Gay rights on lockdown

An inmate details his ongoing court battle with the N.C. Dept. of Corrections

ju[Ed. Note: Joseph Urbaniak, an inmate at Harnett Correctional Institution in Lillington, N.C., 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. In this exclusive feature, he gives his account of the circumstances that precipitated this important court battle. To be published in the following issue and through the new year is a short-run column featuring Urbaniak’s accounts of gay life in the prison system.]

“Inmate Urbaniak! Report to the H-Block Control Desk! Immediately!” The dorm officer’s voice echoed over the intercom on the yard at Harnett Correctional. When I got to the Control Desk, the dorm officer gruffly said, “Report to the captain’s office.”

As I walked across the prison to the captain’s office, I got that queasy, knotted-up, butterflies-in-the-stomach feeling that you get when you’re driving down the highway and you see a state trooper’s flashing blue lights in the mirror, and you know you’re being pulled over. I tried to think of what I might have done wrong to merit this audience with one of the unit officials. I couldn’t think of anything.

When I arrived at the office I knocked on the door. “Come in,” a voice yelled. I went in and sat in a chair. The captain sat behind a gray metal industrial-type desk with papers and folders scattered on it. He was an older man close to retirement, with skin like well-worn leather and short gray hair.

“You are being denied a magazine that came in the mail. You’ve got three choices. You can throw it away, mail it home or appeal the denial.” He held up a copy of The Advocate.

“Why is it being denied? I’ve been getting that magazine for years.”

“It was denied up front,” he said, referring to some nameless person in the administration.

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“But why was it denied?”

The captain paused a moment, then said as if it pained him to do so, “Because it’s homosexual in nature.”

“And? That’s against policy?”

“You can’t receive homosexual material,” he emphatically replied.

“Why not? I am a homosexual.”

“Like I said, you can throw it away, mail it home or appeal. What do you want to do?”

“But I don’t understand why I can’t have a magazine that I’ve been getting for years without any problems.”

“I said,” he declared in a louder voice, “you can throw it away, mail it home or appeal it. Now what do you want to do?”

I sat back in the chair, feeling numb and getting angry. According to Department of Corrections policy, inmates are not allowed to receive publications that show nudity or sexual activity. The Advocate certainly didn’t have that.

Granted, there might be a picture of an attractive guy in a speedo or thong, but that wasn’t any more scandalous than some of the other men’s magazines that came into the prison showing women in scanty bikinis, and those magazines were allowed.

The policy also says that a publication cannot be denied just because staff may disagree with its contents or find it repugnant. That’s the actual word used in the policy, “repugnant.” Obviously, the staff found my magazine repugnant.

“I’ll appeal.” I filled out the necessary paperwork and left his office, sure that the publication review committee would see the error in the captain’s ways and approve my magazine.

A few days later I was again summoned by the captain. This time he held up the latest issue of Out, telling me it had been disapproved. Other publications followed: The Front Page, The New York Blade, other issues of Out and The Advocate.

I began to get paranoid, fearing that any day now a couple of officers would come and search through my locker, hoping to find more “repugnant” material. I might even get locked up in Segregation. It seemed like I threatened the sanctity of the institution.

After all, here I was, an openly gay man in their prison, receiving gay publications. I could lie on my bunk and read a gay news or entertainment magazine in sight of everyone. That might give the impression that the prison condoned such repugnant behavior, and we certainly couldn’t have that!

Over the next several months I was called to the captain’s office again and again. More magazines were denied. Books that had the words “gay” or “homosexual” in the title, or showing men in some sort of embrace, were likewise denied. Even books that had nothing to do with gay issues or homosexuality were disapproved, only because they came at the same time as gay-related books — guilt by association.

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Everything was appealed to the review committee and, to my surprise, everything was denied.
I began writing letters to the review committee, asking them to explain exactly what in the last issue of Out, or in a novel about two men falling in love while trying to break into the film industry in Hollywood, or in any of the other publications denied, they found so distasteful as to warrant their being banned.

The only reply I received was the standard form letter citing the prison’s policy. No explanation as to exactly how the policy applied to a particular book or magazine, just a statement that it did. They were saying, in effect, “Trust us. It applies, it applies.”

Through all of this I was becoming a stressed-out, nervous wreck. I’d leave the captain’s office angry, upset and trembling with the fear that they were coming to tear through my property and send me to a Segregation cell. Some days I couldn’t even eat.

I kept a log of my meetings with the captain, including the publications denied, conversations I had with the staff, and appeals and subsequent denials. I began sharing my problem and my fears with other inmates, who agreed that the administration and review committee were misapplying the policy, that they were discriminating against me and I should do something about it.

In December 2006 I filed a civil action (known as a 1983 for the section in the U.S. code — 42 U.S.C. sect. 1983) against the Department of Corrections and all its staff involved in denying me my gay-related publications, citing violation of my First Amendment and due process rights. I had learned how to do this from my 13 years of incarceration and reading law books explaining the procedure.
If they didn’t want to tell me exactly what in those publications warranted their disapproval, maybe they could explain it to a federal judge.

To represent me, the court appointed North Carolina Legal Service, Inc., a state-funded group of attorneys who represent inmates in North Carolina prisons and jails. I received a letter from one of their attorneys, Dawn Ducoste, who congratulated me on the clarity and thoroughness of my complaint, and agreed that my rights had been violated.

To my surprise, in August 2007 The News & Observer in Raleigh published a front-page article about my lawsuit. The article was picked up by The Associated Press and featured in practically every newspaper in the state and on many news source web sites. It even made USA Today. Not long after, my attorney was speaking about the case with a talk show host on a local NPR radio station.

Needless to say, I became something of a celebrity here at Harnett Correctional. For the next few weeks, when I walked past small groups of guys on the yard, I would hear, “That’s the guy who was in the paper — the one who filed the lawsuit against the D.O.C,” and they would look at me with awe.

I can’t discuss much about where the case stands because it is still pending. But since I filed the suit, I haven’t had any trouble getting my magazines and books.

None of this is about trying to get photos or magazines showing naked men. The policy is clear on those kinds of publications and I am not fighting against it. I simply want to be allowed to receive publications that are about the gay community, its lifestyle, health, entertainment and history.

As for seeing men in the nude, I can see that here everyday when I take a shower, which is ironic. Who wouldn’t rather see live naked men as opposed to a picture in a magazine? Of course, not all the men in here like being looked at, and I don’t disrespect those who want me to avert my eyes. But there are plenty of exhibitionists who don’t mind one bit, and neither do I. Prison isn’t all bad.

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 2012. 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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