In 1979, Rikers Island gave gay prisoners hope

182
Aerial view of Rikers Island Photo: U.S. Geological Survey

In May 1979, PGN writer Jack Veasey published a lengthy two-part feature on the country’s first separate prison housing for gay men and trans women. Rikers Island, the prison just east of Manhattan (and made famous from the “Law and Order” series), opened the wing in February of that year to quell the verbal and physical abuse those prisoners had endured. When Veasey visited the new wing with his photographer, he met six gay men and three trans women who changed his perception of the prison system and how LGBT prisoners navigate life behind bars.

Before his visit, when Veasey mentioned the new “Homosexual Housing Wing” to his friends and colleagues, their responses ran the gamut of gay stereotypes: throw rugs, marble floors, blue glass coffee tables, a code system for sex preferences. Most couldn’t believe something like that would be necessary; it’s possible, perhaps, that such glib reactions were merely thinly veiled homophobia. But jokes and mockery aside, Veasey was nervous to spend the day with the prisoners, who he assumed to be dangerous. As he entered the prison, with its gray stone walls that he compared to the castle in Dracula, the sense of foreboding did not go away.

Imagine his surprise, then, of Deputy Warden Henry Bernsen’s first remarks to him:

“Their behavior’s beautiful. They’re the easiest inmates in this institution to deal with. As far as I’m concerned, I’ll take a whole prison full of homosexuals any day.”

Considering the statistics of incarcerated LGBT people, Bernsen wasn’t that far off. According to a 2013 Williams Institute study, there are 238-thousand incarcerated sexual minorities in the U.S. lesbian, gay and bisexual people are three times more likely to be incarcerated than heterosexual people. Of total prison populations, 5.5 percent of men are gay or bisexual and a staggering 33.3 percent of women are lesbian or bisexual. And, unfortunately, though perhaps not surprisingly, gay and bisexual men and women are six times more likely to be sexually victimized while incarcerated.

That last statistic, along with a class-action lawsuit brought forth by the New York Legal Aid Society, is the reason that Bernsen and the leadership at Rikers Island decided to implement the Homosexual Housing Wing.

In most prisons around the country, including at Rikers pre-1979, alternative housing for inmates, including homosexuals, was limited to either solitary confinement — 23 hours a day in a small room — or special wings that were often more crowded, less clean, and with less amenities than those that housed the general prison population. But mixing with the general population meant, for many gay and lesbian people, being the subject of verbal and physical abuse of the worst sort.

To gain entry to the Homosexual Housing Wing in 1979 was a simple process.

“They made us sign papers,” Angie, one of the transgender inmates, said to Veasey. “They asked whether we wanted to be part of general population or to be segregated…and in turn, we were brought before a committee, who asked us if we were out-and-out homosexuals, and did we wanna be segregated, and the reasons why. And those who wanted to be segregated were given a form to sign, and segregated.”

Angie was one of the nine inmates who Veasey spent the day with. The others included street hustlers, a former court worker who took a bribe, and an insurance company employee falling on the sword for his fraudulent colleagues. The nine of them created their own community and their own entertainment, including a mock marriage and divorce trial with Dorothy, one of the trans inmates, presiding. The scene, as Veasey described it, resembled something out of an HBO drama or a Ryan Murphy mini-series.

Deputy Warden Bernsen, who Veasey interviewed at length, spoke proudly of his being the first prison in the country to have special housing for homosexuals. He said the inmates were better adjusted, much less violent and less likely to cause trouble. The only big trouble the wing experienced was when Carlos, a heterosexual man who lied about being gay in order to gain entry to the wing, began to dominate the other inmates. The others quickly signed a petition to get him thrown out, and Bernsen obliged.

Carlos was not the only problem the inmates faced. Because there were such a small number of them, they did not have a permanent guard assigned to them. Many of the temporary guards were not at all friendly and committed similar verbal abuse as the general population prisoners. But the relative harmony of the gay wing was due in part to the inmates personalities but also the fact that there were only nine of them. Veasey asked Bernsen why the population was so low.

“It’s only been open since February,” he said, “word hasn’t spread all through the system yet. Believe me, when word gets out they’ll start lining up to get in — and problem half of ‘em will be phonies like that Carlos character.”

Bernsen’s last remark proved to be prophetic. The population of Rikers’ Homosexual Housing Wing did increase once word spread. Inmates did fake being gay in order to gain access. Physical and verbal abuse did continue. And in 2005, the wing was discontinued, with its 50 inmates forced back into general population. Nowadays, the only similar housing for gay prisoners is in Los Angeles Men’s Central Jail. Rikers did open a special transgender housing unit in 2014, but that wing has had its own struggles, most notably the mysterious death of one of its inmates, Layleen Polanco, last year.

Ultimately, the gay men and trans women that Veasey interviewed shared many of the same hopes and concerns as many other inmates. They wanted a safe and humane living situation. They wanted to not be called slurs or physically abused. They wanted the ability to prepare themselves for life outside of the prison walls. Mostly, they wanted the ability to serve their sentence in peace. And, for a time, Rikers Island gave them that.