I encountered, and statements by inmates who also incurred abuse, the findings of the investigator were labeled “unsubstantiated.”
This episode is but one example of gay life in prison.
As the old saying goes: There are no secrets in the penitentiary. Your business is everyone else’s. Once it is suspected that two inmates are involved, one or both may be subjected to diesel therapy, an unofficial form of punishment where a prisoner is shackled and transported from institution to institution for days, weeks, or longer. Flags are typically placed in both parties files, and they are permanently separated.
PREA has not stopped rape or abuse behind the wire. In fact, the latest U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics data show that reports of prison rape tripled between 2011 and 2015, increasing from 8,768 reports to 24,661 reports.
Many people refuse to report rapes for the very reasons I’ve described. As the accuser, you are often made to feel as if you are not a victim but are at fault.
There is also the frequent and erroneous assumption that if you are gay, then you are receptive to sexual advances. I’ve even had people tell me, “Surrounded by all those men, you must be in heaven!”
Trust me, prison is not where one goes to meet Prince Charming, and being gay does not automatically imply sexual promiscuity.
I still remember my first night in prison. I was 31 years old and 128 pounds. I entered a dorm filled with cigarette smoke, blaring music and shirtless, tattooed, muscular dudes slamming cards.
When I walked in, all noise ceased, similar to a needle scratch in a Western movie. Every pair of eyes sized me up. I fully anticipated my first night in prison would be my last night on Earth.
Over 30 years have passed since that night in 1991. I’ve had many gay friends who have been raped, abused, and tortured. Some have died by suicide. Most will not report their abuse for fear of retaliation or of being placed in solitary confinement, stripped of human contact and most privileges. They instead choose to suffer in silence at the hands of stronger inmates and indifferent staff.
Attitudes and protections may be evolving on the outside. But in prison, life remains a Darwinian survival of the fittest, especially for gay people.
Gary K. Farlow is a writer incarcerated in South Carolina. This story was originally published by the Prison Journalism Project (PJP), an independent news outlet that trains incarcerated writers to be journalists, so they can participate in the dialogue about criminal justice reform.