BEHIND BARS

The Surprising Reality Of Being Locked Up In America’s Only Gay Prison Wing

feature1-3_11-20-14LA Weekly just published a fascinating short documentary piece by reporter Ani Ucar that takes viewers inside K6G, the infamous “gay wing” of L.A. County’s downtown jail.

The film centers around Dave Williams, AKA Yah Yah, a transgender inmate known for her performing impromptu fashion shows in her dorm, where she takes pride in showing off her flashy refashioned jail attire. Yah Yah turns bedsheets into halter-top baby-doll dresses with matching white Cinderella gloves, and jail uniforms into tie-dyed hot pants.

“These homosexuals are so creative,” K6G inmate David Arrieta says. “They get a sheet. They make it into a beautiful dress.”

Yah Yah is her dorm’s elected “House Mouth,” which is sort of the prison equivalent to a mother superior. She runs the show in K6G. Despite being incarcerated, she has a surprisingly upbeat attitude about life behind bars, which she tries to pass on to her fellow inmates.

“We make up songs,” she explains. “In this dorm, we have what is called the ‘Word of the Day.’ If I say the word of the day, the whole dorm will say, ‘Yeeeeeah!'”

“We make the best of it,” K6G inmate Dino Baglioni says. “As a gay population, we have our own ways of entertaining ourselves.”

Here’s what else we learned about this particular gay prison environment:

  • The closest thing to a gay wing in another big, urban jail system, though it isn’t close at all, is at the Old Wayne County Jail in Detroit, which offers a small number of locked cells to gay and transgender inmates.
  • L.A. Men’s Central is a notoriously rough prison. The gay wing is set up in response to a 1985 ACLU lawsuit aimed to protect GBT (gay, bi, trans) prisoners from the general population.
  • Inmates are given a great deal more freedom than the general population to express as a community. As one inmate describes, “You’re allowed to be with whomever you want to, talk to whomever you want and do whatever you want to, basically, as long as you do it in a respectable way.”
  • Straight inmates fake being gay to live in the less menacing Gay Wing. Classification officers use a gay-dar test to keep the straight guys out.
  • In addition to escaping gang violence, straight inmates also fake being gay to gain access to the gay wing to have sex with gay prisoners
  • One way guards try and weed out the fakers is by quizzing them on their favorite gay bars. “Where do you hang out?” “Describe what it looks like inside.” “What’s the cover charge?” are all common questions used
  • GBT inmates regularly style fashions out of whatever materials are available to them at the time. One prisoner, a trans woman named Yah Yah, wore “a white cotton halter-top baby-doll dress and matching white Cinderella gloves, hand-crafted for her by one of the trans women.”
  • The sense of community there is so strong that it isn’t uncommon for people to re-offend once they’re released to be back with their chosen family
  • Most of the inmates are serving sentences for drug related crimes
  • Fashion shows and speed dating events are common ways of staying entertained behind bars
  • Weddings are fairly common among inmates

Check out the documentary below. And read the full story over at LA Weekly.

Related stories:

Being Gay In Prison May Be Worse Than You Ever Imagined

Hunger For Touch: The Real Truth Behind Gay Sex In Prison May Shock You

Gay Couples In Prison Are Punished For Having Sex, Holding Hands

Graham Gremore is a columnist and contributor for Queerty and Life of the Law. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.