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Life as a Gay Man Behind Bars

“You seem plenty tough, Brian, but you’re not prison tough,” warned Mark, a public defender who represented me when I got a DUI back in 2006. “You need to suck up to the prison guards because you’re not going to survive the Aryan Brotherhood.”

I was/am acutely aware of what they do to guys like me — preppy gay white boys with delicate features — in prison. It’s estimated that roughly 200,000 people are raped in prison every year, the vast majority of whom are adult men since the vast majority of people we lock up are adult men. And a 2012 study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that 39 percent of men who identified as gay said they’d been sexually assaulted by another inmate compared to 1 percent of straight-identifying inmates.

That’s why Mark advised me to promptly join a gang if I had ultimately been sentenced to prison (luckily, I was not). Gangs are based on race, so as a Whiffenpoof (third from left), my options were probably the Nazi Lowriders or the Aryan Brotherhood, both aligned with the hardcore Sureños Latino gang. “I just can’t see you being successful doing that,” Mark says, rightly, when I reach back out to him last week. He adds that someone like me would be better off in the warden’s office as a “trustee,” which means wearing all white and sycophantically shadowing prison guards so that they’ll protect you.

In other words, I’m the guy they’ll rape first.

I credit my irrational, yet very real, fear of being raped in prison to a combination of things. First and foremost: Pop culture. Family Guy loves prison rape jokes, as do Get Hard, Let’s Go to Prison, Half Baked, Dave Chappelle, John Oliver and SpongeBob Squarepants. More than anything, though, my terror of being raped by a carousel of violent convicts stems from the Shawshank Redemption. I’d first seen it in college, shortly after agonizingly (and sloppily) losing my anal virginity, thereby swearing off my bottoming career for what’s going on two decades now.

I wasn’t surprised, then, by a recent study in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence that revealed gay guys are much more afraid of prison rape than straight ones. Led by Mina Ratkalkar, a clinical social worker for inmates before, during and after incarceration, the study sampled 409 male inmates housed in maximum-security prisons across the U.S. and found that gay and bisexual inmates are twice as likely to perceive rape as a significant threat. “Men have told me that they purposely get more tattoos, grow beards and become as masculine as possible to avoid any perception they might be gay or vulnerable,” she explains. She also clarifies that “rape” in prison most often comes in the slightly more nuanced form of “sexual coercion.”

No one is more aware of this than the 32-year-old Texan I happened to reconnect with a couple of months ago while emailing all 1,342 of the men I’ve encountered on Craigslist M4M. The Texan — who asked me to call him “D” here — had just been released from 27 months in federal prison for “transferring obscene materials to a minor” after he sent naked selfies to an undercover agent pretending to be a 15-year-old boy. He was found guilty, declared a sex offender for life and sent to the Federal Transfer Center in Oklahoma City, where he was placed in protective custody with 50 other sex offenders.

“I was constantly and relentlessly propositioned for sex,” he says, likening it to a shady dive bar with sloppy drunks whispering in his ear about “how sexy he’d look in a thong.” He was regularly asked “what color the biggest cock he’d ever taken” was. Prison guards warned D that he needed to protect himself, so he began “barking loudly” and “yelling in very large people’s faces” whenever they said sexual things. “There’s a deep assumption among both inmates and prison officials that if you’re gay, you’re going to be a sex toy,” he says. “This is the world we live in.”

Joanne Mariner, author of “No Escape: Male Rape in U.S. Prisons,” an influential, book-length 2001 report by Human Rights Watch on male prison rape in the U.S. (which is credited with prompting unanimous passage of the 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act, or PREA) says concepts like consent and coercion are slippery in prisons because they’re inherently coercive environments. “Consent assumes the existence of choice,” she explains. “When prisoners feel unprotected and know that their escape routes are closed, the question isn’t simply, ‘Did the inmate consent to sex?’ but also, ‘Did the inmate have the power to refuse unwanted sex?’’’

“J.S.,” a male inmate in Tennessee, explained in a letter to Human Rights Watch that victims are typically “groomed” over a period of time before being assaulted. “They’re tricked into owing a favor with the perpetrator seeming to be a really swell fellow,” he wrote. “Soon, however, the victim is asked to repay — right away. Of course, he has no money, and the only alternative is sexual favors.”

For D, that favor came in the form of shorts and underwear. “I was naive and didn’t know what was going on,” he explains. So when a friendly guy named Josh offered him a pair of shorts, he took them. (Inmates are issued only khaki pants, which D likens to a burlap sack.) Prison underwear is similarly prickly, so when Josh offered D a pair of his own boxers, he couldn’t refuse. “I was desperate,” D admits. “They even had his number in them. It was like I got prison hickeys. I washed them first, but then I definitely wore them. I said I’d pay him back.”

“Never, ever go into debt with an inmate,” warns Rich Subia, a veteran corrections officer who began his three-decade corrections career as a guard at Folsom State Prison in 1986, eventually working his way up to warden before becoming responsible for the operation of all adult correctional facilities in California. He explains that when inmates become indebted to other inmates, House Rules — i.e., the governing principles set by inmates — dictate only three ways of settling the debt: financial favors, illegal favors or sexual favors.

Mariner explains prisoners refer to the initial rape as “turning out” the victim, at which point he’s redefined as a “female” in the eyes of other inmates and regaining his “manhood” can be nearly impossible. A Michigan inmate named E.S. told Human Rights Watch he didn’t dispute it when someone claimed him as property. “He publicly humiliated and degraded me, making sure all the inmates and guards knew that I was a queen and his property. Within a week he was pimping me out to other inmates at $3 a man. This continued for two months until he sold me for $25 to another black male who purchased me to be his wife.”

Despite knowing him for less than a week, Josh told D he was “obsessed” with him and that they “felt like best friends.” Shortly thereafter, Josh’s roommate warned D that Josh “collects boys into his harem and slowly controls their will.” The harem wasn’t just sexual partners, he said, but also bigger men who could stand guard and block the cell-door window.

Josh memorized D’s schedule and knew precisely when he returned from his job in the prison bakery. One day upon return, Josh trapped D in his cell and jammed the base of the door to wedge it closed. “I’m going to fuck you wheelbarrow style,” he said. It will start like normal exercising, Josh explained, but morph into him fucking D while holding both feet like a wheelbarrow. D cowered in the corner of his cell, patiently nodding and waiting Josh out, figuring he’d eventually get bored of not getting the response he hoped for. When Josh eventually did leave, D barked, “You’re a fucking asshole! Stay away from me!”

That’s when things got exponentially worse. Josh’s gang of “Prison Mean Girls” began spreading rumors about him, whispering in the cafeteria that the guy who baked the muffins is in for fucking babies and HIV-positive. And one in particular — an older Aryan Nation member who’d been arrested for running underaged prostitutes — attempted to strangle D twice. After that, D says he always watched his back and was paranoid whenever guards “forgot” to lock his cell door at night. “I was positive they were going to rape me.”

Speaking of the guards, Mariner says many guards believe gay inmates are immune from rape since when a gay inmate has sex with another man it’s somehow by definition consensual. A lot of them also refuse to acknowledge the problem, she adds, because they don’t recognize that prisoners can be victims, too. “When I was writing that report I had state prison systems say they had zero incidents in years,” Mariner explains, “which is just absurd and completely inaccurate.”

Given that reality, one of the primary missions of Just Detention International is to change the prevailing attitudes and myths about sexual violence behind bars. Part of that involves calling people out when they make inappropriate jokes about prison rape. Like when the Kentucky State Police tweeted a public service announcement during the Super Bowl with a photo of a bar of soap and the text, “Enjoy watching Rob Gronkowski (TE) play but if you drink & drive … your tight end may end up in jail!”

Even more problematic, says Just Detention International’s Jesse Lerner-Kinglake, is that Americans have begun to accept — if not encourage — punitive punishment for those they deem to be particularly heinous criminals, whether they’re Larry Nassar, Jerry Sandusky or Donald Trump Jr. “Just look at the judge during the Nassar sentencing to see how baked in and pervasive the idea that this is a deserved punishment, despite the Supreme Court ruling in 1994 that rape in prison is illegal,” says Lerner-Kinglake. “Getting violently assaulted in prison simply isn’t part of the penalty criminal offenders must pay for their offenses against society.”

As for the Prison Rape Elimination Act, D says it has no teeth. While its aim was to create “zero tolerance” for prison rape, nothing ever came of his complaint about Josh, despite D writing #MeToo in graffiti all over the facility. “Criminals are expected to be rehabilitated while incarcerated,” D says. “How is that possible when coercive sex and rape is blatantly ignored?”

I ask Subia about the latest PREA report, noting there were 271 reported cases of “inmate-on-inmate nonconsensual acts” in 2016, a figure that’s been steadily increasing year over year. ”Those numbers are way off in my opinion,” he says. “The majority of the inmate-on-inmate consensual sexual acts go unreported out of concern of retaliation. I’d expect that number to be much, much higher.”

Like any civic crisis, Subia says this comes down to budgets. In an open dorm setting with 200 inmates and one staff member, it’s impossible to watch everyone at once, particularly if inmates work together to draw attention away from criminal activity. “Of course, rape is occurring,” he says. “Everybody knows that. But there’s no way you’re ever gonna stop it.”