The thought of being a gay man in prison scared the living daylights out of me.
By: Anthony Stasso
After long negotiations with the prosecutor, my lawyer phoned me to break the news. I was being sent to prison for five years.
Even now as I write this, I can still feel a chill as I recall his words. “It’s the best possible deal. If this goes to trial, you could be looking at a lot more time.”
In my case, I had plea bargained down to a 60-month sentence on a drug charge that could have carried a 20-year sentence. The situation I found myself in was entirely of my making. I’m the one who made bad choices and own that.
I was given time to prepare and get my personal affairs in order (usually 60-90 days) and was ordered to self-surrender on October 12, 2005.
The thought of going to prison scared the living crap out of me. Worse, I feared that because I was a gay man, I’d be an easy target for abuse.
“Should I butch it up? Can I pass myself of as straight?” I remember thinking to myself. In the final analysis, I decided to just keep a low profile and avoid interaction.
Funny how plans don’t work out the way you think they will.
You see on the day that I arrived to the camp that’s part of the Atlanta facility, I discovered that every man in the compound knew the details of my incarceration. Moreover, they also knew that I was gay.
That last bit of information is one of the reasons why I decided to pen this piece. In prison, there’s no such thing as privacy. Not even a little.
What follows are 10 things I learned from the perspective of a gay man and ex-inmate at a federal prison camp.
FYI: there is a big difference between a camp and penitentiary. I just want to be clear about this because I’m sure the experiences are much different in pen.
My hope in sharing this is to offer a realistic snapshot to gay men who get sent to prison. Obviously, location matters so bear this in my as you read what follows.
1. Not knowing what to expect is the worse part
Despite what’s on television and in movies, you don’t need to worry about being someone’s “bitch” in prison. You also don’t need to be careful “bending over to pick up the soap” or any of those other BS stereotypes.
From what I saw, the attitude was be and let be. If you live by the mantra of mind your business and I’ll mind mine, you’ll have no problems.
The only time I ever saw people get into fights was when someone got too nosey. Every prisoner knows that if you are caught fighting, it’s an automatic trip to the hole (solitary confinement). It doesn’t matter who started the fight, both people go.
Finally, if you get caught fighting more than once, they can ship you off to a higher security facility. Nobody wants that.
2. Male on male sex isn’t common
I can’t say that men don’t have sexual relations with one another in prison because they do. I know that I did. But it’s a lot less frequent than what people might think.
When you are in a federal prison camp, there just isn’t lots of places to do it. When it does happen, it’s usually very fast and transactional.
Some men do go gay for the stay too but nobody uses the term “gay”. In fact, it’s not talked about that much. When the topic of sex does happen, it’s usually between guys talking about their women on the outside.
Finally, gay inmates usually stick together. In high security facilities, LGBT prisoners are often grouped. At a Federal Prison camp (at least mine), that’s not the case.
During the time I was incarcerated, “hooking up” with other guys happened maybe two or three times a year.
3. It’s not Club Fed
People think a Federal prison camp is “club fed”. I’m here to tell you that whatever you’ve heard on TV or in movies is a bunch of BS. It’s completely not true.
You don’t get a private room with cable television and a daily newspaper. There’s no sauna or spa. A massage therapist doesn’t come into give you rubdowns.
Because you have lots of open time, you can work out but there’s no state of the art gym. At my facility, there was a rundown basketball court by a shed, a quarter mile running track and a handful of crappy free-weights.
For exercise, you learn to improvise. Pullups, pushups, crunches and other resistance exercises using support bars (aka monkey bars) is the reality.
There was a tiny library and a small TV room at the end of each dorm area. Watching any television was difficult because of inmates all wanting to view different shows. Trying to get that number of people to agree on one program is an impossible task.
You can find ways to occupy your time. There’s reading, physical activity and visiting other inmates but that's pretty much it.
4. You aren’t treated fairly
If you make friends with guards, staff and counselors, you stand a better chance of being treated somewhat humanely. But even then, don’t expect fair treatment – particularly if someone with authority doesn’t like gay people.
Example. The staff is responsible for assigning jobs. If you are liked, you stand the chance of getting a good gig. But if they have a problem with you, expect something crappy.
In my case, I had to clean the bathrooms because the person who assigned work didn’t like LGBT people. He never said that directly to me but intimated it.
Things changed two years in when he was promoted to another facility. That’s when the new person assigned me a job as the clerk in the power house. Not bad because all I did was read meters and keep payroll records.
If you end up going to prison, always make friends with guards and staff. In the long run, you are better off.
5. Food isn’t horrible
You get three meals a day when you are in prison (at least where I was). They aren’t served at traditional times either. Here’s a typical day.
Breakfast (5:30 am) was grits, eggs, toast or bagels, occasionally bacon, and coffee. Lunch is served at 11:00 am. Menu varies each day. Dinner is at 4:30 pm with a varied menu as well: Example foods included baked chicken, cheeseburgers, hotdogs, soups, fried fish, corned beef, and meatloaf (sometimes). You can buy snacks like chips, candy, and sodas from the commissary as well.
Not to be stereotypical but as a gay man, I had some refined tastes in food before getting sent away. But compared to what I thought the food was going to be like (gruel) I must say meals weren’t as horrible as I had thought.
6. Cash money is NOT allowed
It’s pretty simple – if you are caught with cash in prison, it’s an automatic trip to the hole. My ex-boyfriend made the mistake of trying to send me $20.00 in the mail. I didn’t know he was going to do this because if I had, I would have told him not to do it.
In prison, everything works on the card system. In other words, you are given a kind of credit card with your with your prison ID info on it. This is what you use to make phone calls, buy things at the commissary or get items from the vending machines.
When I was there, you could have a maximum of $300.00 put on your card from family members or friends from the outside. They can wire it right to your account.
I barely escaped getting sent to solitary because of my ex-boyfriend’s well intentioned letter. Under supervision, I had to send the money back and write out directions on how fill up my commissary account.
And yes, the staff go through ALL mail. There is no privacy.
7. Horrible medical & dental care
If you take medications for a health condition, make a good list before your first day in the slammer. There are some pills that you can keep in your locker, like blood pressure meds. Others need to be handed out daily at the medical dispensary.
The doctors, nurses and dentists are extremely overworked. Thus, they treat you like a widget and are very uncaring. Don’t expect good bedside manner from them.
As a gay man, I prided myself in my pearly whites. But if you expect anything beyond a cleaning in prison, you are setting yourself up for disappointment. Cavities are treated but you’ll wait to get them filled unless you are in excruciating pain.
Should you develop a serious medical problem or experience a life-threatening event, they do transport you to a local hospital for care.
8. You live in an 8×8 box with 2 others
Remember when I said gay sex is uncommon at prison? The reason is that the cubes are crowded. At my camp, I lived in an 8×8 cube with two other guys. That’s extremely small just for one person when you think about it.
Inside, you get a metal cot and mattress, one metal chair, one tiny wall locker and if you are lucky, a small metal desk attached to the wall. They issue you one blanket, two paper thin sheets, a pillow, and a pillow case.
The mattresses are lumpy. Weirdly enough, you get used to them and can even get a good night sleep over time. But you need to get through those first couple of nights first. Between the stinging loneliness, nightmares about dying and intermittent freak outs about where you are, it takes time.
Walls of the cube are concrete. The floors are polished concrete. Depending upon where your dorm is located, heating and cooling can be a problem.
Some people have an extra blanket in their locker. You aren’t supposed to but it’s very common. Getting your hands on one requires bartering.
9. Prison economy is real
When you are in prison, you learn very quickly about the underground prison economy. Play your cards right and you can benefit from it. Try to scam someone and you get blackballed.
Here’s how it works. You wash another inmate’s clothes for a week and return his belongings folded to his cube. In turn, you go to the commissary and buy what he wants, like chips, candy bars or odds and ends.
I’ve been asked if sexual favors are done for the commissary. The answer is yes. The one advantage of being a gay prisoner is that you are sometimes approached for a barter. Example: A guy might offer to do something with you if he's broke. And before that ever happens, there has to be a high degree of trust between both men.
Remember, privacy and space are a problem so it is extremely rare when guys do anything. When it does happen, it’s super-fast and usually very basic (oral or hand). It’s also done discretely – very discretely.
10. Prison boyfriends
I’ve been asked if gay men have prison boyfriends. The simple answer is yes BUT it’s not like the type of boyfriend you might think about on the outside.
First, the relationships are almost always kept on the DL, even if you are openly gay. And it’s not because you worry about getting your ass kicked. Instead, it’s about keeping whatever you have going away from staff. If they find out you’ve got something intimate going on, they frown on it because of prison rules.
The other thing about male prisoner relationships (at least at a camp) is that they are more emotional than physical. Having someone you can talk to and share with and trust is like gold.
That’s why such relationships are rare. Trusting anyone in prison is very risky. People will turn on you in an instant if they think it will benefit them.
The depictions of what they show on TV and in movies of same sex prisoner relationships wasn’t what I experienced. I had a “friend” but I would hardly call him my boyfriend, at least not in the traditional sense.
Other observations as a gay prisoner:
- Many people in prison have been there before. Some are gay and some aren't. There something like a 65% recidivism rate.
- Never accept gifts from people. There’s no such thing as “free” in prison. If someone leaves a bag of candy in front of your cube and you accept it, expect to owe something to someone. In many cases, I would leave the “gifts” sitting there. You don’t want to be in debt to anyone there.
- Don’t ask a lot of questions of other people. Sometimes just having knowledge can get you into trouble.
- I never saw anyone get raped by other men at the camp although it may happen in high security facilities.
Summing Things Up
Regardless if you are gay or straight, doing time in prison is extremely hard. Many of us felt the world had forgotten about us. I knew many men who never got letters from friends or family and essentially had nobody who cared about them.
Keeping a good attitude can help a lot. What got me through it was remembering I would eventually get out. You just have to remember the time will pass and do one hour at a time as mentioned in this book.
I will write another article down the road about what being in the hole is. When you are gay, it's a little different. I’ll explain why because it might surprise you.
MV would like to thank Anthony for his time in writing this piece and sharing with website visitors.