The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world. With a disproportionately large number of people of color arrested and convicted, many for non-violent drug offenses, it seems most Black people know someone caught up in the 'just-us' system. I'm no exception.
I met someone who is eager to tell his story of how he and other openly gay inmates face harassment and discrimination while in custody of the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC):
Hi. My name is Jason Thomas. There are a lot of gay people living our lives being discriminated against by people some of us don't even know. I am a 23-year-old gay male, just released in September from Big Muddy River IDOC Center near Decatur, Ill. I have witnessed and experienced a lot of discrimination going on while incarcerated. I feel the correctional officers at the facility treat the gay people in different, worse ways than the straight people. I spent 14 months at this medium/maximum facility.
While at Big Muddy River Correctional Center I started my day by going to breakfast (chow) every morning between 5 and 6 a.m. I am then escorted back to my cell house. On the way back some of the inmates throw milk and juice cartons at gay inmates from the back of the chow line: while calling me all types of fag, sissy, geesee (geesee is one of the anti-gay slang names inmates have made up), queer and all the other types of names. While all this loud name calling is going on I will just ignore them. For a while just after I first got to prison I'd usually complain to the correctional officers about being jeered and harassed on a daily basis. They'd say 'don't tell me, I don't care.' And they would tell me I'm nothing but a stool pigeon. So I would go in my cell and change out of my clothes, soaked in juice and milk, and wash them by hand or wait until laundry day. I will go to my bunk and lay down until 7 a.m. count time. It takes an hour for officers to go from cell to cell counting inmates. At 8 a.m. I'm allowed to come out of my cell and start my day. It is mandatory that everyone at this particular facility have a job doing something for the facility. I collected, washed, dried and returned laundry: then watched TV until we locked up again for 3 o'clock count. The woman officer walk past my cell door and say 'you are so nasty to be a gay faggot.' I would not respond because I would be afraid that I might get in trouble with her while doing my time.
I will hear all this name calling again 4:30 p.m. until 5 o'clock going to and coming from dinner. Still the same thing happened: straight inmates throwing things at gay inmates in chow line. From 6 until 9 p.m. I will come out into the general population and have to hear the other inmates call me sissy, fag, geesee and every other name in the book. At 9 p.m. I will have to get locked up for the night. Then the officers would come by. One female officer was always saying 'I just think faggots are disgusting.' A male officer made a point of repeatedly saying 'don't let me catch you in your cell having sex' real loud so everyone would hear and know I'm gay.
Not all straight inmates called me geesee, just about half did. The others were cool with it, as long as I didn't come on to them.
While speaking with Jason Thomas about those experiences I told him that the movie Ground Hog's Day came to mind. It was in theaters several years ago as a minor comedy about a character, Phill, played by Bill Murray. Phill has a terrible Ground Hog's Day, then he wakes up on the next day and it is Ground Hog's Day again. 24 hours should have gone by but again he wakes up on the morning of the day before; again and again.
And so it is for out gays in prison. The name calling happens every day. Meals always served at the same time. IDOC officers join homophobic inmates jeering—faggot, sissy geesee! 7 o'clock count. 3 o'clock count. 9 o'clock lock-up. Milk and juice cartons thrown, day after day.
In recent years officers of the Chicago Police Dept. have had some measure of training in sensitivity. Maybe this is needed for state prison officers. That may not be a popular proposal when talking about murderers and other violent and repeat offenders. But nationwide about 2,300 inmates get out of prisons and jails every weekday. It is in the best interest of society that they should not be returning bitter and mean.
Recently a proposal was made in Chicago to fine rather than to incarcerate people caught in possession of small amounts of marijuana. When the 18th Amendment made beer, wine and liquor illegal in the 1920's Prohibition was widely viewed as a failure in that it created gangs of criminals to supply boot-leg whisky. If today's prohibition were ended, the $25,000 in tax money it takes to incarcerate one inmate for one year could instead be used for addiction treatment. With regard to non-violent drug offenders it's time for politicians to be smarter than to think prohibition works.