Cut Roses by Bo Young
My friend Beverley and I left New York Friday afternoon, Valentine's Day, at 3:00 and drove to Columbus, Ohio. We spent the night there and I drove on the next morning to Pendleton, Indianapolis to visit my friend Allen in the Indiana State Penitentiary. They call it a reformatory... such masters of euphemism! Reform... Penitents... what a joke!
Allen is serving a four year sentence for three DUIs (driving under the influence.) He is required to serve only two of those with good behavior. But what he is really doing time for, at least now, is being a queer. We started corresponding when he wrote to me after reading a piece I wrote in White Crane Journal about the AIDS Ride from Minneapolis to Chicago. He wants to participate when he is released and was writing to me for information about it.
Allen is 28 years old and an attractive, out, gay man. While in the custody of the Indiana State Prison system he has been repeatedly raped, extorted and targeted because he refuses to be a good fag. In fact, at one point, the prison administration knowingly put him in a cell with a man, Earl Tilsbury, who is serving 60 years for killing a gay Indianapolis businessman--just for the sport of it, the entertainment value of it. When Tilsbury attacked Allen--as they had to know he would--and when Allen was clever enough to talk his way out of the man's barbaric clutches long enough to escape the cell--naked--to beg for protection, the guards escorted him back to the cell at gun point and forced him to re-enter the cell.
Every time he is attacked he complains according to the rules that are in place for redress of grievances. There have been "investigations" but these usually end up saying that he is making these things up--the fox investigating the chicken coop incident--and he becomes the brunt of further jokes among the guards. "Surrounded by horny men who want to have sex with you...Isn't that what you fags like?"
And every time he complains he is written up and his good behavior time is stripped from him. They tell him they are not responsible for his physical safety. He was supposed to have been released last October. But since he is a "troublemaker" ("Why don't you just find someone you are willing to have sex with who will protect you and shut up?") they can now hold him until October 1997... and until October 1998 if they want to. It seems that they want to, though they have yet to provide him with any therapy or a 12-Step program (or adequate medical treatment.) Pretty strange since he is serving time for being a drunk.
There are no prisoner's rights activists in Indiana. And no Queer Nation or ACT-UP, it seems, to speak of. Lambda hasn't evinced much interest in his case, either. Or any of the other human rights organizations. In my networking to see what kind of help I can scare up for him, I have spoken to a former warden in the Indiana State Penal system, and professors at the Universities of Chicago and Wisconsin who all say dealing with Indiana's penal system is like dealing with Albania. I concur.
In the end, these days, there isn't much sympathy for people serving jail sentences. Everyone seems to believe that if you're behind bars there must be a damn good reason. The rest of the country is in such a punitive mind-set it is difficult at best to get anyone to help. No one, least of all me, excuses Allen's DUIs. But a maximum security prison hardly seems to be the most appropriate of settings to deal with that problem.
I arrived in Pendleton, the environs of Indianapolis, Saturday morning at 11:30. I have never visited a prison before, so I called ahead to speak with someone to see if I could have extra time with Allen, considering how far I was traveling. I had been told by the Superintendent's office that, because I was traveling such a great distance, that I would be granted extended visiting privileges. Translation: I would have two hours on both Saturday and Sunday where most people get only one hour every two weeks.
Upon arriving and checking in at the "Information Desk" (another quaint euphemism, I might add) I am told that I would only be granted an hour and a half and only on Saturday... normally. The catch was that Allen is now in "lock down" and because he is in handcuffs I can only see him for an hour and no I can't see him again on Sunday! They won't tell me why Allen is on "lock down" and I can only see him for an hour because they can only keep him in handcuffs for no longer than an hour and he must be handcuffed whenever in the presence of another person. Handcuffs?! Lockdown? Why? "Because of his behavior." I am told.
After watching the other people filing in to visit their friends and relatives, I discern that I have to remove my jewelry, my watch, all my money, my keys and virtually everything else and place it in a bus locker. There is no sign that tells you this. I only knew from observation. Before passing through the metal detector I am required to take my shoes off and place anything else I might have on my person in a tub which is X-rayed while I am being patted down and asked if I am attempting to bring in any contraband, weaponry or drugs. Like I'm going to try to do that. Like someone who is would tell them!
I put my shoes back on and a large iron gate mechanically starts to slide back allowing me to enter an anteroom with a bullet-proof glass guard station. I am asked to place my right hand in a box where there is a black light... and lo! They forgot to stamp me outside... so I have to go back outside and get stamped and do this part all over again.
Now properly stained in dayglow acid green, I am allowed to proceed through yet another wall-sized sliding iron-barred gate into a large room, about the size of a small gymnasium filled with cafeteria tables and people sitting talking quietly. I have only ever seen a photograph of Allen, so I am looking around the room to see if I see anyone who looks like him. There are a lot of men in white T-shirts with black numbers on them and blue jeans and white socks sitting around but I see no one sitting alone. Then the guard (or guardess in this case) in the crow's nest guard station overlooking the whole Boschian scene motions me over to a row of booths along the far wall. I walk over and, like a movie shot panning around the corner, a young man sitting in handcuffs comes into view. It is Allen. He blushes and stands up, his hands folded as in prayer, shackled in stainless steel.
The little room has two chairs in it and a round table. It is glassed on two sides and there is a window on the fourth wall with a shade drawn across it. The doorway looks out onto the room where everyone else is visiting. Later when I ask him why we got such "privacy" he tells me it is because of his lock down... he is not allowed to be around other people and other people are not allowed to be close to him. "Good," I think.
I approach him and he shyly stands to receive me. We embrace and kiss. Not a lover's kiss. A kiss of friendship. A kiss of peace. We have been writing to one another every day for months and this is the first time we have ever laid eyes on one another. We only have an hour, so I gently pull away from him and tell him to sit so we can start visiting. It is then that I notice that his wrists are bandaged, but this hasn't stopped the blood from seeping through and making a black and bloody stain where he had slashed two days earlier. Red practice cuts--scratches, really--extend down his arm from his elbow crook, above which I can see the letters B and O, my name, cut into his bicep.
As Allen explained to me, last Sunday, someone on his block threw gasoline into the cell next to his and then a match. Another person had been stabbed on Monday. He is supposed to be being held in protective custody... i.e. away from the general population. But he is not. When these things started he began to demand to be protected and moved. He asked to be able to call his attorney. They ignored him. So he cut his wrists to be taken to the infirmary, where he would be held apart. Suicide as an act of self-preservation.
As he tells me about this, he is shaking. My instinct is to hold him, of course, and that is what I did. In an instant there is a guard there telling me that I cannot touch him... that we are required to keep our hands on top of the table (where we may hold hands) but that we are only allowed to embrace upon entry and departure and then only when standing. Where are these guys when Allen is being raped?
I told them that if they had any more rules that I would appreciate being told what they are right now. Better yet, I would appreciate a written list, because I was not about to continue visiting and try to guess what their rules were as we went along.
I was later taken aside when I was leaving, by a woman officer who asked me if I had kissed Allen. I said I had. She was trying to be very diplomatic and assured me that in her personal opinion "you people" have a right to your feelings, but there were children present and people were complaining and that people talked. I was tempted to thank "her people" on behalf of "my people" for her sensitivity and largesse.
Instead I told her that we weren't even going to be able to have this conversation. But if our kissing was going to get Allen in trouble in any way that I would assure her we would not do it (I mean activism is one thing... but I think sometimes it is best to cut your losses... an Indiana State prison isn't one of those places one is likely to win that debate.)
I started talking to her and explained that I had come a great distance to see Allen and that I thought I was good for him and that my seeing him would go a long way to "keeping him calm" and that I thought it was in everyone's best interest to allow me to see him again tomorrow. Since I had been promised that by the Superintendent's office I wondered if she wouldn't double check to see if there wasn't someone with some discretion in the matter. Sure enough, she made a phone call and I was allowed to come back the next day for another hour's visit.
I went to the hotel and had a stiff drink.
The next day I returned to see Allen. I was a little better at the "drill" and was shown in to see him. He was shaking and seemed more quiet today. As I approached him to embrace him I said "Don't kiss me." He said "I know, I know" and we sat. He then began to tell me that he had been taken back to his cell last night and was stripped and hosed down with cold water for having kissed me.
I held his hand and we talked about how he could maintain through all this torture.
He asks me to please contact his lawyer and tell her he doesn't know how much longer he can hold on. I assure him I will and tell him I love him and please don't hurt yourself again. He tries to explain to me that he wasn't really trying to kill himself, but it was the only way to get them to pay any attention to him and to make sure he wasn't the next victim. He has paid well over $500 in extortion since being in this facility alone, for protection. I'm sure he also has to have sex with whomever it is he is paying this money to.
I truly believe that given the right circumstances he would blossom. He is intelligent, a seeking soul, who 's been brutalized almost from the moment he was born, it seems, and yet, somehow, he has managed to hold on to a core of sweetness.
I ask myself a lot whether or not he couldn't just be the best damn hustler I ever did lay eyes on, playing me like a Stradivarius. I honestly don't think so. But at this stage I can't tell anymore. And frankly I don't care. I will dance a jig in the street the day he is free and pop some champagne. If he comes to New York and wants help, I will give it to him... in the manner of access to every major social service in the city, which I have access to every day.
I would love to bathe him and anoint him with oils and rub aloe into his wounded body, compassion into his wounded heart and faith into his wounded soul.
Maybe he'll steal my stereo. Maybe he'll steal everything (though he has never given any indication of that kind of behavior). Fine. They are just things. Whatever kind of person he ends up being, he doesn't deserve to be treated the way he is being treated in this prison. He doesn't deserve to be in prison, in fact.
But somehow this all still feels like the right thing to do. I am so frustrated in not being able to do something more concrete for him. Sometimes love is not enough... though he tells me our correspondence has kept him alive. It is clear that he is losing it and I only pray that the attorney comes through and does so soon. I truly believe they want him dead, and for no other reason than for being a gay man.
I left the Pendleton prison on Sunday afternoon and drove back to Columbus to pick up my friend Bev. She and her friend and I went to supper and then home to bed. We got up the next morning and drove to Cleveland to see the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and then back to New York.
I am exhausted. Sitting on the kitchen table, when I walked in that night, there were a dozen cut roses from Allen for Valentine's Day, and two letters telling me how frustrated he is and how he isn't sure how much longer he can hang on.
They are dated three days before he cut himself.
Bo Young is contributing editor and poetry editor for WCJ. Cut Roses appeared previously in RFD under the name "The Only Good Queer is A Dead Queer."