A number of major news outlets are reporting that convicted murder Aaron Hernandez had a gay lover in prison before he took his own life. His lawyer denies it, calling the reports “malicious leaks.” But Hernandez’s decision to leave a letter–before hanging himself–for what police sources are widely telling journalists was a boyfriend brings up questions about the nature of sex behind bars. Why do some men “go gay” while they are incarcerated? How do men such as Hernandez carry on relationships behind bars? How prevalent is this behavior?
There is a code governing sex among inmates. A few years ago, the website Deadpan published an extensive essay entitled “A Gentleman’s Guide to Sex in Prison” in which Daniel Genis, a former prisoner in New York State, laid out the sexual ecosystem behind bars. Genis says there were definitely a couple of guys to avoid, but he did not see a lot of non-consensual sex.
“More common, from what I could see,” writes Genis, “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…”
That would line-up, in part, with the controversial view advanced by people such as former presidential candidate and current U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Dr. Ben Carson who believes that being gay is a choice, especially in prison.
“A lot of people who go into prison go into prison straight — and when they come out, they’re gay. So, did something happen while they were in there? Ask yourself that question,” said Carson, whose actual expertise is pediatric neurosurgery, not human sexuality or prison life (or housing policy, for that matter).
Estimates of the actual prevalence of consensual sexual relationships behind bars vary widely. One study from two decades ago, found that between 25% and 40% of male inmates had engaged in consensual gay sex while in prison. The inmates in the study considered themselves to be of heterosexual orientation. And the researchers found that “inmates in higher-security prisons engaged in same sex sexual activity more than those males housed in lower-security prisons.” Another much more recent study by The National Institute of Justice looked at a relatively small sample of 288 men and found that nearly six percent had participated in consensual sex while incarcerated. “Some of the predictors for such behavior were some form of childhood abuse, violent behavior while incarcerated, gang membership, and overall impulsivity,” according to a report in Inquiries Journal.
Some former inmates, including Daniel Genis, say it’s really about the overwhelming need for touch. “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.”
There are of course predators, or so-called “Booty Bandits.” “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.”