Influencing Culture Inside Prison (or anywhere) by Ruth Utnage
A few years back I had my first run in with culture when I moved from one prison to another and the culture was totally different. At the previous institution there were about 500 (25% of the total population) openly out LGBT people, of which I was one. I requested to be slightly closer to my visitor and was sent to an institution that had a reputation for housing even more LGBT people…a queer mecca. I had gotten so used to walking the yard and seeing a sea of LGBT people that I couldn’t imagine more, but I was excited to experience a fully LGBT culture for the first time in my life.
But it wasn’t like that at all.
I got to that new prison and I was the only publicly “out” person there and I was NOT well-received. The fact that I had a sex offense was not an issue, but the fact that I was gender non-conforming, that was a real issue. The churches took up issue with me, to include the chaplain and I had no friends. To ease the pain of social isolation I took up drawing portraits and reading about neuroscience, both could be done for free (I had/have no money, I’m a broke tranny!). That got me some income, drawing peoples families like an expensive photocopy machine using graphite, but no friends.
Eventually I began campaigning for an LGBT support group after I sat down with this person once I finally got a job who was quietly gay, he simply said “I’m dating someone” before I had a chance to even say my name. I was dumbfounded, I truly didn’t understand the culture of this place. This was not the “gay mecca” everyone thought it was, it was more like a queer hell. But then I stumbled on something that changed my life, an unintended consequence, cultural influence.
It started when I went to my units supervisor, called a CUS. They are usually off-limits to inmates in most institutions for any type of conversation unless your telling on someone or you’re commanded to speak to them. But in this case, I needed help. I told him that I had no friends, no LGBT people to talk to and asked if there was a unit within the institution that had another LGBT person in it so I could move to it. He denied my request citing PREA concerns, which is short for saying “I think if I place two LGBT people near each other they will inevitably have sex”. Then he said as much, actually he said “If I was in a women’s prison and was the only guy there and we were in a shower I would not be able to stop myself, well, here you are that ‘sole’ guy in the shower and I don’t blame you for wanting to try”.
I was furious. But it was this moment that changed so much for me. I left his office in a heated rage and as I walked through the dayroom people began to ask me what my problem was and I was at the point where I no longer cared what anyone thought so I let them have it. I told them that I was told this place was full of LGBT people and instead its full of hate, that in was just accused of being a horny white guy in a shower full of women, and that all I wanted was a few friends and all of them (meaning the people I was speaking to) were to wrapped up hating me to give me a chance and that just wanted some friends.
Suddenly I became a project. People, straight people, began to help me find other LGBT people and make them feel comfortable enough, safe enough, to come out openly. Slowly over a year people began to emerge as out and unafraid and then we began campaigning for an LGBT support group because it was still believed that we were a giant hornets nest of lust by some. But over time, the culture shifted and I paid attention to it. And here’s why I write this, you can influence the culture anywhere you go.
Culture at a business is a contained unit, that office or warehouse or site is comprised of the same people day in and day out and you can create the environment you want by understanding where you want it to go and then being bold enough to stand up for it, loudly, and reward people openly for moving toward it. We’re not talking about money, we’re talking about a verbal thank you for solving a real problem of yours, its finding people who can solve a problem and calling on their expertise and then acknowledging them publicly.
That’s part of it. The main lesson here is to stand for something and those who stand for nothing will seek you out. Just make sure that the ‘something’ you stand for is a truly good thing, otherwise you’ll create chaos. Nobody wants to add to that.
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Ruth Utnage fka jeff 823469 C-601-2
PO Box 888
Monroe, WA. 98272
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