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Saturday 10 October 2009

Jeff's story: Being gay in prison

Posted in: True Stories
By Matt Akersten - 25th July 2009

Jeff (not his real name) was in his early 20's when he was jailed for a year on assault charges.

Stunned and with little hope, he admits he thought about suicide a lot in his first few weeks locked up. But he found little things like reading books and the prison's employment programme kept him going. After a long twelve months, it was all over.

So what's life like for a gay man in prison? Is being 'out' as gay unthinkable there? 

Now that four years have passed since his stretch inside, Jeff shares his story with



"It was a completely and utterly surreal time. Assault charges were laid against me, and I was arrested. Then I defended the charges in court and was found guilty. I'm sure it's different for different people going through it, but I wondered 'how is all this happening to me?' It felt like a nightmare.

I was sentenced to two years exactly. Sentences for two years and under are not subject to the parole board and are known as 'instant halves'- I spent a year in prison and a year on probation.

I started in Mount Eden, which is mostly a transit prison, then in Waikeria, just south of Hamilton. Initially I was in the medium/high security prison which is a dark, oppressive place much akin to Mount Eden, but was then transferred to one of the low security work camps.


It's just such an oppressive environment. Like nothing you can imagine until you've been in there.

Just imagine being in a white, cold, concrete room. There's a stench. The cells are horrifically vandalized. There are notes on the wall, and drawings. You've got a stainless steel metal toilet in the corner with no seat on it. There's a basin. During my trial I was in the court cells one night where someone had smeared crap over the walls. Even though they clean it up in the morning, it still smells. The bigger cells are 3 metres by 5 metres, but the cells at court are 2 metres by 3 metres.

Mount Eden Prison
On a typical day in Mount Eden, they wake you up at 7 in the morning. They unlock your door and you've got 15 minutes to go and get a shower.

There'd be a line for the shower - you'd jump in and have about 30 seconds to a minute to soap down, wrap the towel around you, and get out of there. No, there was no opportunity for anything else! You have such a limited amount of time. There were some incredibly stunning looking guys in there, but you had no opportunities for anythnig. You can see where the porn film ideas come from, but that's incredibly unrealistic.

From there, you go back to your cell where your breakfast would be delivered. They leave you locked in your cell until about 9 or 10 in the morning, and then they marched us all out into the 'yard'. It was like a couple of tennis courts put together with a big concrete wall around it. There's some shelter there, there may be a shower, and there's a couple of toilets out there - but they're not full ones, there's a door to them but you can still see out into the yard. So no privacy whatsoever.

On a fairly regular basis you'd see a couple of people in the corner with blankets over them. It's 50/50 - half the time it would be something sexual, the other half the time they'd be doing drugs. Yes, drugs are available in prisons. One of the most innovative things I ever saw was an apple which was hollowed out to be a bong, and once you'd finished with it you'd throw it away or eat it. But you have to be pretty ingenious to get drugs in. Before and after visiting times, you have to strip completely naked and 'drop and squat' so the guards could see if there was anything hidden anywhere.

In some prisons you can get a job, which pays something like 30 cents an hour. At the Waikeria work camps I firstly worked in one of the kitchens, and then in the sewing room making clothing for the prisoners as well as bibs, blankets and other goods for a New Zealand-based baby apparel retailer.

So you stay in the yard until four or five in the afternoon. You walk around, you play cards, you play chess, you talk to people, you walk around in circles some more. Then they take you in, give you your dinner, and lock you in your cell. That's you done for the night.

But if it's raining, they sometimes leave you locked in your cell all day.


It's visiting day just once a week. Those were the best days. You saw the people who you want to be with, but you can't. And you only get a few hours with them - it started around one in the afternoon and finished at three. It's a highly-charged environment - you save up everything for this one moment with the people you care about. Everyone was the same.

You could notice who the gay couples were, and there were a few of them. It was never explicit though - some of the straight guys would spend the entire time locking lips with their girlfriends, but for the gay boys it was different. It was very discrete. You'd be on opposite sides of the table, with your hands on the table.

There was one guy who I was in Mount Eden with, who claimed he'd committed some type of fraud - but 'fraud' was always a good default position for people to take. His partner would come in every Sunday - they were both in their mid-40's. They weren't explicit about it, but you could see the affection between them.

But everyone in the visiting room is just so focused on their own visitors - it's the high point of the week. So people don't pay much attention to others.


I was lucky. I had camouflage because my ex-girlfriend was visiting me regularly.

Initially in Mount Eden for three months, I didn't get much chance to socialise and I was new to prison so kept it pretty much under my hat.

But there were some guys in the yard who were quite open and honest about it. In reality, being a gay man in prison wasn't really a problem. Throughout my time inside I probably came across 10 or 12 prisoners - of about 500 - who were openly gay, and there wasn't really much of a problem with it.

In prison, there's a 'forced' situational homosexuality around. And depending on your social hierarchy within the prison - how long you're in for, what offence you'd committed, how much money you had in your trust account or how many smokes you had to go around - these things weren't as important.


As for actual homosexual relationships within prison, there's not much of an opportunity for them to develop, given that most prisons are single-celled. But amongst those double-bunked there was an element of hanky-panky, playing around and things like that. There was mutual comfort of necessity going on inside Mount Eden - but this was between double-bunked prisoners. If you're locked in your cell with someone for 18 hours a day, of course you're going to get bored and, you know, have mutual masturbation and more.

My cellmate was definitely straight. He was a Maori guy in his 50's. He'd lived his entire life on the subsistent side and was an incredibly interesting guy. Nothing ever happened between us.

In the Mount Eden / Waikeria Medium Security prison yard or at the Waikeria work camps, because everything was being watched and looked after, there was a small amount of sexual favours for goods and things, but that was mostly in pairings between someone who had no support from people in the outside. So they'd get cigarettes or a bar of chocolate - it was a matter of necessity.

More common in the work camp was an element of grooming: "I'll look after you if you look after me". Older prisoners had resources and money to buy stuff from their prison trust accounts, and some of the younger ones didn't have anything - they'd broken bonds with their parents, and don't have anyone on the outside to put money into their trust accounts, and there's very little employment to be had in prisons.

There was a young guy I knew of who was on P charges, he was outed, and he would basically prostitute himself out for cigarettes. Quite a few people knew about it.

But there would only be something going on if you could find an out of sight place -and there were a few - because the rest of the time there was always someone watching.


Should condoms be provided in prisons? Well, it's a bit of a moot point, because no-one's supposed to be getting up to anything, with the constant supervision. It's easy to develop strong friendships with people, but not to have the physical element.

So condoms are not available. The prisons try to discourage any sexual activity. Officially, condoms are obtainable from the prison nurses, but I never saw anyone take up on anything, because if you asked the nurse for condoms, there would be questions asked.

Once you get down to the medium or low security units, there's probably a bit more leniency, there's a few more situations you can get into.


The rule with the New Zealand prisons is that if you've got ‘the bits', that's the prison you go into. We had a fafa'afine in Waikeria, and one during my time in Mount Eden. There's an acceptance of it in there. I wouldn't say they're in a privileged position, but there's an understanding. Any interactions with fafa'afine seem to be OK within prison culture.

I remember in Mount Eden there was one quite impressive-looking mobster, and we had two fafa'afine in the yard with us at that point. one of the fafa'afine and the mobster would dote on each other. It wasn't an uncommon sight to see them go wandering hand-in-hand in the yard or be secluded down in the corner with each other talking, or even casually touching and holding hands. I suspect it would be different in the outside world. Everything within prison is artificial.

I think it's luck of the draw. Fafa'afine might be segregated because of their unique position – since there's greater chance of them being exploited.


The National Party has just approved a lot of double bunking within prisons. But having only one person in every cell reduces violence - you get violent people together and they'll do violent things.

You've got people who have broken the law in some way - there's going to be some sort of violence that happens. There was an incident in Waikeria when a younger prisoner was put in with an older 'lagger' (a 'lag' is a term for your time in prison). And he kept this young guy under his bed, beat him up, was burning him, and sexually assaulting him. It took a few days for the guards to notice he had not been seen.

One of the other younger guys in the medium security camp had also been raped at one of the youth units by another prisoner who was double bunking.

Considering that you're in a cell with someone for 18 hours a day, if you're inclined towards violence which a not-surprising number of people in prison are, things are going to happen.

So double bunking is just going to lead to trouble in prisons. It's going to increase violence, it's going to increase sexual assaults, and it's going to further brutalise people that are already in prison. And the more violence you expose people to, the harder it is for them to recover and be rehabilitated.

One of the jokes that go around is that going to prison actually finishes off your criminal education. When you put people who may have been amateurs in with professionals that's what's going to happen. People talk, and knowledge gets imparted. They make new networks and it gets worse and worse.

Most of the people in prison are damaged goods. Broken people. If there had been adequate mental health support services for them on the outside, 70-80% of these people would never have gone in there. By exposing them to greater amount of violence, you know that's going to further break them, and we're just going to end up with more violent people coming out of prison. Because eventually - unless you're on preventative detention as a serial offender - these people are going to come back out. They're going to be back in our communities a hell of a lot worse than how they came into prison."

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Matt Akersten - 25th July 2009