Tim* is kind of quiet. He has short, cropped hair and fashionable square glasses. He dresses smart and has a warm smile. He’s attractive in an understated way.
‘I’m getting used to going in,’ he says, meaning the prison. ‘At first I used to hate it.’
We met while I was visiting a friend of mine who works at a prison. We were the only LGBT people in the visitors’ centre, and we bonded over a broken drinks machine. Tim seemed genuinely thrilled to see another queer person in there with him.
‘I think you’re the first gay person I’ve met in here,’ he says.
Tim’s partner is in prison. He visits him as often as he can.
‘There’s a limit to how many visits he can have per month. Most prisons allow convicted prisoners to have three or four visits a month. He usually sends all his visiting orders to me and his parents, but sometimes he sends some to friends and his sister too. I’m very lucky if I get to see him twice a month. Mostly it’s just once.’
We catch up at the cafe over the road from the prison. It’s a strange place, full of wardens, and serves a spicy burger full of beef, pepperoni and donner meat, but the sandwiches are good and are guaranteed to fill you up. Plus, there isn’t anywhere else to eat in walking distance of the prison.
‘It’s strange talking about it in here,’ he says. ‘I feel like the screws can hear everything. I feel like they’re probably judging me.’
I ask him what it’s like to have a boyfriend on the inside.
‘It’s not exactly nice. I mean, I write to him all the time. A constant back and forth of letters. And he usually calls me on Friday afternoons – when he can afford it. But it’s not nice.
‘When people ask if I have a boyfriend, I have that awkward moment of having to decide whether to lie or not. It’s like admitting to a complicated relationship on Facebook. Who’d even do that?’
I ask if people judge him.
‘People try not to. It’s funny how hard they try not to. But some people just can’t help it. It washes over their faces. Unless it’s pity. Sometimes I can’t tell.’
What’s the hardest thing for him?
‘It’s not being able to really be intimate with him. You’re allowed a brief hug and a kiss at the start and end of each visit, and you can hold hands over the table through the visit, but that’s it. You get less than hour. It’s just not enough.’
Is it different because they’re gay, I ask.
‘Yes. It’s a very heterosexual environment. I’m always the only gay person in the waiting room – well, except when I met you. It’s all wives and girlfriends. There are quite a lot of kids. Tough but resigned mothers. That kind of thing. You’ll have kids playing in the play area and I just feel like we really stand out.
‘The straight couples sometimes really go for it. I’ve seen a fair bit of groping and plenty of tongues. The screws are actually pretty okay about it. You think they’d be really strict, but they’re at least understanding about that.
‘I wish I could grab [his partner] like that. I just don’t feel I can in that space.’
What about sex?
‘I miss it, of course. He told me I can use Grindr and things while he’s inside, which is generous – I think! – but it’s not the same. What I really want is cuddles on a Sunday morning, you know?
‘When he writes to me there’s often an underlying sexual tension. His mind strays to it. It’s harder for him, I think, because he’s locked up with his padmate [cellmate] for so many hours of the day it’s not even like he can have a wank when he wants to. I can at least put on a DVD.’
Are there many gay men in prison?
‘A few, obviously. But really not many. [His partner] says there’s a GBT society inside, but only six people attend.’ He stops and thinks. ‘Actually, it’s probably only a GB society, because I don’t think there’s any T in the prison.’
What does a GB society in a prison actually do?
‘Currently they’re trying to get someone to give them old copies of Attitude or Gay Times. They’re just desperate for a bit of gay life. I may print this article out and post it in with my next letter. I’ll have to check if it’s allowed.’ He pauses again. ‘It’s probably not. We can’t send books in. Maybe if it’s just a page or two and fits into the envelope.’
Can you send pictures?
‘Yes, that’s allowed. Which is a good thing, because I feel like he might forget what I look like. I spend so much time without him I’m scared I’ll forget everything too. I have to remind myself with our photo collection.’
How has he fared being gay in prison?
‘He did get assaulted once. Someone smashed his front teeth and he had to get them cemented. He said it wasn’t because he was gay, but I don’t know. I went to go see him and I almost cried there in the visiting room. I had to choke it back so I didn’t cause a scene. He pretended he was okay, but I could see he was shaken by it too. He just didn’t want me to be upset.’
How do you feel about him being in prison?
‘Obviously I’m not thrilled. But I’m pleased he owned up to his crime. He could’ve lied and probably got away with it. At least this way he’s paying his dues. I’m just waiting till he gets out so we can both put it behind us. We all make mistakes – his mistake was just more stupid than most.’
How long will he be inside for?
‘We’re hoping he’ll be out before Christmas. It just seems so long. Have you tried going over a year without cuddles?’
According to Just Detention International, LGBT prisoners are ‘among the most vulnerable in the prison population’.
*Tim is not his real name.