Lockdown: Queer cook

[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.]

About a week after I arrived at the correctional center, I got a job in the kitchen. With my experience at another correctional center, it took me only a couple of months to work my way up to the cook line. I enjoyed working in the kitchen because not only could I eat what I wanted, but it got me out of the dorm. Several guys were constantly trying to get me to have sex with them — actually they wanted me to service them; there would be no reciprocation. Being in the kitchen got me away from the sexual advances.

For the most part, their advances were more annoying than anything. One might follow me into the shower — the only place where inmates could legally be naked together — and entice me by playing with himself. Another might want to just stand there with my back to him, so he could imagine having sex with me. Or, at night, I might go into the bathroom and one of these guys would be there sitting on a toilet and he’d want me to take over.

I never felt threatened by any of these men. To be honest, I probably enjoyed the attention; it’s nice to be wanted. And, most of it was probably my own fault, in that I was an openly gay man in prison. I was popular enough that some of the other homosexuals at times got a little jealous.

Not all the attention was good. There were guys who hated me for who I was. They’d find any excuse to make my life a little more miserable. Most of it came through verbal harassment. Rarely would anything become physical and when it did, it would only be a shove. Once my bed got dismantled, with my mattress and sheets left in a pile on the floor. I was able to ignore most of the harassment and I knew who to stay away from, so for the most part things went smoothly.

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Until I got on the cook line. I had been on it for about a week, when I came into the kitchen and one of my coworkers, a fellow fag named Brian, a little black guy who looked exactly like Carlton from the TV show “Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” called me aside.

“Hey, three guys were just in there talking to Mr. Hall about you.”

“Talking about me?” I began to feel nervous. Why would they talk to Mr. Hall about me?

“I acted like I was mopping up, so I could get close to the office. I couldn’t hear everything, but I heard them say that they didn’t want some faggot who was running around the dorm sucking dick all morning cooking and handling their food.”

“What?”

“Yeah. And I heard them say that if Hall didn’t get you out of the kitchen, they’d all write grievances and have their families call the superintendent.”

I stood there looking at the floor, not knowing what to say. I felt hurt and angry. I had done nothing to those guys. I was especially angry at their claim I was the dorm slut, since I wasn’t sexually active then with anyone.

I thanked Brian for letting me know and went to work preparing the meal for that evening. About half an hour later Mr. Hall called me to his office.

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“Sit down,” he said. I sat in the chair next to his desk, and he took his. “I had some guys in here this morning who had some complaints.”

“Yeah. I heard.”

“Well, let me tell you my thoughts on the matter.” He leaned back in his chair. “Personally I don’t care what goes on outside this kitchen. Nor do I care about who you hang around with or what you do. What I will say is this — you’re one of the best workers I’ve ever had in this kitchen. I wish I could find 10 more like you.”

I couldn’t hide my smile.

“I don’t care about you being gay and don’t really want to know if you are. That’s none of my business. I don’t know what problem those guys had this morning and don’t really care. I’m not getting rid of you.”

“Thanks, Mr. Hall.”

“Now I don’t want to find out there’s anything going on in my kitchen. But you’d better watch your back, because it’s obvious those guys have a problem with you. If you’re doing anything in the dorm, or you’ve got a boyfriend or something, be careful. I don’t want to lose you.”

“There’s nothing like that going on, Mr. Hall.”

“All I care about is your coming in here, doing your job and keeping my kitchen clean. You do all that and more, and I don’t have a problem with you. Now go out there and get to work.”

I didn’t walk out of Mr. Hall’s office — I floated. To my surprise, a few days later I learned of a new rumor going around the camp: Mr. Hall didn’t fire me because he was a faggot, too, and I was his boy. I didn’t have to guess where that one came from.

— 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.

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