Homophobia is still a routine fact of life for the inmates of British prisons a new report has found. There have been many moves in recent years aimed at eradicating discrimination against prisoners on the grounds of race or religion, yet the challenges facing most gay men in prison have still not been addressed sufficiently by the UK prison service.
A fact highlighted by a letter printed in this month’s edition of Inside Time, the national newspaper for prisoners, “I am gay and very ‘camp’ and due to my sexual orientation I have received abuse from other inmates,” writes the prisoner who then explains that when the abuse turned to threats of violence he was granted “VP status”, meaning he is now classified as a vulnerable prisoner and located on the vulnerable prisoner unit.
Since becoming a VP he has lost his job in the prison education block, is allowed only one morning session of basic education each day and spends the rest of his time in his cell. “I think the way we are treated compared to ‘normal’ prisoners is completely unfair and unjustified,” he concludes.
It is estimated that there are as many as 8,000 gay prisoners inside in the UK at any one time and statistically that’s unlikely to change. However, homophobic attitudes are still rife on the wings and landings of all of the UK‘s prisons. A few gay inmates can survive thanks to a forceful personality enabling them to cope better than many others. However, they are in the minority, according to former prisoners, where derision and abuse is the norm. Many are coerced and pressured into engaging in sexual activity, quite often by those that verbally abuse or deride them the most. Some are not so lucky, many suffering physical abuse and serious sexual assaults, most of which go unreported to or by the authorities.
The rules in UK Prisons are clear, sexual activity between prisoners is strictly forbidden, but as we all know, some rules do get broken which is perhaps why every male prison in the country has a “condom policy”. “There has been a shift in attitude from some of the more enlightened staff, especially those responsible for equality,” says Steve Jones, the Terrence Higgins Trust’s national director for Wales. “But the exaggerated macho culture precludes many of the staff engaging willingly and openly with this issue to actually support gay and bisexual prisoners who want or need that additional support.” He told the BBC.
Steve Jones says that advice and guidance given to gay prisoners is derisory, “Generally, the guidance would be: ‘You must try and protect yourself, or keep it quiet’. If you are targeted because of your sexuality and are forced to be segregated, we have to ask: would that be tolerated if it was in relation to race or religion?”
Even the “condom policy” isn’t as good as it possibly sounds, it hardly ensures safety and dignity. “If a prisoner wants to practise safe sex he can ask at the wing office or at the healthcare centre for a condom,” Jones says. “One will then be prescribed at the medicine hatch. Some prisons also demand the return of the used condom.” The THT would much prefer to see condoms readily available from the prison shop.
The prison service “does not condone or facilitate sexual relationships between prisoners. Prison doctors can make condoms, dental dams and water-based lubricants available to any prisoner, irrespective of age, if in their clinical judgment, there is a risk of the transmission of HIV or any other sexually transmitted disease.” Explains a spokesman, adding “Discrimination, harassment and bullying will not be tolerated in any form, and swift and appropriate action will be taken to address any reports of victimisation.”
However according to all evidence available, the gap between policy and practice is so vast it would be laughable if the situation wasn‘t so serious. Far more needs to be done to ensure the safety and equality of gay men in UK prisons as a matter of urgency, yet those on the inside are often the silent and forgotten minority.