investigative/rights
Gay prisoners
“A system that punishes gay men twice”

The Prison Service’s much-vaunted ‘diversity drive’ has done little to improve the situation of gay prisoners. GT discovers what it’s like for men who are inside and out… By Sally Howard, additional research by Xav Judd

The determined handwriting, serried in obedient lines on the tissue-thin, prison-issue paper, belies prisoner VB5461’s broiling anger: “Through GALIPS [HMP’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Staff Support Network] the Prison Service cites itself as a Stonewall diversity champion for its commitment to prison officers and other staff,” he writes. “Well the Prison Service may well be supportive of its LGBT staff; but gay prisoners like me see little of this support. The system systematically fails the very people it is supposed to ‘care’ for.”

Simon Parks* is a 33-year-old inmate serving a four-year sentence at HMP Stafford, an unlovely, windowless monolith typical of 18th century British gaols. Parks has been aware of his sexuality since the age of 12, but it was only in the seemingly unsympathetic setting of prison that he decided to come out. Reeling from sentencing, Parks was ‘padded-up’ with another gay prisoner who was struggling with the conflict between his own sexuality and the unfettered homophobia of the testosterone-fuelled prison world. “On our first evening in the cell we came out to each other,” he says. “I had never told anyone that I was gay; it felt liberating.” However Parks’ initial exhilaration was short-lived. He goes on to describe his everyday life as one of the handful of out gay men at HMP Stafford:

“You have to realise that being in prison is like being in a playground 24 hours a day. If you’re open about your sexuality you become a target. Like all bullies the world over, the bullying is underhand and difficult to challenge. Not one day passes when a comment isn’t made – wood is thrown at me in the workshops, new inmates are told I’m ‘the prison queer’ and most prisoners refuse to use the shower when I’m there because a rumour has been spread that I try to molest men.”

However what smarts most, claims Parks, are the jibes from prison staff: “One officer in particular likes to make out he’s ‘one of the lads’ with the thuggish prisoners, and often comes out with disparaging remarks. I’m in VPU [Vulnerable Prisoners’ Unit, otherwise known as Rule 45], so the Racial Equality Officer is on my wing and, as a diversity team member, she should stand my corner. But when I complained to her, she told me that I should keep quiet about my sexuality as it would ‘cause problems’ on the wing. Naturally when I make a complaint to the governor it gets passed straight to her and she does nothing.”

The Gay Times regularly receives from gay prisoners that suggest Parks is not unique in his sense of isolation. Many are simple requests for magazines or pen friends (see below for details of our launching Prison Pen-friend scheme), but some read like a cry for help from a bleak mountain. Truly bathetic tales such as that of HMP Nottingham prisoner Tony Bidmead (printed on page one), whose story makes any reader’s heart clench with pity: “I am a very lonely person. I won’t be able to see my partner for another two and a half years, I’ve got no one and I’m basically stuck on one landing. I would like to go to the gym but I’m scared to go as other cons would say I’ve only gone down to willy watch. I’m fed up being called Faggot…Puff…Queer [and] made to feel like an animal and not a human being”.

Uli Lenart, of London’s Gay’s the Word independent lesbian and gay bookshop, often finds himself in written correspondence with prison inmates such as Tony Bidmead (change surname if you’re blanking it out). “The gay men who contact me for books via mail order often end up spilling their hearts out to me,” he says. “They feel overwhelmingly alone and often they just want confirmation that there are other men out there who are like them. For many of these men I’m their only contact with gay culture in the outside world. As a gay man I feel it’s my duty to do as much as I can for them, but wonder why official support is so conspicuously absent.”

Likewise Parks’ frustration with a system blind to his obvious dis-ease prompted him to reach further in search of support. “I wrote to Stonewall, who tried to reassure me they take the treatment of gay prisoners seriously,” he says in later correspondence, “but a number of letters asking for general information about support to prisoners went unanswered. GALIPs have also been patchy in their responses [GT unsuccessfully attempted to reach a GALIPs representative for comment, despite several attempts]. There is a gay prisoner support group run by prisoners, Real Voices, but I also found them difficult to make contact with. Small prisoner support groups are usually disbanded when the prisoner who sets them up is released, or moved on.” For Park, the most bile-inducing snub came when he attempted to communicate his complaints to the Offender Policy and Rights Unit: “I asked them what their policies were towards gay prisoners and was told: ‘The offender policy and rights unit has a responsibility for gay prisoners, but unfortunately no policy document has yet been formulated specifically to cover this group of prisoners…’” Parks continues: “It’s nice to know that forty years after homosexuality was legalised the Prison Service has come so far!”

Elsewhere the Prison Service’s institutional disregard of its responsibility to gay prisoners has darker implications. In a 1997 study, HIV infection rates amongst prisoners were found to be 15 times that of the British population as a whole and hepatitis infections 20 times as prevalent. The report, of course, is outdated, a fact that frustrates those working in AIDS prevention, who have been campaigning for a repeat study for several years. “The government won’t collect data in prisons,” says Sheonaidh Johnston of The National AIDS Trust. “They say that the money is better spent elsewhere and their approach is to estimate numbers of infections based on the number of intravenous drug users. Of course drug users are high risk, but this wholly ignores the existence of gay men.”

The issue that most exercises The National AIDS Trust – and the sexually active prisoners who are in correspondence with GT – is condom distribution. “Homophobia and fear of attack mean many men may not want to identify themselves as gay in prison,” says Deborah Jack, Chief Executive of The National AIDS Trust. “Having to go to healthcare, ask for a condom and face questions about your sex life stops some men from getting condoms when they need them. The Department of Health and the Prison Service must do more to ensure men in prison can access condoms privately and discreetly, and protect themselves and their partners.” Prisoners’ stories substantiate the complaint that – where condoms are provided – inmates face the ignominy of questioning and insensitive procedure: “A notice went up in May 2005 that prisoners could request condoms,” says Simon Parks. “It took two letters, many months and an HIV scare on my wing to get hold of any. I was eventually given two condoms with two plastic bags for their disposal. I was told I’d have to return the used condoms in the disposal bag, as the policy was two-for-two and that all applications for condoms would be recorded on my medical file. No lubricants were issued. It’s demeaning. Obviously most guys who aren’t out won’t ask for condoms for fear of being found out.”**

“Gay men are a reality and, by pussyfooting around the realities of life, the Prison Service gets mired in admin rather than action,” says Juliet Lyon of the Prison Reform Trust, are also campaigning for greater clarity in policies towards gay prisoners (can you check they want this latter fact referred to Jo?). “One of the main talking points in prisons at the moment is whether prisons are public or private space for the purpose of the national smoking ban; the debate being around whether determining them private space to allow prisoners to smoke has ramifications in the Prison Service condoning gay sex. Frankly, these are not the issues we should be wasting time with.” In Lyon’s mind, the Prison Service’s policies are wilfully myopic: “There’s an ignorance and a lack of resources. Transsexuals, for example, are often held in men’s prisons long on their way to becoming women. Life is not straightforward, but the mechanisms of prison try to make it so – artificially.”

This monolinear thinking often results in gay guys being advised to go under Rule 45 protection in Vulnerable Prisoners’ Units (largely peopled by sex offenders and former gang members). But in a 2007 press release Mark Clark, a former prisoner at HMP Wayland who set up the Real Voices support group for gay prisoners, warns against seeing VPU as a panacea. “Although the safety this affords allows prisoners to be themselves, it does nothing to combat the bigotry. Only integration and a zero-tolerance stance on any form of bullying will begin to break down barriers. Just because prisoners gay, they’re not ergo vulnerable… Recognising homosexuality in prison is one thing, but providing equal rights, privileges and opportunities seems beyond the grasp of the current so-called system.” A point echoed by Simon Parks as he signs off the last of his letters written on Her Majesty’s pleasure: “The Prison Service does have equal opportunities policies and is evidently proud that GALIPs is a Stonewall diversity champion but, when it comes to the Prison Service, to quote George Orwell, “all animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others”.’

Woefully out of touch with the realities of 21st century society the Prison Service, indubitably, punishes gay men twice. The Gay Times adds its voice to the rallying cry for the Prison Service to acknowledge, and act upon, its responsibility to gay prisoners.

Nathan’s story, HMP Hull

“I seem to spend most of my life in prison. When I’m out I break the law and my license conditions and find myself here again. My early family life was unstable, brought up in foster homes around Lincoln and was sexually and physically abused before this by my biological father. But I can’t use my upbringing as an excuse for the mistakes I’ve made in life. Part of my re-offending could be my sexuality – because I’m gay and I like being around all the men in here. Of course there is eye candy here, but I do feel isolated and lonely. I would welcome any letters from Gay Times readers as I want to stop my present self-destructive way of life.”

Roger’s story, HMP Lewes

“I served a two-month sentence. Eight months were spent in Lewes, a prehistoric prison built in 1853, with a single mattress and pillow on the floor between two of us and a loo in our cell where we sat to eat. It was squalid. The average age of vulnerable prisoners was much older so I didn’t stand out as being old, just for being middle class and gay. The worst thing for me was worrying about those on the out. I was a carer at the time for my 85-year-old mother and worried how she’d cope. For a few months I shared a prison cell with a first-time prisoner from the same sort of background and he had no problem with my sexuality. By the time he was released I had identified, meaning I’d found an ally in another prisoner, a Mister Big. There was a lot of banter against the openly gay guys. The officers were quite keen for one screaming poof called Zsa Zsa to share a cell with another young gay apprentice and they would camp around the whole time. Apart from that, the showers were known to be ‘out of sight out of mind’. There were a couple of rent boys but I didn’t go near them and they weren’t to my taste. The worst part for me was the lack of access to gay magazines; as a vulnerable prisoner I couldn’t have any sent in, although straight men had their cells decorated with lads’ magazine pictures. You could have a newspaper, but that had to be checked. I would recommend to any gay man when he enters prison to ask to be put on the Vulnerable Prisoners’ Wing. It has its limitations but, for an out guy, being in the main nick is living hell.”
The Gay Times
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