[Ed. Note — Joseph Urbiniak is an inmate at Harnett Correctional Institution in Lillington, N.C., and is the plaintiff in a pending lawsuit against the N.C. Department of Corrections to secure the right of LGBT prisoners to possess non-sexual, LGBT-themed books, newspapers and magazines. Q-Notes is publishing a collection of Urbiniak’s writings in this exclusive, short-run column about life as a gay man in prison. Names of individuals in the story have been changed; in some stories, Urbiniak refers to himself as Sebastian McShane.]

One thing as sure as death and taxes is that guys in prison will fall in love. This has been going on ever since the first two men were locked up together in some dark, dank cell in some godforsaken swamp long before anyone knew what a homosexual was.

Prison love often comes more out of necessity than out of a romantic boy/boy relationship. Jimmy gets locked up, doesn’t have any money, is abandoned by his family and all alone in the world. Then along comes Bubba, who buys Jimmy a pack of smokes, maybe a bag of chips, soda and a sandwich from the commissary.

Soon Bubba wants to know when Jimmy is going to pay him back because, even though Bubba never mentioned it at the time, all that stuff was only a loan, to be paid back with interest. Of course Jimmy doesn’t have any way to pay Bubba back and Bubba knows this. Bubba also knows that he’s tired of jacking off and that Jimmy has a really nice ass. So, before long, Jimmy either gives his nice ass over to Bubba, who makes sure Jimmy is never in need of anything as long as they are together, or Jimmy gets his ass beat by Bubba, who will probably take Jimmy’s nice ass when he’s done anyway.

Some of my friends who write me ask, “Is prison really like it is on ‘OZ’?” Of course, they’re referring to the drama series on HBO, not the drama starring beloved Judy. Unfortunately, I’ve never seen “OZ,” since the state doesn’t include HBO in our programming, but from what my friends tell me and what I’ve read about the show, I have to say that prison life in North Carolina is not like what is portrayed on “OZ.” In the 10 years I’ve been locked up, I have never been the victim of, or witnessed, a gang rape or gay bashing. But, I do get to see lots of naked guys in the shower!

Romance in prison is almost always secret. Every once in a while a couple will be openly affectionate by holding hands in the day room while watching TV or even kissing in public. Usually they get split up, often by being sent to separate prisons at opposite ends of the state.

The guys who have been hooked up for years (and I’ve met a lot of them) practice clandestine love or “keep it on the D.L.” In public they keep a barrier of about a foot between them. Nothing in their actions would indicate that they enjoy each other in an intimate way. But get these same two guys alone in a room, if they’re housed in a facility with rooms, or in a shower, if they’re housed in a facility without rooms, and the sex can be as hot and steamy as any gay porn.

These are men who consider themselves masculine or “straight-acting.” When released, they’ll never talk about their prison relationship — a secret they’ll take to their grave.

Of course, there are prison queers who are somewhat, or even extremely, feminine. If a guy is seen hanging around with them, everyone knows some kind of “thing” is going on. Not surprisingly, these drag-queen types attract more straight men. It gives the straight guys the opportunity to pretend they’re having sex with a woman rather than a man, which makes it easier for them to deal with.

The state of North Carolina maintains that sex in its prisons is a very minor problem, yet officials fear anything that may “promote” homosexuality. In the past, several gay magazines and newspapers that I had sent were rejected by prison staff because of that fear. Nor will the state take preventive measures like passing out condoms or discussing safe sex practices, since to do so might “encourage” them.

What I find really amazing is that, under this state’s crime against nature or sodomy law, two men caught having sex together are guilty of a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison, yet if these same two guys get caught having sex in prison, it’s only a class B-6 disciplinary offense punishable by confinement in segregation for up to 30 days. It seems that once you get into prison, being sexually involved with another man isn’t so big a deal.

Just being in prison seems to promote homosexuality. Where else can you see a nice muscular young guy shoot hoops on a basketball court, watching as the sweat glistens on his bare chest and abs, then follow him to the shower for a private viewing of the rest of his tender young flesh? And maybe even sample the entrée.

Inmates’ attitudes toward sex in prison have been changing over the past few years. A new and younger generation is being locked up, one that is more open-minded and freer with their sexuality. They come to prison admittedly bi or gay and think of sex with other men as something not to be shunned but embraced — something to help them through the months or years in prison and a way to feel good.

Even the prison staff is changing their attitude. The old hard-nosed guards still complain about the “faggots” in prison and openly voice their bigoted opinions about how they should all be sent to some prison island in the middle of the Pacific. But, they are gradually being replaced. That same younger, more open-minded generation is getting jobs as prison guards. Some of them are gay themselves, and though they don’t openly admit it, there is a level of camaraderie that allows those inmates who are gay to be open about ourselves with them. These new guards are more apt to look the other way in regard to sexual activity or take on an “as long as I don’t see it, I don’t care” attitude.

I remember a prison guard who was a lesbian and often told me about trips she took with her girlfriend. She sometimes backed me up when a bigoted old-time guard made comments about my sexuality or gave me a hard time. She could get angrier than I did when some sort of harassment was projected my way. Once, after another guard messed up everything I owned during a routine room search, leaving all my belongings in a pile on the floor, she came up to him, pointed her finger in his face and said, “You wouldn’t have done that if he wasn’t gay!” The other guard trotted off, not knowing what to say. It’s good to have allies in important places.

Joe Urbaniak was sentenced in 1995 to 20 years imprisonment for indecent liberties with a child and crime against nature. He hopes to be released in 2010. He was awarded Second Place for Memoir in the 2003 PEN Prison Writing Awards and has recently earned his B.A. in Business Administration. He has requested that Q-Notes publish his contact information in hopes of finding penpals. Write him at P.O. Box 1569, Lillington, NC 27546. All correspondence should include his inmate number: 0415899.