When I tell people that I recently finished serving a 10-year prison sentence for armed robbery, mostly in maximum-security facilities, I often feel a question lingering in the air. The moment I sense it, I try to respond to the awkward silence in some offhanded way, though it is hard to be blithe and whimsical when you’re telling people you were never raped in prison.
I can speak only for myself, but in my own time in the New York State system, I rarely saw or even heard about non-consensual sex between men. Perhaps I was just very lucky. Maybe I’d been incarcerated only in the “softer” corners of the penal system. Rape does happen, and all over any prison there are signs with a number to call to anonymously report it, which I always thought was less a matter of sodomy than of legal liability.
But more common, from what I could see, was an older prisoner taking a young and inexperienced kid under his wing. Most often, this kid has no money and likes to get high; there are many such people in prison, and they tend to burn their bridges early and totally. And so the older man, who has usually already served major time, feeds the kid, and gets him a little something to smoke or snort. Now the kid has become a “fish.” They start working out together, then showering together, then there is a massage, and finally, the kid is asked to “help” the older guy out. He’s “no homo,” but he has needs ….
These predators are called “booty bandits” in English, which sounds ridiculous, but in Spanish, the word is much more picturesque and of an older etymology: bugaron. The literal translation would be “buggerer,” but most people stick with the Spanish. In any case, very few bugarons—at least not the ones I personally came across or heard about—operate by force. The ones who do have nicknames that ring bells all across the state system: Mother Dearest and Pissy Black are the two most famous ones, both big guys who don’t take no for an answer. The latter, with a physique honed by two decades of prison weightlifting, was known for using shower-room fog to facilitate his surprise attacks, though it was said that he could be warded off with a knife, as he feared scarring his handsome face. The former, on the other hand, already had a cross-hatched mug, so keeping one’s distance was the only solution.
The potential “fish” are warned immediately, usually by a member of his own race, as prison is still as segregated as it was in the ’50s. However, those inside for sex crimes are fair game to the booty bandits, and everyone knows that. In the through-the-looking-glass moral universe of incarceration, the bugarons are applauded for teaching the rapos a lesson, never mind the fact that they too are rapists.
The butt pirates—another actual, commonplace term—do not consider themselves gay in the least; sometimes they have wives and children, who may become victims themselves, if there are any diseases to be passed on. (AIDS testing is suggested but not mandatory in prison, and, statistically, the incarcerated population has a much higher rate of infection.) In any case, it is only the receiver in the act who is considered gay.
But the hunger for touch does not always involve sex. Men in prison slap each other on the back and rub each other’s necks and hug and give elaborate handshakes and do strange exercises in which the men use each other’s body weight. It is all an excuse for touch. The condition of being a prisoner, in a point made by Foucault in his brilliant Discipline and Punish, is that of a sexless thing, and much of the experience of incarceration is the prisoner’s reflexive effort, as a human being, to resist that state.
Consensual sex between incarcerated men happens all the time. There are rules against it, as it is considered an “unhygienic act,” and you can go to the Special Housing Unit (aka the Box) for it. Which is ironic, because then you will be locked in a room with another man for 24 hours of the day, with barely any supervision. Solitary, at least in New York State, is not solitary at all butá deux, as it is cheaper to house men this way. If ever there was a venue for either forcible or consensual sex between men, it is therein provided.
Openly gay men are not as oppressed as one might fear. The feminine ones are often desired, and there is quite a bit of prostitution going on. I once saw oral sex performed in exchange for two cigarettes and a honey bun, a bargain offered by Dirty Tommy, who told people he had “the AIDS” as soon as they met him. There are many transsexuals (still called “shemales” in the system), especially in the maxes, for some reason. Some truly look like women, and as a consequence they are well taken care of by their admirers. Others just look like men with breast implants. There was one called Grandma who was quite a fright, but apparently had customers anyway, because his dentures came out. The old-timers call these guys “lizards” and have nothing to do with them, but the younger guys who grew up with Will and Grace and so forth are more easygoing about it.
It was my understanding that if you declared yourself to be out upon arrival at the clearinghouse called Downstate, they’d send you somewhere safe (unless you yourself were not actually very safe, according to your record). I spent two years in a place like that, called Groveland Correctional Facility. It was a beautiful campus of a prison with a huge gay population. They had to cut the bushes down to discourage some of the activities taking place around them. There were even competing gay gangs. The most established one was led by Becky, who had been in for 35 years and who, it was said, had cut out his lover’s heart back when he, Becky, was a teenage girl in a boy’s body. There were also plenty of young twinks sunning themselves and plotting evening escapades.
But where could they do it? The guards used this quiet and safe prison as a nice place to spend their last few years before retirement, so they knew all the tricks of the trade. The showers were monitored, the bathroom stalls had no locks, and with every year, the vegetation was further reduced. I may never have learned the secret had I not had the pleasure and misfortune of being a library clerk. I remember working on reclassifying the James Pattersons in the Young Adult section one day when I noticed a rhythmic movement out of the corner of my eye. I turned around and there was Dirty Tommy, hard at work with his hand under a table and another fellow with his eyes rolled up to the ceiling. This was too much; they were so close that I was practically a participant. I told Tommy he couldn’t ply his trade here, and that I wouldn’t let him into the library if this was how he intended to use it, but he was just worried about a certain Aryan Brotherhood member finding out. Apparently Tommy had sworn fidelity to this dangerous, and apparently jealous, fellow. I kept his secret.
I have heard countless myths about female correctional officers being unable to resist the enormous sexual appeal of a prisoner and pulling him into a broom closet, but in my 10 years, though it was discussed endlessly, I knew for certain of only two such couplings. The first beneficiary was a guy called Willy, a handsome bodybuilder-type who was in for steroids and a gun. Apparently he had a brief affair with a farm-girl-turned-cop dazzled by his big-city appeal, though the rumor afterward was that she gave him herpes. When I asked about that, he denied it.
Then there was Nikos, a Greek murderer who left his wife for a prison nurse. I knew the nurse: She was not a young woman, but she was well preserved. Obviously such liaisons are frowned on by the authorities, who technically deem any relationships between prisoners and staff as statutory rape. After one of the many informants hoping for any kind of break made the relationship public, the nurse chose to keep her job rather than her prisoner boyfriend. He wound up getting transferred as far upstate as it’s possible to go.
Meanwhile, almost all of the sex that prisoners have with women is done through the Family Reunion Program (FRP), which was a direct result of the prison reforms instituted after the Attica Riot in 1971. I am grateful that I got sentenced into a kinder, gentler incarcerated world. Also, I’m glad I was in New York: Conjugal visits are available in only three states out of 50. (California and Washington are the others.)
As a result, most of the maximum-security prisons in New York, except for the ones considered disciplinary, have modules called “trailers” built into them. These are later additions constructed in the past 30 years, so they look like six-unit motels jammed into the corners of Victorian fortresses. Each of the units has two bedrooms, as most wives come for their visits with children in tow. I once accidentally stepped on a child and was heckled as “Bigfoot” by a gaggle of kids who had surprisingly little apprehension of their bizarre circumstances. There are toys, video games, and a swing set.
The second bedroom is obviously for sex. To go on a trailer visit, which is possible about four times a year in prisons close to New York City and much more frequently in the ones near Canada, you have to be a good boy. No serious disciplinary infractions, and do your programs. (Depending on one’s crime, there are mandatory classes. I had to take one about substance abuse and another on violence; there are others for parenting and sex abuse. Refusing a mandatory program forecloses any possibility of a trailer visit.) Then come the urine checks—the authorities are aghast at the idea of couples doing drugs together on these visits. The first test comes two days before the visit, then another the morning of your trailer, and once more the second you depart. The middle urine check is so that if the final urine turns up dirty, you can’t argue that you did the drugs before going out to see your family.
In fact, I did know one couple who spent their trailers shooting dope together; she brought the needles and heroin, and he was on morphine anyway because of cancer, so they got away with it. But most people are more eager for different physical pleasures. I witnessed a little boy locked out of his trailer the moment the wife arrived. The unattended child soon slipped on some ice and gashed his forehead open. When the cops arrived, the prisoner suggested his son be sent to get stitched up in the prison clinic, where they had plenty of experience with this sort of thing. His trailer visit was immediately terminated.
My wife and I had no children to worry about; we’d been married only six months at the time I was incarcerated, so we had a lot of making up to do. The trailer visits last up to 44 hours, though it’s harder to schedule weekends. Considering the need for at least a bit of sleep, plus the nice outside food that wives are permitted to bring with them (mine brought me lamb and trout and sushi and filet mignon), the big question was always: How many times? The guys in the prison yard who went on trailer visits and had the youth and stamina to really give it a go were endlessly competing. In 44 hours, we all professed to hit double digits; if you removed the obvious braggarts’ numbers, it left an average of 14. I found this to be accurate.
For the wives, coming to prison to make love to their husbands is not, I would imagine, the ideal vacation. Some have been doing it for 20 years and simply consider it a part of their marriage; my wife always thought of it as a temporary workaround and cried at the end. I also used to return to the cell hollow and depressed. During those 44 hours, you sleep with a woman on a mattress and not a cot with a howling neighbor nearby, and you eat unprocessed food with a loved one, slowly, no cop staring at you because you’re dawdling over corn flakes. Forty-four hours is just enough time to feel normal again and then, when they’re up, to remind you just how far from normal the rest of your week is.
The sex itself … well, the first time is always awkward. I’ll be candid here. After years of masturbation, regular sex feels … different. But the feel and smell and love of a woman is an indescribable luxury in prison. Touch is something most human beings require, and most touch in prison comes in the form of a frisk or a smack.
The FRP was the best thing prison had to offer. Even the men who were not married used to go so they could go eat a steak with their mothers. By the way, “sisters” and “cousins” and “daughters” were technically allowed to visit, but rigorously vetted. There once was big business in sending working girls up to clever guys for trailer visits. My own friend Dmitry boasted of having dozens of “sisters” visit over 20 years. It helped that his mother was a madame, but in any case, those days are over, as all attractive, young female visitors are double-ID’d. The trailers are technically part of the Family Reunion Program, so no girlfriends or “girlfriends” are allowed: only wives with a marriage certificate on record, along with parents and children. (Cousins, too, but those were checked out extra-thoroughly.)
There was some sex outside of trailers, of course: I was told tall tales of the female guards at Sing Sing moonlighting in the world’s oldest profession back in the ’90s (and then being protected by their union when the ring got busted). This is purely anecdotal—I never saw such a thing myself. But I did witness many furtive sexual acts in the jailhouse visiting rooms. Handjobs under the plastic table are de rigueur; if there are children nearby, their eyes stay fixed on the vending machines. Women in skirts sit in men’s laps, and in the little yards built for the visitors and prisoners to smoke in, there is a lot of very dirty dancing. Apparently holes are cut in pant pockets for this.
But the most extreme case I personally witnessed was with Nikos, the Greek murderer. He had a charming “666” tattooed on his head, but his girlfriend didn’t seem to mind. She was no beauty, but she was a real, live woman. They’d begun as pen-pals, and then she started to visit. Unfortunately, he’d already killed one woman to come to prison, so Nikos had no access to trailers. Their courtship took place entirely on the visiting floor (where my wife and I could watch it all unfold), and it culminated in a marriage. Prisons don’t like marriages but are obligated by the courts to allow them. If a woman wants to marry a prisoner, the Department of Corrections will make them wait, and take endless HIV tests, and throw all kinds of obstacles in their way, but eventually there will be a wedding (of sorts), and the couple will be officially married. Nikos and his wife managed it, but the consummation of their union required a soda machine.
The couple had already done everything possible with hands and even feet (she was a nimble woman), but eventually they realized there was just enough room behind a Pepsi machine for them to hump for a few minutes while the guards gorged on their lunches. My wife and I played lookout, though once they’d gotten started, there really was no stopping them. Unlikely as it may seem, a child was born of this unorthodox and rapid union. They had either the humor or perversity to call the little girl Pepsi.
Much later, when Nikos informed his wife about his affair with the nurse, she threw a bottle of breast milk in his face. Sex behind bars comes with enough complications that many prisoners avoid the whole mess altogether.
Instead, they masturbate. A friend of mine once made me visualize the rivers of semen that have been flushed away down prison toilets. Not all states allow pornography, somehow getting around the First Amendment, and sex offenders are not allowed to possess it, but there is nevertheless a lot of porn in prison. I have to assume that the publishers of magazines like Foxand Big Black Ass exist purely for the incarcerated market. When the hardest porn around is only a click away, at least in the unincarcerated world, who needs to go to Times Square to buyScrew?
Onanism is not usually a spectator sport, so convicts find various ways of establishing the privacy necessary to rub one out. In medium-security prisons, where men live in dormitories, the last toilet stall is usually reserved for masturbation. If a towel is draped over the top, that’s the sign to back off. In maxes, where men live in cells with open bars, usually a sheet is fixed up, covering the view. That is theoretically for defecatory modesty, but the cops know what it really means and love knocking the sheet down with their sticks to embarrass a prisoner. Sometimes they don’t succeed—the guys who have decades in possess little shame and don’t even hang up a sheet, preferring instead to work out in the open. That is how dehumanization is achieved.
There is also a separate anti-masturbation subculture, like a temperance league or a bowling team. These are usually also men who are either very religious or very exercise-oriented—while some believe jerking off is a great sin (notwithstanding their present address), others believe that the release involved results in a lower bench-press weight. The exercisers were usually respected for their self-control, while the hypocrites had porn stuck to their lockers when they were away.
As for the rest of us, most men in prison collect pornography with great aplomb and sometimes become completists. A Hasidic Jew I knew had every Buttman ever printed, and Buttman has been coming out for 20 years and costs as much as $20 per issue, new. Obviously, there is a resale market: “Bookmen” in the yard are not guys with the cart from Fiddler on the Roofoffering old copies of How to Win Friends and Influence People. (Actually, that book is popular in prison.) Instead, they sneak around the compound with porn hidden in their belts and under their shirts, selling “books” for about a pack of cigarettes each. They sell out, and usually the bookman knows his clientele: He buys up the porn in stacks from those about to go home or die, and picks out what his clients like.
Lotions are also in demand, for exactly what you think, but for some, nothing beats the “fifi.” It’s called a “Suzy” in other prison systems, but it amounts to the same thing: a handmade vaginal substitute. This is accomplished by inserting a bag or glove into a tightly rolled-up towel and filling it with lotion. Then it is tightened up. This leaves a rather unwieldy cylinder for humping, but apparently it works. For extra verisimilitude, an open tuna can is left around. I never used fifis myself, but I know men who swear by them. As you read this, there is someone in a jail cell, staring at an issue of Buttman and bouncing a fifi on himself.
This is always a tense subject simply because prison was intended, like the Garden of Eden, to be a place without sex. Sex in prison has not been stamped out; it’s still there , whether via the reunion program or illicit visiting-room sex, whether with a “fish” or merely a fifi. It’s all sex of one kind or another, but forced into the crooked shapes of incarcerated life. I think it must demonstrate something about human nature. We’ll fuck whether you want us to or not. We’ll fuck even if all we’re fucking is a rolled-up towel filled with lotion, with no more mood in the air than what an open can of chunk light can provide. There’s no stopping sex, no locking it away. Organized religion hasn’t managed, and neither has the Department of Corrections.
Daniel Genis is working on a memoir of his incarcerated reading life for Penguin/Viking, titled 1,046 for the number of books he read while in prison. You can also follow him on Twitter here and read his other work here.
Image by Sam Woolley.
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