Kenny was the first person that I met at Eastern. I still have good memories of Kenny. Everyone called him “Slim”. He was tall, close to seven feet, dark skin that just soaked up the whole sun. He had a giant smile, and eyes that seemed a little too far apart. He came and introduced himself to me. He was childlike in his innocence. Kenny had just been moved up to this block. He had been down for about 22 years. I can’t remember if he was ever getting out or not, I don’t think so. He had broken both of his ankles and had been in a block downstairs on a medical unit because of this. He had been in a wheel chair for months and months he’d said. I asked how it happened and he’s said it had been a basketball accident, but I’m still not clear as to what happened. He never could seem to explain it in a way that made sense. Kenny was pretty slow. He reminded me of Steinbeck’s Lennie from Of Mice and Men, “Tell me about the rabbits, George.” But honestly, that was kind of what I needed at the time. I didn’t feel like talking too much, and I certainly didn’t feel like talking about anything too heavy. Kenny was the janitor in the block. He was terribly proud of this. Every night after lights out, he would get to stay out in the block and mop the whole place. And every night before he would go to bed he would stop by my door, tap on my window and with a giant smile say, “Night night.”
We would sit downstairs and drink coffee and watch TV together, and in the morning we would go have breakfast together in the chow hall. You could buy individual packets of instant coffee from the canteen for twenty cents a pack, one pack made one Styrofoam cup full of coffee. I hadn’t had coffee in what seemed like forever. You couldn’t get it in jail, or in processing, and suddenly at Eastern, I could. Kenny was impressed because I insisted on drinking my coffee black. He called it, “cowboy style”, with deep satisfaction. After breakfast I would usually retire to my room to read until lunch, and then after lunch Kenny and I would go out on the yard for a while where we would play a game of “guess which hand I am holding this pebble in.” Kenny LOVED that game, and honestly probably could have played it for hours if I hadn’t insisted that we stop so I could go read for a while.
I was a little confused; I still didn’t understand how the custody thing worked. During processing I was told by the caseworker that I would be placed in medium custody. I had too much time to do to be eligible for minimum custody, but I wasn’t dangerous enough or didn’t have enough points or something to necessitate close custody; so, she’d said I would be sent to medium custody, but everyone at this prison was in close custody. Kenny was too. What was I doing here?
I asked Kenny what he was in for, and he’d said that he’d shot and killed a police officer that was trying to attack him. I asked about this a few times, and never could put it all together. The best I could surmise was that Kenny had been driving down the road with a gun under his seat, and a police officer had tried to pull him over for something, who knows what? Routine traffic stop maybe. Kenny didn’t pull over, and the officer had started chasing him. At some point Kenny stopped, and terrified that this officer was trying to kill Kenny, Kenny reached under his seat and pulled out a gun and shot the poor guy in the chest. Jesus. Kenny never did seem to understand why he was in prison. He knew they were going to let him go any day, as soon as they realized that Kenny was innocent, that he had just been defending himself. Poor kid. I bet he’s still in there, and still thinks he’s innocent. I bet he still doesn’t understand what he did.
Kenny may or may not have been gay. Prison sexuality is a whole different thing. I met lots of guys who insisted that they were not gay that had romantic partners in prison. When pressed on this they would typically explain, “Hey, I just do this while I’m in here.” And in close custody it was even kind of the social norm. You were expected to have a partner. I had one friend “Tounk” who ran the card tables for a while. Well, Tounk loved women, but he was expected to have a partner, that was just one of the expectations that people had for him as the person who was running the card tables. Remember, there is a lot of money to be made at the tables, and that can actually become pretty important when you’re locked up. It buys you prestige, name and power. So, Tounk bought a partner so that he could keep running the tables. He purchased one of the most coveted “women” in the prison. He paid her to be his partner, and he paid her to tell everyone that they were sleeping together. This worked well for a while, but eventually Tounk’s partner developed real feelings for someone, and told Tounk that she wanted out of the contract. Tounk told her that he couldn’t just let her go like that; he’d lose face. So, she had to buy him out of the contract. Also, the person that wanted Tounk’s woman would have to fight Tounk over it. It was really the only reasonable solution. She acquiesced, paid off Tounk. They staged a fight, and Tounk’s woman left him happily for another man. Prison sexuality is about a lot of things. Some guys are genuinely homosexual or transsexual, or bisexual, but honestly, a lot of those guys are really not very open about it at all, being so could prove to be dangerous, if not entirely fatal. Other guys are completely out. There are almost always transgender inmates walking the halls, with socks stuffed down the sides of their legs to emulate women’s hips, and even some with real breast implants. The scarier sexuality in prison though, has almost nothing to do with sex. Like Tounk and his partner, it is about power, control, ownership, dignity, and sometimes just an all out sickness.
I think Kenny used sex as a way to be friends with people. He had made offers to me on a few occasions, but it sounded more like a child asking if I was interested in sharing his toys with him. Kenny would say things like, “I know you ain’t like this or nuthin’, but if you wanted to we could sneak into my room and I could give you a massage.” And I’d say, “No Kenny, you’re right. That’s not really who I am, but thanks for the offer. I’d just rather stay here and watch television. What comes on next?” And just that easily the subject would be changed and forgotten. Sometimes sitting next to Kenny watching television, drinking our coffees, he’d put his hand on my shoulder and start kneading it. This sounds naïve, but I honestly never thought anything about it, mostly because I knew Kenny, and I just saw him as this child, who was nice, and kind, and really pretty innocent, and unfortunately for him, trapped in this giant basketball player’s frame. The other thing was, that it had been so long since I had experienced any kind of human touch at all, a hug, hell, a handshake, that it was kind of nice to have someone rub my shoulder, and I knew we were out in the open, and I was safe, so I just didn’t think much of it.
So, was Kenny gay? Given all of the varying and complex factors relating to prison sexuality, I really don’t know. I didn’t think it really mattered. He was a nice guy. He meant well enough, even if his reality had been a bit sadly twisted, and he was always kind to me. I would end up paying for my indifference, not to Kenny though.
There were a few things that weren’t quite working out for me. Every morning we would go stand in line for clothes change. I am not a big man. I’m pretty average, 5’9”, 150 lbs., but I had put on some weight in jail from eating nothing but starch and candy all the time. I could not seem to get the clothes-house man on our block to give me the right sized clothes. Clothes exchange would only take place for about half an hour to forty-five minutes after breakfast every day. I would go to the window and he’d say, “What size?” I’d tell him that I wore a 32 out on the street, but that I wasn’t sure in prison if those sizes translated. He’d give me a pair of pants, a giant t-shirt, and yell, “Next. What size?” and I would be finished like it or not. This seemed to go on for weeks. No matter what size pants I requested, I kept getting ones that were two sizes too small. They were skin tight, and the only thing I could do to try to maintain any kind of modesty was to wear this oversized, giant t-shirt that somehow looked like a dress. The pants were too tight to try to tuck the shirt into. It was pushing summer, and so too hot to wear the shirt jacket over all of this. Slowly but surely I was being dressed the way that somebody wanted me to be dressed; Also, because of my friendship with Kenny I was getting hoots and offers for sex just about everywhere that I went in the prison. I remember one morning at breakfast one of the line cooks called me over from my table. I didn’t know him and couldn’t imagine what he could want. I went over and said, “Yeah?” He told me that I could do much better than Kenny; that I could have anybody I wanted in this WHOLE prison. He knew that I was new there, but he could show me the ropes. I told him, “I’m straight,” which I meant as “I am not homosexual”, but which he seemed to interpret as, “I’m not interested in anyone but Kenny.” I couldn’t seem to get my message across. I’ve always felt like I had a pretty good handle on human sexuality. I know that there are an infinite number of varying types of sexualities. I’ve had a pretty good understanding of that since I was a kid. I never really cared. I’ve spent plenty of time going dancing with friends at both gay clubs and straight clubs, drank at a number of “lesbian bars” and gay bars and straight bars. It was never a problem for me or even awkward for that matter. When someone would misidentify me as gay, I’d simply explain that I wasn’t. If someone who was gay hit on me, I never considered it a big deal; I’d simply explain that I was flattered, but not interested because I am heterosexual. For some reason, I expected this same reality in prison. I thought that if I simply explained who I was to the men who made passes at me then that would be the end of it, but I didn’t know about competing for status in prison. I didn’t know about power and control. I didn’t know that people and relationships could be bought and sold.
To be continued…