It's difficult enough for me to imagine being in jail: most of my images stem from old gangster movies in which the wardens are cruel to everyone, the tough guys are mean to the more innocent inmates, and everything is grey. With the onset of the television program "Oz" (which I've never viewed), there's a newer consciousness of the jail experience: extreme violence and sex between men, often forced, as a reality of incarceration. None of this prepared me for the real-life drama of a man named Angel.
In 1991, at the age of twenty-six, Angel was dating a man named Joe, twenty-four. They'd known each other for five years, and had been sexual for the last three. The attraction was mutual. "Joe pursued me equally as I did him," Angel said. Joe lived with his mother, who'd never approved of the "friendship." She had been vocal about her objections on a number of occasions, but the two men continued to see each other.
Until she pressed charges against Angel.
Joe had been diagnosed with a learning disability as a child. "Joe had a job, bought his own clothes, did everything for himself though he lived at home," Angel said. "True, when he tried to use big words he mixed them up a lot, but he seemed completely normal. No one thought there was anything wrong with him." Not according to Joe's mother; and, more crucially, not according to the law. She took Joe to the police along with documentation of his disability, and claimed that her son was retarded and being taken advantage of, sexually, by Angel. Shortly thereafter, Angel was charged with Sodomy One, a crime that carries a 15 to 25 year prison term if convicted. Angel's lawyer advised him to plea bargain: although he had absolutely no criminal record, the lawyer felt that the jury would sympathize with Joe and his mother, thinking that a retarded man had been, in effect, repeatedly raped over the course of three years. A bad image for a jury, indeed. The plea bargain sentence was four to twelve years, with a good probability of parole at the low end. Angel took the deal.
His prison horrors began on Riker's Island. "The Corrections Officers were worse than the inmates," Angel said. "They sold drugs to the prisoners, beat them, gambled, and ignored rapes. You saw a lot of used needles. I was lucky; although I was gay, I was able to hide it, so I wasn't prey to being raped. I did have lots of sex, though." Riker's Island has a separate section for gay men, nicknamed "Homo House." In this section you can have sex anywhere; no one stops it. According to Angel, "You sign yourself in on a form stating that you're gay. You sign yourself out with a reverse form, stating you no longer think you're gay and feel comfortable in the general population. Many times I signed myself in and out on the same day." I speculated that this must provide some measure of protection against rape, but Angel answered with a definitive no. "If someone wants to rape you, they can sign themselves into Homo House for the day, get you, then sign out again."
How about the situation of young people in prison, I asked? "Straight young kids, especially if they're first time offenders, get raped regularly. They're called 'sweet boys.' Guys use them, then pass them along to their friends. Finally, when the situation gets bad enough, these kids go to Protective Custody. But that's no good either. It's just like Homo House; anyone can say they need Protective Custody, get admitted and settle a score with you. This isn't the answer; really, there is no answer. There is no safe place in jail."
Physical protection is only one of the issues. Condoms are not available in jails; they are neither encouraged nor discussed. "Everyone in jail has sex," says Angel. "There's more sex than ever going on, and all the straight guys do it, even though they mostly deny it. But it's never talked about. There were long spells of time when I had sex about thirty times a week; I actually stopped counting. And I never used a condom. I don't know of one person who did."
Angel entered jail being HIV-negative; he'd had himself tested a few months before his trial. Today, he's positive. Needless to say, he seroconverted during his time in prison.
I was astounded that widespread sexual activity could transpire in jail, where I assumed privacy did not exist. But moreso, if it did occur with such frequency, why no condoms?
Angel explained: "The administration won't give out condoms, except if you're having a family visit -- and that's only for heterosexual activity. Besides, you have to return the used condom in order to get another. As far as privacy: well, you can always find a place. Maximum security jails are the best, you just put up a sheet on your cell and do it.
"No one questions you because no one cares; and once in a while if someone does, you say you need the privacy to use the toilet, and that's that."
Angel has widespread experience with the prisons of New York State. During his incarceration period, he did time in Greenhaven, Clinton/Dannemora, Elmira, Sing Sing, and Arthur Kill. All but the last are maximum security institutions. Why so many shifts, I asked? "They don't want the guards to get too familiar with the inmates, or for the prisoners to learn the administrative procedures. In Clinton/Dannemora there's strict security, because the inmates are more dangerous and their families are far away; it's very isolated. Prisoners get very edgy when they don't get visits." I asked about the other prisons. "Attica, Comsac and Clinton/Dannemora are the worst for violence. But in all of them, the guards act like they don't see what's going on, especially if it's at the end of their shift. It takes too long to file reports."
"Some prisons are cooking facilities," Angel advised me. "Clinton, for example. There are large drums in the yard where you can cook. And any prisoner can cook in his own cell. You're supposed to use only plastic pots; metal can be used for violence. You can have a water heater, and cook a lot of things on that." I asked where the food came from. "You can buy it at the prison," Angel said, "or you can have it brought in from the outside." Who would do that, I wondered, aside from the occasional family visitor? "There are some guards who'll bring in food, but at a very high price. And there are some good ones who'll just do it. There was one who helped me in this way. Initially, he was only bringing groceries and not overcharging me. Then, after a while, he asked if he could eat with me. I began to realize he was attracted to me. One night he asked if we could be friends. I knew what he meant, but I said, 'What do you mean, we're already friends, right?' He said, 'You know, really good friends,' and I said 'Oh, like special friends?' and he said 'Yeah' immediately. So we started having sex after that."
Their affair continued until the guard got transferred, quite a while later. For some time they corresponded by mail, but Angel has lost contact. The guard is now divorced and living in a remote upstate town. "He's one of the few people who was kind to me while I was in jail."
When Angel approached his four-year parole review, he was excited about the possibility of being freed. Angel was asked whether he felt remorse for the crime. "I said, in all sincerity, that there never was a crime in the first place, so there was no remorse to be felt. But they didn't like that, so they denied parole. I learned quickly that you have to tell them you're sorry, even if you didn't do anything wrong. I never made that mistake again."
Shortly thereafter, Angel came up for parole again. This time he admitted the all-important remorse, and was freed on conditional release. But he committed a parole violation: going out of state without permission. "I knew I shouldn't have left New York without advising my parole officer," Angel said. "But I thought I was only going away for the weekend. Once I got to Virginia Beach, I was having a good time and decided to stay. It was my own fault; I knew I should have reported that I was missing, but I didn't. And I paid for that mistake."
Today, Angel is on conditional parole, having served nearly eleven years of his sentence. In December, pending no further violations, he will be finished. But the times he experienced while incarcerated will always be part of his being.
"In jail, it's husbands and wives -- not boyfriends, lovers or partners. And these terms are used openly, without shame. I never got into that, even though most guys do. In fact, lots of husbands prefer butch-looking wives, so they don't draw that much attention to themselves. If you become someone's husband or wife, you have to be monogamous, and once there's a problem, there's violence. I always used the term 'special friend' for someone I was having regular sex with."
"Once, in Sing Sing, there was a three-week lockdown; that means no visitors, no nothing," Angel related. "All this because they found a nine millimeter gun and two clips of ammo in an inmate's cell. And these were a plant, by a guard who was looking to get even with this inmate. You couldn't possibly get a nine millimeter into Sing Sing; they strip-search you every time you re-enter the facility."
I didn't understand the significance of a lockdown. "People get real panic-stricken," Angel said. "No one can come out of his cell, you can only shower once a week. There are no visitors. Inmates can't get their supplies brought in. But I was prepared for this. I'd been keeping a lockdown stash in my cell, with cigarettes, coffee, and various food items." Other inmates weren't quite as prepared, and often aren't; thus their behavior becomes even more quirky and dangerous during a prolonged lockdown.
There are actually jails that operate in permanent lockdown mode; Southport is one. "They're shut down twenty three hours of every day," said Angel. "It's a bad place. You wind up in Southport if you've been in jail a very long time and keep getting transferred. Also, if you go to Protective Custody too often, they ship you to Southport. So it's full of some of the worst long-term prisoners, and the young 'sweet boys' who try to hide in Protective Custody once too often. It makes for a bad combination."
How are people with HIV treated in prison, I asked? "Badly, and not only by the inmates," he replied. "The medical department is the worst, really. They don't want you to keep coming back and saying you're sick. Every time you do, they say, 'take two Tylenols and go back to your cell.' That's the answer for everything in prison, but especially if they know you're positive." And very few prisoners are willing to admit their status.
I asked about testing. "It's optional, testing for HIV," said Angel. "When you enter prison, you get tested for tuberculosis and hepatitis. Also, since 2000, you're required to give a DNA sample, even if against your will -- they make it clear that 'no' is not an option."
"Even the dentists are prejudiced," Angel told me. "If you admit that you're positive, you have to start writing letters in order to get dental care. They'll find excuses not to treat you, and unless you keep up the pressure, you'll never get your teeth taken care of."
"If they know you're positive, the other prisoners treat you like you have the plague," Angel said. "They never found out about me, because I never needed meds. I just took vitamins and, thank God, I stayed healthy." I asked if cocktail medications were available. "Only generic versions, and usually outdated," Angel replied. "Besides, who wants to admit they're HIV-positive in prison? That's only going to create more problems, not solve any."
I asked Angel if there was any education effort in prison regarding HIV. "In the last few years, some groups and workshops have come about. They're mostly on prevention and safe sex, which is a joke because you can't get condoms. But if you go, you have to attend secretly; if you're seen, then you're suspected of having HIV, and that's the worst."
What are the ramifications of being identified? "There are so many, it's hard to know where to start. For one, if you're friendly with a suspected gay person, and you even cough, you're considered positive. There's a fast communication system in jail. The inmates really run everything: they work in medical, administrative records, cafeteria, and they pass information to everybody else. Also, the medical department leaves its doors open during examinations, so others can see and hear much of what's going on inside. If anyone hears the word 'T-cells,' you're finished. Then, if the Corrections Officer doesn't like you, he'll check out your medical records. If he finds you're positive, he'll spread it around. Finally, and worst of all, there's rumor. All you have to do is start one on somebody and they become suspect." Also, Angel told me that the New York State Department of Corrections gives out prisoner information publicly: the charge, sentence, scheduled release date and yes, even medical records.
I asked Angel if he would have used condoms if available. "Absolutely" was his immediate response. "I practiced safe sex before I went to jail. But no one does on the inside. I'll bet that eighty percent of the inmates are positive, and still no one talks about it."
Is there any rehabilitation in prison? Surprisingly, there are a variety of opportunities. "Most of the groups are voluntary," Angel informed me, "but if you're not a high school graduate, you have to go for an equivalency. When Cuomo was governor, there were college credit programs: you could get an Associate's or Bachelor's Degree in Business Management and Accounting, a Bachelor's in Psychology, and a Master's in Theology. But those programs were cut when Pataki was elected." Angel informed me that he met David Berkowitz, known as "Son of Sam," in a religious study group.
Then there are behavioral groups dealing with substance abuse, healing from past indiscretions, and learning self-discipline and time management. But, equally important, I asked if there were any skills-based classes to prepare an inmate for future employment. "A lot," said Angel. "I got a certificate as a welder, and that took 400 hours; I also got one in food handling, 290 hours. You could also study automotive repair and carpentry; also furniture making, refrigeration, and peer-counseling. There are classes in general business and computer skills. In Attica, you can learn to make license plates. In Clinton/Dannemora, there's a tailor shop where you can learn to make uniforms for Corrections Officers. Both of these are paying jobs, but it isn't much; if you don't have a high school diploma, you start at 28 cents an hour. But after you get experience and your diploma, the pay gets up to about $100 a week. This helps you to pay for phone calls, cigarettes, maybe send some money to your family."
What are the employment opportunities after prison, even with skills? "There are certain agencies that hire ex-convicts very easily," Angel told me. "New York City Housing Authority is one; UPS and Federal Express are two others. See, they get tax breaks for hiring ex-cons. And the State of New York will bond you if you're working for one of these employers."
And is there a more hopeful future for dealing with HIV in the prison system? "It's getting better," Angel said. "In the next twenty years or so, it will improve a lot. The education efforts are expanding and new treatments will be available. But the hardest part will be for the inmates to accept it. That's just the way it is. I mean, if you're openly positive, you can't even work in the mess hall. The inmates, if they find out, wouldn't eat. And when prisoners don't eat, one of two things happen: there's an official investigation, since the State monitors the amount of food consumed, or there's a riot. So there's still a long way to go."
Amazingly, Angel is optimistic about his future. If he has any bitterness about the past eleven years, it isn't readily apparent. He's working, and is quite healthy. "You know?" he said. "I sometimes think of trying to contact that Corrections Officer I had the affair with. He was a truly nice guy."
Ronald C. Russo is a freelance writer living in New York City and a frequent contributor to Body Positive.