What is life really like for LGBT people in prison?

PinkNews logo on a pink background surrounded by illustrated line drawings of a rainbow, pride flag, unicorn and more.

A recent book and study have revealed what life is really like for LGBT inmates in UK prisons.

With an estimated 10,000 gay men in prisons across England and Wales, researchers say the study was conducted in an attempt to gain a true insight into the experiences LGBT go through during their time behind bars.

And even though a substantial amount of “actively engage in consensual or coercive sexual relations with fellow prisoners”, homophobia is still rife.

The Prison Service says that it dissuades sexual relationships, saying it “does not condone or facilitate sexual relationships between prisoners” – however every prison in the country has a “condom policy”, with staff claiming that they are encourage to follow a “don’t ask, don’t tell” strategy.

However, this ambiguous approach means that accounts of what prison life is actually like for gay men and women are almost impossible to come by.

Due to this rampant hypocrisy, the Howard League for Penal Reform – who were asked to conduct an independent commission to review sexual conduct in prison earlier this year – had to gain evidence from former prisoners, rather than serving ones, as requests by researchers to speak to current inmates were blocked by the Ministry of Justice.

Accounts varied, with one gay man stating he was forced to live under the “protection” of another prisoner and subjected to “sexual torture” over a prolonged period.

“I’ve wanted to talk about it for a long time,” he told the researcher, “but the means were not there. Because nobody wants to know, nobody wants to hear about this horrendous, horrendous abuse.”

However, another recalled a much more positive experience, telling the researcher that, “prison was a fabulous sexual experience.”

“I’ve never had so much sex. I was very popular, and I loved it.”

Others said they had sexual partners who were outwardly “macho” and “anti-gay” and were sustaining relationships with wives or girlfriends through letters and visits – these were “jail gays”, they said, “gay on the inside”, but apparently straight on the outside.

Journalist Erwin James – a convicted murderer who served 20 years in prison – writes about his own experience The Guardian: “As the years passed I became acutely aware of how painful, destructive and damaging the privation of opportunities for healthy sexual expression can be for prisoners.

“Gay men ashamed of being gay, straight men feeling forced to pretend to be anti-gay.”

He also highlighted the struggle for trans people in prison, who “were already struggling to come to terms with their own complexities, left to the mercy of an exaggerated macho culture, trying to cope with being objects both of derision and desire.”

However, James and others hope a “unique and enlightening” new book about LGBT prison experiences – written by prisoners and staff – may finally bring about a change in legislation and approach concerning LGBT prisoners.

Inside and Out, was the brainchild of the prison arts intervention and community inclusion manager of HMP Parc in south Wales, Phil Forder – himself a gay man who came out at work five years ago.

“I asked them [the prisoners] to write their stories in the privacy of their cells and bring them to the group,” Mr Forder said.

“It was incredibly moving to see how much similarity there was, and the support and understanding generated as a result was obvious.”

His boss at the prison, director Janet Wallsgrove, said: “This book is a statement – it’s saying that we at Parc recognise and support everyone’s right to be respected as an individual.

“It’s both about tackling homophobia and challenging people who express views that are unacceptable and about getting people to feel comfortable with themselves and more motivated to buy into a rehabilitative culture in prison and in society.”