Is prison like the television shows “Orange is the New Black” or “Oz”? I am asked this question when I tell someone I spent seven years of my life in prison. I have come to realize that people do not care if prison is oppressive and creates a cycle of violence — they are more eager to hear all the violent, sexual and gruesome stories I have to offer. I understand why people are curious about prison life, which is wrongly glamorized by Hollywood. However, as a gay man in prison, there is no TV show that could capture the raw experience of being incarcerated in America.
The first thing I always tell people is that there are only five things an inmate can do in prison: read, play cards, watch TV, exercise and engage in lots of sex. I will never forget the first time I had sex in prison. It was intense, rough, violent and amazing. There was something extremely erotic about having sex in captivity. I never understood why I was so sexually charged behind bars; maybe it was the open showers, the sweaty gym and no pressures of a serious relationship. Sex in prison was living a fantasy in a nightmare. But for some inmates, having sex in prison came at a bigger cost: becoming HIV-positive.
Why should anyone care about who becomes HIV-positive in correctional institutions? Only 11 percent of the total prison population is serving life sentences (courtesy of The Sentencing Project, 2015). This means prisoners, at some point in their lives, will return to their partners, families and communities. As a result, unprotected sex in prison becomes an issue of public health. Many prison officials hate talking about HIV because of their own countertransference with sexual orientation and gender identity. I have learned that one cannot have an honest discussion about HIV without talking about sexual orientation. However, if we as social workers in correctional institutions continue to ignore this public-health concern, what does this say about us in the profession?
Men in prison are yearning for affection and intimacy and inmates viewed me as a way of receiving sexual pleasure. Being young, gay and sexy, I was more than happy to oblige. However, I would always say to myself, ‘I wish I could get condoms or PrEP.’ Everyone in the prison knew that there was plenty of sex going on. In addition, plenty of inmates had sexually transmitted infections, but no one addressed this issue. This made me a bit paranoid, and every time I engaged in sexual activity, I gave my partner a physical exam.
During a meeting with my prison social worker, she told me, “You should not be having sex in the first place, TAR! It’s illegal in prison. And if we gave out condoms, this gives y’all permission to have sex.” I simply responded, “OK” — yet I was thinking to myself, That does not make any sense. There are inmates who are HIV-positive and sexually active and no one says anything.
The fact that condoms are not given out in prison is a direct reflection of America’s blatant homophobia. Correctional institutions all over the country appear to embody Hannah Arendt’s concept of “the banality of evil” (1963) regarding gay men and their sexual partners. As one telling example, I heard a nurse tell a prison official, “We just let the fags fuck themselves to death.”
Giving out condoms in prison does not give someone permission to have sex. It empowers them to protect themselves and the partners they will return to in society. I have witnessed several heterosexual men come to prison HIV-negative and leave HIV-positive. I often wondered whether the men who are released tell their wives or girlfriends about their new status, or do they simply think of prison like Vegas: “What happens in prison stays in prison.” Communities of color should know that it is our population that is at the highest risk. As a society, it is imperative that we protect the health of one of our most vulnerable populations: prisoners.
Antar Bush is a public-health advocate, professor at West Chester University and executive producer of OUTPour LGBTQ. He is committed to advocating for health equity in all communities. Follow him on Instagram @antarbushmswmph.