What it’s really like to be openly gay in prison
by Ryan Foster
Originally published in the Metro newspaper online on Monday 5 Jun 2017 7:00 am
At the end of a long police investigation, my legal team broke the devastating news to me: I was going to prison. It was for a peculiar business irregularity to which I had no defence in law. Anybody would be apprehensive about going into prison for the first time and I was scared.
Being gay in prison was an absolutely terrifying prospect – I’m an openly gay man and I didn’t know how to deal with that inside. Do I hide that fact and reduce the risk of bullying and intimidation, or be open about it and confront any issues? I decided to keep myself to myself and just get on with my sentence. However, after being moved to a prison closer to home, my story was out. There had been extensive local press coverage of my case and my situation, and it seemed every man on the new prison wing I had entered knew of me. And they all knew I was gay.
This, in a way, took away the difficult decision of whether to be open or not; but at the same time, it left me feeling very vulnerable. It was the feeling of being the new boy at school; every new arrival on a prison wing is assessed by the other inmates. Any personality traits that make you stand out could very easily be used against you and even prison staff can discriminate. On arrival, I was asked my marital status. Answering that I was in a civil partnership can only mean one thing, so the staff were all immediately aware. My sexuality carries no shame whatsoever for me, and I am fully comfortable with myself, but I do like to disclose such things in my own time and to those I choose to. Except, I no longer had that option. I had heard stories of rapes in prison, and what might happen in the showers. I’ve seen the prison films and heard all the stories. I didn’t want to be the wing ‘bitch’ and be subjected to rape.
Any fears I had were completely unfounded, though. Rape and sexual abuse does happen, but they are very rare. I know of one horrendous incident of a young man who was severely sexually abused because he was indebted to his abuser. He eventually took his own life and died alone in his cell. I truly hope his family never, ever, find out what led him to taking his own life and the true circumstances around it. After a number of weeks of getting used to people around me, I soon realised I was not alone. There were several gay men in prison with me – some completely open, some confided, and others wouldn’t say a word to anybody. The prison had an Equality and Diversity Team who helped minority groups within the prison, be that religion, age, ex-forces and LGBT. They arranged a monthly session for LGBT inmates where we could interact and chat openly for about an hour. It was a break from prison life and the chance to drop any pretence. One inmate in his early twenties said that, for an hour, it felt like he wasn’t in prison. Equality wasn’t the prison’s strongest point – top-shelf magazines could be ordered from the newsagent for example, but only heterosexual titles. Gay Times could be ordered but Attitude was considered too racy. They were trying to address this but even simple rule changes take an incredible amount of time in prison.
Inmates do form their own little groups, it’s more of a circle of friends than a clique. I was on a wing with 160 men; it isn’t possible to be friends with all of them – I had my circle of friends around me and we pretty much stuck together. One man in particular became very popular as he had substantial knowledge of the legal system. I was good friends with him and sometimes had to queue up at his door for a chat and a coffee while others sought his legal advice. His cell mate was jokingly referred to as his secretary. Anybody who got on with him kind of became part of a group of friends of Mr X. Prison is very transient, especially in Cat-B locals where inmates arrive straight from court and are then moved on to other prisons to serve their sentence, usually after a few weeks or months. People come and go every day and sometimes it’s heartbreaking when your friend is moved on. This happened to me a few times but one in particular stood out. We spent three months sharing a cell and got on very well. I was devastated when he was moved or ‘shipped out’. He’s still inside now and we are still in touch.
But just like in normal life, people associate with people they have something in common with. That could be age, religion or anything. There are those who run scams, extortion and gambling rackets – they seem to group together and are best avoided. Sometimes there would be a mass arrival from other prisons – whether that was due to refurbishment works or overcrowding – and understandably they had some common link and would group together. My fellow inmates were from a vast array of different backgrounds and had many offences behind them. There were the petty thieves, cannabis growers, drug dealers, murderers, fraudsters and pretty much anything you can break the law for. Prison doesn’t really differentiate between offences – you’ve broken the law, you’re going to prison, you’re all the same. That is exactly how you’re treated. Over time you may earn privileges, may get re-categorised and eventually moved to open conditions, but the crime bears no relation on how you’re treated, just your sentence and behaviour.
There is a sub-set of inmates who are housed in the Vulnerable Prisoners Unit (VPU). They are generally sex offenders, but not all are. Anybody who has committed a crime that was particularly high-profile, or not deemed ‘moral’, would be moved there along with inmates who can’t mentally cope with the general population, or have run up debts and would be at risk of a violent attack. Former police officers, prison officers, lawyers, celebrities and judges etc would be housed in the VPU. It’s very important to judge a person by how they are with you in prison, and not by what they’ve done. Some will be completely innocent, and some have committed the most horrible crimes you can imagine. You cannot let that enter your head – you’re all in it together and you have to make a life for yourself for the time you’re there. The worst inmates are the younger guys in for car crime, drug dealing and petty theft. They’ve probably been through the Young Offenders system and think they have something to prove. Some of the nicest, kindest and most trustworthy inmates I’ve met were serving very long sentences for murder. They have nothing to prove, a long time inside ahead of them and just want to get on with it with the least fuss possible. My first cell mate was a murderer – I was terrified but he was one of the nicest people you could meet.
I spent just short of two years in prison, and I never once witnessed homophobic abuse. Overall, the experience was, to describe it in a single word, bizarre. Prison is an alien environment and nothing like anything I’d ever experienced before. In my working life, I’ve stayed in some very nice hotels where just about every whim was catered for. I wasn’t expecting that in prison, but simple things like asking an officer for a toilet roll and being met with a blunt ‘no’ was an awakening moment for me. Prison is grim, there’s no denying that. But there is a real camaraderie between the men – it’s not all violence and fighting, there’s real friendship and mutual support because we’re all in it together, which was something I really wasn’t expecting. I made some lifelong friends – real true friends – inside. Some, I won’t see again for many years as they serve out their sentences.
For me, I survived prison, I was completely amazed at how different it was to what my expectations were. Being gay wasn’t really an issue and that’s what I feared the most. There were constant comments, innuendos and blokey banter, as you would expect in a male environment, but none of it was ever nasty – it was always in good humour, and even staff would pass ‘humorous’ comments. The banter between the guys was almost totally sexually natured, about who might do what to another. But being openly gay, I wasn’t a target because they couldn’t poke fun at me by suggesting that I was gay. I was asked by an inmate that, as a gay man, did I find him attractive. Another had a worry about his penis and asked me if it was normal because I must have seen a few. Being in prison changed my attitude towards prisons too.
I saw so much during my time inside that was very worrying – from blatant disregard of rules and injustices by the establishment, all the way to what I would say was corporate manslaughter – that were all covered up. Before going to prison and meeting the men in there, I had a little of the ‘lock them up and throw away the key’ attitude. I am completely the opposite now. Prison for most people is pointless. It’s a complete and utter waste of human life locking people away in small rooms, offering no rehabilitation, poor food, squalid conditions and then expecting them to leave as fully functioning members of society. My offence was a mistake; I crossed a line and broke the law, I accept that, and I don’t expect any sympathy. Prison didn’t do anything to stop that happening to anybody else, so it was, for me, pointless being there. That’s true of almost half of inmates – prison isn’t the right place for them. Around a third of inmates are mentally ill; they shouldn’t be there. It should be the reserve of those who cannot be trusted on the streets and are a real threat to society. Prison was grim on many levels, I didn’t enjoy being there and certainly wouldn’t want to return. But as a life experience, I’m incredibly glad I’ve been through it and it’s taught me a lot. I understand the dire state the criminal justice system is in and how it has been mismanaged for decades. And I now fully understand that the commentators who say it’s a holiday camp have absolutely no idea what they’re talking about.