Gay behind bars

Officials might deny it, but homophobia in Berlin prisons is a real problem. Where can out inmates turn?

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Photo by Francesca Torricelli

Officials might deny it, but homophobia in Berlin prisons is a real problem. Where can out inmates turn?

You feel like you’re in a movie,” sighs Lars Svenson (photo). “You touch the walls, the bed, you touch everything in that tiny room. You realise that the door is closed, that you can’t leave. That’s when it gets real.”

Being stripped of your freedom and confined to a cell with unknown, potentially hostile neighbours is a daunting situation for any new prisoner. There are rules to learn, schedules to adhere to, relationships to navigate. But Lars had a further concern – as an openly gay man, how safe would he be in one of Berlin’s prisons?

Prison is something of a microcosm of ‘real life’… People are forced together, confronted by their respective prejudices.

In the US, gay inmates are estimated to be at least three times as likely to be sexually abused by a fellow inmate or prison staff member, a number that rises to 13 times as likely for transgender prisoners. The situation in Germany is brighter. Much like the city itself, Berlin’s eight prisons are regarded as fairly liberal and progressive. American-style gang culture is rare, and anti-conflict workshops combined with a zero-tolerance policy on violence makes German prisons far safer for all inmates, including the estimated five percent who are homosexual.

“I don’t think we have any massive problems with gay prisoners in terms of the way that other prisoners relate to them,” says Lars Hoffmann, a press officer at JVA Tegel detention centre. “That isn’t a daily problem that we face, really.”

Svenson’s experience speaks for a different reality. “And Berlin prisons don’t offer any support for LGBT people,” says the former JVA Moabit inmate.

Six years ago, Svenson was enjoying the Californian dream. After leaving his job, he moved to LA in 2005 and embarked upon a lucrative career in the gay porn industry. Pretty soon he had his own car, apartment and even his own porn production company Raw Riders, but in 2010 his visa expired. He moved back to his native Berlin and attempted to rebuild his life from scratch. “I lost my income and I didn’t have my own apartment,” he says. “I had gotten HIV, and I was very sick. Life was horrible. That’s how I got into the drug scene – I started taking them to feel better.”

Cocaine and ecstasy were his poisons. It wasn’t long before his distaste for poor quality drugs and repeated requests from friends for hook-ups prompted him to set up shop and start dealing himself. Within the space of a few months he was a major player, celebrated by gay party scenesters and renowned for his supply of ‘the best coke in Berlin’. But in November 2013 the police were banging on the door of his Schöneberg home. His apartment was searched and his extensive supply was uncovered. Svenson was arrested immediately and taken to JVA Moabit, where he was held until his trial.

Like many LGBT inmates, he didn’t plan on coming out while inside, but during his first month there, his fellow inmates guessed his sexuality. At first, it wasn’t an issue. “At that point I was in a very small part of the prison – around 30 other guys, all straight. What amazed me was how good the experience was. People were actually supportive.”

Two months later, Svenson was moved to another part of the Moabit facility. The inmates in the new wing also drew their own conclusions about his sexuality, but this time the response was significantly colder. Over the following three months, they subjected him to a sustained campaign of verbal harassment and calculated isolation. Prisoners would hiss “Schwuchtel” – faggot – at him as he walked by, and shot down his attempts to engage with them or others. “They really bullied me,” Svenson remembers. “A lot of them thought that if a gay guy was talking to them, he wanted to have sex with them! If another inmate wanted to come and have coffee in my cell, he was told that he couldn’t and not to speak to me. It left me really insecure – I didn’t know who I could talk to.”

Whilst prison officers work tirelessly to prevent violence, such insidious forms of psychological abuse are tougher to combat. In the absence of institutionalised programmes within the prisons themselves, a couple of key organisations are working to provide the hands-on help and advice that gay prisoners may require while serving their sentence. One of these is Mann-O-Meter. For the past 25 years, the gay and lesbian information centre has been sending volunteers to prisons across the city to engage in one-on-one counselling sessions with LGBT inmates.

Mann-O-Meter’s team of all-gay volunteers meets with prisoners on a fortnightly basis for sessions which cover gay life, coming out, conflicts and safe sex. Nils Svensson has been a Mann-O-Meter prison counsellor for the past four and a half years. “Being gay in prison is a problem, but not always a massive one. If a prisoner is there for a long time and the other prisoners and guards know them, then it can be easy. But if they’re more effeminate it’s difficult, because other inmates tend to get more annoyed by them.”

According to Svensson, homophobia becomes a more prevalent issue if the prison population is made up of a higher volume of young inmates. “Young men are more unsure of themselves,” he says, “so they try to weed out and target the insecurities of others.” Both he and Lars Svenson report that much of the tension between gay and straight inmates comes from prisoners with Russian and Middle Eastern backgrounds, and that though many participate in anti-violence workshops, their prejudices are still strongly communicated. “They were the ones who gave me the most trouble, but they were also violent in general,” says Svenson. “They came up to me and told me that they didn’t want me to talk to them. I was like ‘Fuck you! You’re the ones talking to me!’ They’re the ones who need to change, not me.”

Prison is something of a microcosm of ‘real life’. The problems of the outside world are reflected, and often magnified, in the micro-society that is created behind prison walls. People who would have no reason or interest in interacting with each other are suddenly forced together, confronted by their respective prejudices. Gay and transgender people, who are at risk of discrimination and assault in even the most liberal cities, are often placed face-to-face with the kind of people who perpetrate such harassment.

“I was shocked on my first day,” says Svenson. “But in a way it was good for me to have that experience again. Before I was only hanging around with gay people, and there I was being forced to be around straight people as well – including some people who clearly didn’t like who I was. I thought, right, I don’t want to submit to these bullies. I want to be who I am. I could stand there with a straight back and tell those people to fuck off and leave me alone.”

Nonetheless, Svenson was left disappointed by the paltry support he received from the prison. Although he was allocated a social worker and the guards were on his side, he felt that no effort was made to address the specific problems he was facing relating to his sexuality. “My Sozialarbeiter knew I was gay but never even offered me the option of having a visit from Mann- O-Meter. I didn’t even know they existed until afterwards.”

What kind of improvements could realistically be implemented across Berlin’s criminal justice system in order to improve the well-being of the gay inmate population? And what should we make of JVA Tegel’s denial that a problem even exists? “If that were true, then we wouldn’t be there. But it’s not an unsolvable problem by any means,” says Nils Svensson. He believes that the key lies in education – and that though Berlin’s prison guards generally have a basic knowledge of how to deal with various LGBT issues, they should be encouraged to familiarise themselves with the issues of safe sex, coming out and homophobia. Rolling out that education to prisoners too, he says, via voluntary workshops and discussions, could also go a long way.

Even though Mann-O-Meter is undoubtedly a useful support net for the many men who utilise their service, Lars Svenson is concerned for the many gay inmates who, like himself, never manage to get access to any kind of specific LGBTQ advice. “First of all, they should make it clear that Mann-O-Meter offers help. Actually, they should make it clear that the organisation exists at all!” he says.

Right now, though, Lars is looking to the future. After four months in prison and five months at an intensive rehabilitation clinic, he is now back in the party scene, appearing as a ‘door hunk’ at the fortnightly Revolver parties at his old haunt KitKatClub. But things aren’t back to normal just yet. “I’m still on parole, so I can’t really do all the things I want to do. I can’t leave the country. My hopes for the future are that I can lead a very independent life. I just want to be free again.”

Originally published in issue #137, April 2015.