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Life Inside

When a Gay Inmate Loses the Ability to Blend In

Outed by Accident, More Vigilant by Necessity

This article was published in collaboration with VICE.

Streams of inmates flowed from the yard toward the squat, gray, one-story cell blocks of the State Correctional Institution at Smithfield, Pa. It was 3:15, “yard-in” time, and the men were hot and restless.

There was no shade on the yard. It’s designed that way: any protection from the sun would provide not only comfort, but also concealment.

Soon, an officer flung the gate open, and we jostled our way through, becoming bottle-necked at the entrance to the blocks.

“Anyone know what’s for chow?” an inmate asked.

“Stuffed-cabbage casserole, I think,” someone replied.

“Not again. Why don’t they take that trash off the menu...”

The heavy steel and glass vestibule door slammed shut as the last inmates entered the block.

“I wonder if they’ve handed out the mail yet,” my neighbor said as he hastened to his cell.

It's a question routinely on everyone’s mind. Will there be news from the courts, granting a chance for freedom? Will there be words from old friends who have just obtained our contact information? Will there be a “Dear John” letter?

I frequently receive letters, books and magazines. Oftentimes, inmates ask me, rather than the officers, if the mail has been passed out yet, because they figure I would know. Then I always make a beeline to my cell and peek inside to see if there are envelopes on the concrete floor.

I’ve always looked forward to the mail rounds — or at least I did until that Wednesday afternoon.

I went back to my cell as usual and discovered a few letters and a magazine scattered about. I read them, then flicked on my television to see what Olivia was up to on SVU.

But an hour later, an officer appeared at my door. He was a rookie — a rotund, clean-shaven young man whose discomfort was unmistakable; he looked as though every task in here, in prison, pained him. I felt like patting him on the shoulder and telling him that everything would be O.K.

In his hand I noticed a priority mail envelope. He thrust it my way as if it had a bad odor, and asked, “Do you want your mail?”

Hadn’t I already received my mail? Why was this package delivered after all the others?

The officer read the confusion on my face and said, “There was a mix-up and your mail went to the other side of the block.”

I looked at the envelope in his pudgy, outstretched hand and could see “B19” scrawled on it. I lived in A6: this piece of my mail had been delivered to the wrong cell.

Procedure requires officers to read the mail’s label and make sure that it matches the identification card plastered above each cell, before placing it inside. Obviously, this rookie had not followed that rule.

I snatched the envelope from him and he shuffled away.

The return address was somewhere in New Orleans — I didn’t know anyone who lived there. The package was thick, and it was obvious that whoever had it last hastily jammed the contents back inside.

When I opened it, I found a journal called “The Tenth.” The previous month, there had been a review of that publication in “Out Magazine,” and I had mentioned it to a friend, who must have sent me a copy.

“The Tenth” is a journal that centers on the experiences of black queer men in the U.S. I receive many books and magazines about that subject, because, living in a single cell, I don’t have to worry about a nosy cellmate. Thanks to this officer’s mistake, though, my mail, which effectively outed me, had been sent to and perused by another inmate.

In free society, I’m out and active in my community. I don’t worry about mail mix-ups, and if this had happened out there, I wouldn’t have thought twice about it.

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But this is not the free world. Prison is not safe for anyone, especially queer people. In here, I disclose only on a need-to-know basis.

And I didn’t feel that whoever lived in B19 needed to know about my sexuality.

That was no longer my choice. My autonomy to define myself had once again been stripped from me. It was a rookie’s mistake, but I alone would have to face the consequences.

As expected, word got out — I couldn’t put that genie back in the bottle.

Since then, I’ve had to negotiate my prison time differently. I have learned to become aware of every move and word around me, because I cannot allow any room for misunderstanding.

I can no longer blend into or weave through crowds of inmates as we wait in line to go somewhere. I must stand in back, making sure not to accidentally bump into someone and give them the “wrong impression.”

At the chow hall, the lines snake outside the building. I wait behind, two or three feet from the nearest man. In prison, being queer often means being late.

Inmates fear being deemed gay by association, so they avoid me now. Any conversation they have with people like us must be public and quick. And still, they have to justify why it was necessary.

“I had to holler at him about some legal work,” they say, or, “I was seeing if he wanted to buy these ice cream tickets from me.”

The greatest loss has been simple companionship. Other inmates don’t approach queer ones for friendship. Any newcomer will be quickly informed: “He’s a joint,” slang for gay.

I have since moved to another block, the administration’s remedy for the rookie’s mistake. Did they think the news would be confined to the one unit I lived on? There are no secrets in prison.

My biggest fear remains the mail. At 3:15, I hasten to the block and head straight to the bubble, the officer’s station, and ask whether it has arrived. This has become my routine; I don't want another mix-up. I used to joyously anticipate this time of day, because it made things less lonely. Now, it’s a stressful, painful reminder of the ignorance and hatred that surrounds me at all hours.

Stephen Wilson, 43, is incarcerated at the State Correctional Institution - Smithfield in Huntingdon, Pa., where he is serving a maximum sentence of 16 years for charges stemming from a sexual assault.