Life In A Delhi Jail As A Queer Man: Navigating Power, Masculinity

Karan Tripathi
·10-min read

A first-time offender lands up in Delhi’s Rohini Jail as a pretrial prisoner. Like all other inmates living in his barrack, which houses only first-time offenders, he immediately developed feelings of trauma and denial. ‘This can’t be true’, he would keep repeating to himself while resisting the offering of food and other facilities from the jail authorities.

He slowly started to reconcile with the idea of a prison space, and began to look around at all other pretrial inmates, who, just like him, were engulfed in the paradox of hope and hopelessness. Although the awareness of what and who surrounds him became profound, the knowledge of who he was on the inside became more invisibilised. Inside that jail, he realised, he could not afford to be himself, he could not be queer.

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Invisibility Of Queer People In Prison Spaces And Need For Discourse

This article is an attempt to understand how the sexual identity of an individual that identifies as queer interacts with the carceral space. Through the narratives of a pretrial queer man, we get a glimpse of how the queer identity is experienced and negotiated in a hierarchical structure of a male prison, where heteronormativity and the hegemonic idea of masculinity is the prevailing norm. This article is aimed at not only foregrounding the carceral experience of sexual minorities within the discourse on the sociology of prisons – but also to place gender at the centre of criminological analysis in India.

The invisibility of queer narratives in prison research in India is reflective of the apathy towards these narratives outside the prison. The research on policing, sentencing, and prosecution strategies, have also conveniently ignored how sexuality interacts with the subjective elements of discipline, control, and punishment within the criminal justice system.

This dearth of research has a direct effect on not just how we look at sexuality, but also what we are looking at. The available source material is largely the research undertaken in the Anglo-American societies, reliance on which further alienates our understanding of queer lived experience from the unique socio-cultural context in which the Indian queer individuals navigate.

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Therefore, this article is merely a ‘conversation-starter’, to bring attention to the significance of positioning sexuality in the ongoing discussion on how the criminal justice system impacts the vulnerable groups.

This article is the narrative of one queer prisoner, who is not named here to respect his wish to stay anonymous, who navigated through the life inside Delhi’s Rohini jail for a period of 15 months as a pretrial prisoner. He is accused by his ex-boyfriend of an offence under Chapter XVI of the Indian Penal Code (the particulars about his case and the exact nature of the offence are kept anonymous as per his wishes.)

Crime & The Conscious Act Of Self-Censuring

As per the interviewee, one way of dealing with the early phases of denial and shock that engulfs the first-time entrants of Delhi’s Rohini jail is to talk about the crime one is accused of. The inmates in that barrack earmarked for first-time offenders, think of these conversations as one way to rationalise ‘their side of the story’; to seek answers and audience for their thoughts, otherwise denied by the system that creates a rigid binary of the victim and the offender. For the interviewee, participating in these conversations involved ‘filtering his story’ to fit the acceptable norms of that prison space:

"“Unlike others, I could not tell the truth about my story, about my case. I told them that I had a fight with my girlfriend and she registered a case against me. I was too scared to even tell that it was a guy, of even presenting him as my brother.”"

This act of self-censuring adversely affected the desired result of participating in these conversations about one’s alleged crime. While for other inmates, these conversations helped in feeling more relaxed and at peace with their surroundings and with themselves, for the interviewee, the dishonesty that marked his involvement further pushed him towards self-doubt and a sense of loneliness.

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"“I couldn’t talk about anything, I was too scared to reveal the truth. After a point, I stopped participating in those sessions. I felt terribly lonely, but at least I was safe.”"

The act of constructing narratives continued to happen in other aspects of prison life as well - to seek privileges or facilities, to avoid unnecessary questioning by the jail staff, and to develop a sense of trust with other inmates. This made the interviewee realise that he had to censure not just the truth about his sexuality, but also his understanding of gender norms; plying with what is acceptable and valorised to navigate through space.

Perils Of Being ‘Visibly Gay’ In Prison & Navigating Masculinity

The interviewee shared that the understanding of masculinity inside the prison was a reflection of how the same was perceived from the society he came from. However, in the prison, it was more apparent and deviations were acutely noticed, monitored, and then punished or exploited. Inmates who were perceived as ‘effeminate’ suffered immensely; they were beaten up by other inmates, denied facilities by the jail staff, subjected to more grunt work and lewd comments. The ‘torture’, the interviewee said, was not just verbal, but also physical and emotional:

"“There were definitely men who were very visibly gay, and they were treated horribly. Especially by the African (foreign national prisoners) prisoners who were very homophobic. They used to put a blanket on these boys and beat them mercilessly. They’ll deliberately mock them just to pick a fight, just to beat them… sometimes their food was taken away, they were asked to clean toilets. If they tried to raise their voice, they were beaten up by the jail staff. They couldn’t even share their experience with the lawyers and NGO people who came from the outside; they knew these NGO people had no power, they won’t be able to do anything.”"

It is the treatment meted to these ‘visibly gay’ inmates, that made the interviewee realise that he needs to be extra conscious about how his behaviour is getting interpreted; he had to be more ‘masculine’ than the other guys. This involved participating in sexual conversations about women and avoiding even friendly ‘touches’ or ‘gestures’ from other inmates. To him, it felt like a ‘constant state of alertness.

The ‘Privilege’ Of Being A Cis-Gender Man In Prison

This continued state of auditing behaviour took a toll on the emotional and mental health of the interviewee. He discussed that he started feeling disgusted with himself, thought of doing drugs but couldn’t even do that as he was afraid of revealing his truth while being ‘high’, and spent a considerable amount of time thinking about his life outside the prison:

"“I was not even this closeted outside, I felt scared back then also but not this much. It was like reliving that fear and disgust I had about myself and my sexuality during school and college days when I was bullied. I never felt this lonely and abandoned in life; I kept missing my mother.”"

During the course of the interview, the interviewee confessed that he was not aware of the fact that he carried the privilege of being a cis-gender male in the masculine space of prison. He said that he got saved from a ‘lot of situations’ because he didn’t act like a ‘typical gay man’. Despite being overly conscious about his actions, the privilege of being a cis-gender male in that prison space surely made the journey a lot easier. However, the fact of his sexuality continued to propel the behaviour of self-censuring as a defence mechanism to both survive and negotiate with prison masculinity.

The Comfort Of A Friend

The constant fabrication of his sexual identity, and the degree of consciousness required to maintain that lie, subjected the interview to an acute sense of loneliness. However, things became to improve when he was finally able to make a friend, a friend that he could trust:

"“Finally, after 8 months, I found a guy in jail whom I could call my friend. He was accused of fabricating a recommendation letter to get a job at a big corporate. I could relate to him because, just like me, he was also very well educated and had a vibrant social life. He knew how diverse people can be. This made me open up to me, not just about my (alleged) crime, but also about myself.”"

It was only when he shared his story with this new friend that he realised how big a burden he had been carrying. He expressed the feeling of sharing his story as ‘liberating’, ‘relieving’, and ‘light’. What helped the interviewee trust this new friend with his story was that the new friend did not react adversely or dramatically after getting to know that the interviewee was facing charges for a case filed by his ‘boyfriend’ and not his ‘girlfriend’. The interviewee shared:

"“We became very close and spent all our time together. He was in a different barrack, so the moment they opened up our barracks we immediately rushed towards each other. We used to walk together for hours talking about our lives.”"Trust, Friendship, Freedom

When asked about his ‘happiest moment’ in prison, the interviewee immediately recollected all his conversations and the time spent with this friend. This new friendship, and a sense of freedom and trust that it brought to the interviewee, helped him have conversations on homophobia with other inmates as well. However, these conversations were not explicitly or exclusively focused on the issue of homophobia. They were based on the general themes of ‘discrimination' and ‘understanding’ where homosexuality was mentioned as an example or an anecdote to make a larger point. The interviewee said:

"“I started talking to other inmates about discrimination. I realised, that they all wanted to talk, they all wanted to be understood. My barracks was filled with young boys from Haryana, aged 20 or 22, who were accused of rape. They never had anyone in their life, or their family, who could talk to them about these things. So when I started talking to them about acceptance, they listened… I didn’t openly talk about homophobia with them but I did use it as an example; I used to say that everyone is equal, we shouldn’t judge anyone even if they’re homosexuals. I used to tell them that just the way they feel hurt for being judged and called things, others also feel bad when you discriminate or mock them.”"

Interviewee’s conversations with other inmates revealed the need for having discussion groups and counselling sessions for first-time offenders and pretrial detainees. It showed how the young offenders carry an urge to find a non-judgmental space to open up about their feelings, to realise the burden of the overtly masculine and patriarchal space that they themselves participate in and perpetuate inside the prison.

Policy Work On Prison Environment Must Change

The policy work on prison climate needs to address the structural issues that impact the queer prisoners; and the beginning should be the acknowledgement that queer prisoners exist. The discourse needs to foreground the narratives of not just queer prisoners, but also of those who engage with the flow of hegemonic masculinity inside the male prison. The only voice on discrimination that matter is the voice of the discriminated.

(Karan Tripathi is a legal journalist and a researcher in the field of criminal justice. He tweets @TripathiGee. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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