When Leny* first arrived at Capanne prison, a women's facility in Perugia, central Italy, she was sulky and withdrawn. She paced the yard alone, head bowed and shoulders hunched. This was not unusual for a transfer. Each prison is its own delicate ecosystem. Being uprooted and replanted, often without warning, is a frightening experience. I noticed her immediately: petite, with a paunchy belly and short, dark hair. I made Leny for the kind of prisoner who'd only lash out if cornered — so not a threat to me.
Between 2007 and 2011, I was imprisoned for a murder I didn't commit. By the time Leny entered the picture, I had already served three of those years. I didn't talk to her. I didn't talk to most people. Generally, I kept to myself.
I was lucky. Thanks to the support of my friends and family, I didn't need relationships in prison as much as other inmates did. Factors that contribute to social isolation―poverty, mental illness, a history of neglect and abuse―are often all tied together, and are disproportionately suffered by people who enter the prison system. Fifty percent of all inmates have a mental illness, compared to 11 percent of the general population—and social isolation can exacerbate underlying mental health issues. Meanwhile, women entering prison are more likely than men to have suffered abuse. And what familial ties inmates have are often strained and weakened by incarceration.
In Capanne, most of the inmates belonged to established social groups, largely drawn down racial lines, mainly Italian, Nigerian, and Roma. As an American, I didn't belong, but I floated amidst them and observed how they were structured. They were hierarchical, like extended families. Nigerians called each other "mama" or "daughter," while Roma called each other "cousin." And within these families, it was common for two inmates to form an intimate partnership.
Inmates had crushes on one another. They passed love letters through the bars. They gave each other presents: drawings of flowers, or little crocheted satchels for holding a Walkman. One half of a notoriously tumultuous couple sulked and glared whenever her partner acted too friendly with other inmates. There were tearful breakups, and sometimes fistfights between new partners and exes. But for all the couples who acted like teenagers, there were as many as unshakably self-contained as if they had been married for 20 years. Many of these women will have identified as heterosexual—colloquially, they were, "gay for the stay."
When Kristine Bunch was wrongfully imprisoned for the death of her son (she served a 17-year sentence before being exonerated in 2012), she formed an intimate relationship with Rebecca*, a fellow inmate. They met when Bunch became Rebecca's GED tutor. Bunch taught Rebecca how to read, and in return Rebecca taught Bunch street smarts. "Rebecca grew up on the streets and hadn't attended much school," Bunch tells me, remembering her relationship five years after her release. "She wasn't book smart, but she was very street wise. I learned as much from her as she did from me."
My introduction to Leny was less fortuitous. Every day, Leny watched me jog around the yard (a rectangular outdoor area roughly a quarter of the size of a football field), and eventually worked up the nerve to say hello. I was cautiously friendly. We walked the perimeter together. She told me she was a lesbian and I told her I was straight. Leny told me about how, in Italy, she had experienced a lot of judgement and closed-mindedness. I sympathized. When I was 14, a rumor went around my Catholic high school that I was a lesbian, alienating me from everyone but a small group of my classmates. Later, I became an LGBTQ ally and helped found the Gay-Straight Alliance at my high school. When I told her that, Leny grinned ear-to-ear. Afterwards, she scampered, puppy-like, alongside me as I paced the exercise yard—the next day, and the day after that, and eventually every day.
Over the next few weeks, we became friends. Well, almost-friends. I didn't really have friends in prison. Singled out as "the famous one" by both inmates and officers, I spent my first eight months in isolation, and after that, prison staff steered visiting politicians to my cell door to show me off. My fellow prisoners resented me for all the attention I received. I was on the news almost every day, I received copious mail, my family visited often, and I was always able to afford basic commissary.
Most of my fellow inmates were bigger, tougher, meaner, more desperate, and had less to lose than me, so I never let my guard down. But I was stubborn, too. I was innocent, and for a long time, I refused to integrate into a world that didn't belong to me. I earned my peace by helping inmates write their letters and translating for non-Italian speakers, but I was always quiet and withdrawn, my nose in a book or running laps of the yard.
I was caught between defensiveness and loneliness. Leny didn't demand that I give her the "real scoop" about my case, or the clothes off my back, or ask me to buy her cigarettes. At first, she didn't demand anything. So I let Leny listen to my CDs. I taught her how to play chess. When Leny got a janitorial job, she loitered outside my cell for a sip of espresso and a chat whenever she was on break. Leny didn't have anyone else, so she looked forward to our time together.
At least initially, Leny might not have been trying to seduce me, and was actually just in need of someone kind to distract her from her loneliness. This is common. Contrary to what you might guess, many prison relationships aren't about sex—just like most relationships outside of prison.
"Research suggests that the primary reason most men and women enter relationships, regardless of orientation, is for companionship," Dr. Pamela Regan, a social psychology professor specializing in relationship research at California State University tells me. "They want to form a loving, lasting relationship. For intimacy. For recreation. For social support. And yes, for sex. But it's all part of a larger need to form a connection with another person."
There's every shade of human sexuality in prison, but sexual activity isn't a necessary or defining part of the romantic partnership. Relationships in prison are sometimes about sex, but more often they're about human connection. Because prison is an awful place: It is designed to deny people of their desire to connect.
It's near-impossible to quantify how many people have romantic or sexual relationships while incarcerated: The data simply doesn't exist. While the Federal Bureau of Prisons publishes an annual report that details the number of alleged and substantiated claims of sexual assault that occur behind bars, it doesn't factor in adult, consensual relationships. Nonetheless, my own personal experience of prison suggested that such relationships are common.
Bunch's bond with Rebecca was deep and intimate. "It meant so much to me to have someone to watch out for and cook for," she says. "To have someone that I could trust. To share my fears and concerns with. Someone to give me a love letter or squeeze my hand when a court date was continued or a petition denied. And after 17 years in prison, I craved touch."
Bunch and Rebecca, like many other inmates, formed what psychologists call a resilient relationship. These are relationships that enable people to survive adverse life circumstances. Most direct research into resilient relationships focuses on children, often from regions afflicted by war or natural disaster. But the insights of resilience researchers can be applied to the prison population. In difficult conditions, finding someone you connect with can be enormously psychologically beneficial.
Prison is an isolating place. You're forcibly removed from your homes and support network. You're deprived freedom of movement, of social interaction, and of time. You're forced to submit to total surveillance and control by strangers, alongside strangers. But relationships help keep us sane, even if they're forbidden or not ideal.
"Prison also sets up what we in relationship research call a 'closed field,'" Dr. Regan explains. "Relationships in prison are to a large extent involuntary. They are forced because there's an external limit on who you have as a potential partner. You form your relationships—sexual, romantic, friend—out of the choices you have available."
Human beings are remarkably adaptable, but this isn't to say that we are capable of flipping our sexual orientation like a light switch, as some people erroneously claim. "Orientation is a larger construct than attraction and activity," Dr. Regan argues. "Attraction and activity are part of orientation, but they are not one and the same. Someone who identifies as heterosexual, for example, may still feel attraction toward a same-sex individual and engage in sexual or romantic activities with a same-sex individual." Dr. Regan describes this practice as a "disconnect."
Sexual orientation is best described as existing on a continuum. Inmates who seem to be acting against their professed orientation are likely tapping into a less expressed part of their orientation. Furthermore, research has shown that women tend to demonstrate greater sexual fluidity than men, and our sexual orientation is less a determining factor in our sexual and romantic experiences than it is for men. How human beings become attracted and attached to each other is more complex than our traditional conceptions of sexuality admit.
Although relationships are common in prisons, gestures of intimacy between inmates are technically forbidden. Inmates often risk punishment: a formal write-up docking time for good behavior, stints in solitary confinement, or even involuntary transfer if they act openly as a couple. Identifying as homosexual, or exhibiting homosexual behavior, may result in harassment by the correctional officers. "Officers would call us names and tell us how disgusting we were," remembers Bunch. "I received my first write up with Rebecca because she gave me a hug after a hard visit with my son. There was no compassion."
And other prisoners can take advantage of each other—maliciously or inadvertently.
Leny wanted to hold hands. "I've changed women before," she'd tell me. "I can do things to you that no man can." I felt objectified and I'd get annoyed. "You can't change me," I'd respond. She'd think I was playing hard to get. One day, Leny kissed me.
I gritted my teeth and half-smiled, wavering between embarrassment and anger. It was bad enough that the prison institution took ownership of my body―that I was caged and strip-searched on a regular basis and had already been sexually harassed by male guards. As a prisoner, Leny should have understood that, but unlike me, Leny was serving a short stint, and didn't feel as acutely as I did the loss of privacy, dignity, and autonomy. A small town drug dealer, Leny didn't know what it felt like to have her past, present, and future stolen―not like I did.
I told Leny that since she couldn't respect my boundaries, we couldn't be friends anymore. Things became tense. On break from work, Leny loitered outside my cell, arguing with me about how I was over-reacting. I was relieved when she was finally released, although she continued to write. She sent me jazz CDs which she inscribed on the inside jacket, "Love always, Leny." I never replied.
Bunch and Rebecca had a happier ending. "We made plans," Bunch says. "Not to get out and live happily ever after. We made plans to always be in each other's lives. We both knew that circumstance had brought us together, and once one of us went home, the circumstances would change."
After Bunch was released, they stayed in touch. "I continued to write her, send her money, and we had phone calls. When Rebecca was released, I met her family, and she met mine. We continue to see each other, talk on the phone, and offer each other support. That won't ever change. She was a constant in one of the darkest times of my life and I love her for it."
We're intrigued by the idea of prison relationships, in part because we're morbidly curious about anything to do with transgressors and criminals, but also because their relationships are titillating and a little mysterious. Like a teenage girl's sleepover, we wonder what's going on behind closed doors (or locked bars). The idea of women in prison brings out the horny teenage boy in many of us—perhaps it's the implied lesbianism—but there's also something deeper. As any good scholar of Foucault knows, a woman in prison is by definition a woman controlled by oppressive, primarily masculine forces. Together, these two factors can help explain why the sexuality of incarcerated women is endlessly fascinating to the wider public.
Consequently, we overlook non-sexual romantic relationships. The relationships inmates establish with each other are treated as nothing more than kinky lies to be ashamed of upon returning to the real world. But they're not. "Gay for the stay" is an insensitive oversimplification that signals a lack of understanding about what it's really like to be imprisoned, and an underestimation of human nature.
Looking back, Bunch sees her relationship with Rebecca as a gift. "I'm grateful for the opportunity to have had someone to love while I was inside. I know that many prison relationships are frowned upon, but the need for love, companionship, and trust is something that we all have, inside or out. If we deprive people of their basic human needs, they become no more than animals."
*Name changed for anonymity.