During a recent stay at the Philadelphia Prison System I saw, first hand, how the gay population in a correctional facility so large is treated. A county jail in which inmates prey upon each other and the officers charged with keeping order are complacent and uncaring, the jail houses of the Philadelphia Prison System can be a dangerous place for anyone.
A distinction should be made between county jails and prisons. Prisons are maximum security facilities where convicted felons serve their sentences. A county jail or lock-up is where newly arrested people are taken to await bail or trial. Every person arrested in the city of Philadelphia is taken to the Philadelphia Prison system’s Curran Fromhold Correctional Facility, a holding and sorting facility where prisoners are kept on quarantine until they are either placed in general population or brought to another facility on Philadelphia’s famous state road prison complex. While there are some prisoners there serving sentences, the majority of them are awaiting trial.
The Philadelphia Prison System is deplorable and corrupt. Their main complex is a place where inmates who died in the night are left rotting in their cell for the next shift to deal with and timid or meek inmates are muscled out of their food, phone time or shoes. Survival there depends on macho posturing and talking tough.
Very little respect is given to the gay population in a metropolitan jail, except for from other gay men and the few guards and inmates who simply don’t care about sexual orientation. Unwritten rules and judgments are followed by both guards and inmates in this prison factory, where people are the raw materials.
I was held in a quarantine blocks, where new inmates, from joy-riders to murderers are held until they are medically cleared to enter the general population, then moved to a cell pod, a large open room with two levels of cells. I came to a cell and lived for ten days with a transsexual prostitute called Diamond. She stood out from the crowd in every respect, wearing cell-made make-up and undergoing hormone therapy, which had worked to give her a feminine appearance. She wore her long hair in a rubber band and had managed to buy a razor to shave her thick beard daily. Acclimated and accustomed to life in jail, though, Diamond did pretty well for herself.
Solidly built and openly defensive, Diamond answered threats from other inmates with threats of her own, which often quieted her assailants. Having eighteen stays so far in the jail, she worked out how best to stay safe. She was careful to never be too close to a crowd, avoiding the threat of being lost in it and victimized. She took care to never appear weak and always made it clear that she was not afraid to fight. She had been in quite a few, on one occasion having her front teeth knocked out and never replaced.
While most inmates ignored and openly disrespected Diamond, there were a few who, largely in secret, dealt with her. I often received covert gifts for my cell mate from admirers, not wanting to be seen talking to her. Seemingly straight men, who often went through great lengths to prove this, would give her food, hair products and stationery, among other tokens.
While Diamond did not fear the homophobia or heckles from other inmates, most every other gay or transgender man I encountered there were not as confident or outspoken as Diamond, particularly the young gay men. In a place where inmates smell out weakness and fear, to be gay and young in jail is truly pitiable.
The homophobia in jail was shocking to me most of all. This may seem surprising, prisons being famously dangerous for gay inmates. What shocked me was the homophobia itself, the actual fear inmates showed towards the idea of being gay. People, some of them Diamond’s devotees, went to great lengths to not be perceived as gay, from carefully covering themselves in the showers to hanging intricate sheet forts around themselves while they went to the bathroom, practices I found to be a waste of time.
When asked why I didn’t hide myself more thoroughly during showers or bathroom visits by an inmate I answered, “I have nothing to hide. How does someone else seeing my junk make me gay? If people want to look, that’s on them.”, which is true. It takes an insecure man to work so hard to prove something to others that you already know to be a fact.
Should a prisoner be found out to be gay in jail after concealing it the results could be devastating. People he knew, friends, would instantly turn their backs on him for fear of being thought gay himself. Any respect he had earned would mean nothing and he would be ostracized. People would say, “I can’t believe I shared a cell with that fag. If he comes in here again I’ll stab him.” Threats that were hardly empty.
There are rules and assumptions made in the jailhouse about gay/transgender inmates, one of which being that gay people in jail enjoy unsolicited sex, a notion introduced to me by one of the guards, a particularly mean woman with long braids. This idea is one of the most ridiculous things I had ever heard, but is a common idea among inmates and guards. The justification of jailhouse rape by a guard, a highly paid professional made me sick. The notion that anyone would enjoy rape under the threat of a homemade shiv is absolutely disgusting. I do not actually believe that anyone really thinks this to be true, but rather say it as a show of decomposition to gay inmates and solidarity among the homophobes.
Another general assumption that I discovered was that “fags only cell with other fags”, something I didn’t find out until Diamond was long gone and I gotten another cell mate. Being, for the most part, an accepting and laid-back person, I met my cell mate and stayed in the cell with her. I later learned what others assigned to her cell had done to be reassigned, what I was actually “supposed” to have done to not perceived by other inmates as gay. My course of action should have, like the others, been to loudly refuse to enter the cell with Diamond and pepper in a few death threats to show that I have no sympathy for the fags. This is exactly what had happened before my arrival on the pod, Diamond only having gay cell mates or straight men wanting sex before they were sent upstate, everyone else outright refusing to go inside the cell with her.
Gay prisoners do, however, have some shielding from the abuse of other inmates in some jails. They have the option to be put on an all-gay cellblock, which I witnessed. The day before I left the jail I was transferred to House Of Corrections, a minimum-security jail house built in the late 1800’s. A gay man, barely eighteen and tiny, was brought to a new cellblock with me. The block was guarded by three correctional officers and housed over one hundred inmates, all of them locked in their cells for 72 hours straight and crazy from the claustrophobia.. Towards the back, about a city block from the entrance to the block, was no man’s land, where inmates could be pulled into cells and no one could see or hear them. While being marched to his new cell towards the back threats flew at him from every cell on his way there. before he reached the cell it was decided he would be unsafe there and he was moved to the gay block. I was happy for him. Happy that he had been threatened to the point of breaking down and openly showing emotion, emotion that showed he wouldn’t last a day on the block. It resulted in him being moved somewhere safer, and I call that a win.
It is no surprise that jails are filled with bullies, bullies who prey on those they perceive to be weak. The group that bears the most oppression is by far the gay prison population. In a prison system as overcrowded as Philadelphia’s many young men, still discovering and becoming comfortable with their sexuality are harassed on a daily basis, sometimes assaulted and raped, purely over their orientation, cases of which I heard first hand.
A complex sequence of circumstances helped me survive in jail. My Latino appearance, which made me a part of the most closely knit culture in the jail, my 6’3 estranged nephew in the cell across from me and being placed in cells with reasonable cell mates who defended my heterosexuality fervently. All of this outweighed the idea of me being gay that floated around the cell block, to my stupendous luck.
In a country where homophobia and intolerance in general run rampant and prison reform is desperately needed the two national shortcomings come together intolerably for the gay/transgender man tossed into an overcrowded prison system. With a shortage of compassionate guards, and guards in general, the prison system can be a very dangerous place for a gay to exist. It’s a place where someone caught buying a bag of weed can be tossed in with dozens of murderers under the complacent watch of uninterested correctional officers. Those preaching the sophistication and freedom in America should be reminded that a society can be measured by the way they treat their prisoners.