With rouged lips, long hair and a strut that would give Naomi Campbell pause, Dave Williams, 47, works the 75-foot runway that stretches between crowded rows of green chipped-paint bunk beds at the L.A. County Sheriff’s Men’s Central Jail.
Williams, a transgender inmate known on the inside as Yah Yah, glides past a hooting and hollering crowd of her fellow gay and transgender inmates, perched atop their beds for a prime view. She’s flaunting a white cotton halter-top baby-doll dress and matching white Cinderella gloves, hand-crafted for her by one of the trans women inside this infamously tough downtown L.A. jail.
Laughing onlookers chant, “Work it, Yah Yah!” “Perform honey!” “Better work that runway!”
Catwalking on the balls of her feet as another inmate improvises syncopated beats by banging on a metal bed frame using a plastic spoon and a plastic 7-Up bottle, Yah Yah is in her element. Her infectious energy lights up the locked, windowless room filled with roughly 140 inmates. Two other inmates, both with long dark hair and wearing form-fitting minidresses, jostle to be the next to parade down the aisle. They twitch their hips and seem to be having the time of their lives as scores of men and transgender women whoop and shout out unprintable encouragements.
The impromptu fashion show broke out the moment after inmates spotted L.A. Weekly’s video camera. Shortly before, Yah Yah, one of four inmates approved by the Sheriff’s Department to speak to, and be videotaped by, the newspaper, had been explaining, “You’re allowed to be with whomever you want to, talk to whomever you want and do whatever you want to, basically, as long as you do it in a respectable way.”
The scene seems all but impossible inside this tough, urban jail, one of the largest in the world, outfitted with 1,000 security cameras and employing some 500 Sheriff’s deputies as jailers, where hardened inmates sometimes manage to murder other inmates. And this year, seven of the county’s own jailers were convicted as part of an ongoing federal investigation into obstruction of justice and use of excessive force against inmates.
MCJ, as many dub it, is a cauldron of racial tension where violence is easily stirred by a fluctuating daily population of 3,900 to 4,700 inmates packed in close quarters. But among the roughly 400 people housed in “K6G,” the gay wing of Men’s Central Jail, there’s little outward expression of racial prejudice or gang rivalry. Inmates in these three open-plan dorms don’t worry much about the gang politics and violence among the “general population.”
Duncan Roy, a gay British film producer who was held in K6G for 89 days without bail in 2012, under ex–Sheriff Lee Baca’s controversial interpretation of “immigration holds,” recalls, “In other parts of the jail, you try and smuggle in drugs and cigarettes. That didn’t happen in our wing.
“If you were going to smuggle something in, it would be dresses and bras.”
The gay wing at Men’s Central Jail is an exceptionally rare, if not unique, subculture, the only environment of its kind in a major U.S. city. Nothing like it exists in America’s 21 largest urban jails, all contacted by the Weekly, where officials described in far more modest terms their own steps to deal with and house gay inmates. San Francisco has a transgender housing area, but gay inmates live among the general population. In New York’s Rikers Island, whose similar gay wing was shuttered in 2005, a jail spokesman laughed out loud, saying that whoever decides which men get placed in L.A. County’s gay jail wing “must have really good gay-dar.”
A spokesman for the Fort Worth jail system quipped that L.A.’s inmate population is so big, officials probably could create a wing for “left-handed Frisbee players from Albania. But we smaller jails don’t have enough size to create special groups.” The closest thing to a gay wing in another big, urban jail system, though it isn’t close at all, is at the Old Wayne County Jail in Detroit, which offers a small number of locked cells to gay and transgender inmates.
MCJ’s gay wing was set up in response to a 1985 ACLU lawsuit, which aimed to protect homosexual inmates from a higher threat of physical violence than heterosexuals faced. But something unexpected has happened. The inmates are safer now, yes. But they’ve surprised everyone, perhaps even themselves, by setting up a small and flourishing society behind bars. Once released, some re-offend in order to be with an inmate they love. There are hatreds and occasionally even severe violence, but there is also friendship, community, love — and, especially, harmless rule-bending to dress up like models or decorate their bunks, often via devious means.
Filing down a plastic razor blade, say, to create a sewing needle, not a shank. “Smuggling” a rumored male seamstress from another bloc to handle custom work on a dress. And neatness counts among some of these men, who repurpose newspapers into long-handled brooms.
“For some people, this is their home because a lot of their families have disowned them and shunned them, so we’re their family,” explains Yah Yah, a crack cocaine addict first jailed decades ago, at age 22. “A lot of people’s walks in here have been hard walks.”
Yah Yah says she has served roughly 20 years, in total, on charges ranging from petty theft to drug possession to commercial burglary. She’s become something of a den mother for the revolving community of gay and transgender inmates. “I call [them] my kids,” she says with a proud smile. “I try to give them the love that they aren’t receiving from their families.”
Today, some straight inmates vie to get placed in MCJ’s gay wing, in part because it’s a safer harbor for ex-gangbangers afraid of being confronted by violent enemies, jailers say. The Sheriff’s Department even uses a “classification officer” to weed out impostors, through a series of controversial test questions about gay culture.
Deputy Sheriff Javier Machado, a classification officer, relies on a series of go-to questions, such as asking purportedly gay inmates to name a local gay bar they frequent. If an incoming inmate manages to correctly name a gay bar in L.A., Machado immediately asks tougher follow-up questions, such as, “What’s the cover charge?”
According to the gay inmates, another reason some straight men try to get into K6G is that they want to hook up with often-pretty transgender detainees.
But a major reason, almost certainly, is that the gay wing is a far less dangerous, more humane place to be. Unlike the angry, racially polarized culture of Men’s Central Jail, in K6G many of the inmates help one another face their days, and sometimes their years, together.
Yah Yah is her dorm’s elected House Mouth, a position of influence. She’s much more often called the House Mouse — a term of endearment in K6G but an insult inside prisons and the military, often denoting a person of extreme submission or someone who colludes with their superiors. David Arrieta, one gay inmate given permission to speak to the Weekly and be videotaped inside the gay wing, explains, “Being a House Mouse in [the heterosexual side of Men’s Central Jail], you are considered a rat, whereas in K6G you are considered a fairy.”
Duncan Roy, the producer, says the House Mouse in the gay wing is a “very powerful position [because] it is the liaison between the deputies and the dorms. Depending on how good your House Mouse was” at speaking up for the rest of the inmates, he recalls of his time inside, “really determined the quality of life you had in the dorms.”
The K6G wing’s three bunk bed–jammed “dorms” each house 128 to 140 men on any given day. In her Dorm No. 9200, Yah Yah has used her position to encourage a relatively nonthreatening, even warm atmosphere. When the Weekly entered No. 9200 in the presence of a deputy and inmates realized a female guest was present, the first comment to rise from the chatter was, “Oh, I love her shoes.”
Later, on a highly secured rooftop yard used for recreation time, inmates began hurling flirtatious and boisterous commentary in the direction of the Weekly’s video camera and microphone. “Trannies unite!” called out one transgender resident. Before deputies could react, one inmate pulled down his “baby blues” — official jail pants — low on his thighs and preened his bottom before the video camera.
Why? Nothing lascivious. Just to show off his fancy cotton underwear — formerly a jail-regulation T-shirt that had been carefully cut apart, refashioned and hand-knotted down the sides to create a peek-a-boo look.
Roy likens the dorm culture to an episode of Project Runway in which “they would just cut everything up” and transform it. When inmates are first assigned to a gay dorm, they are immediately stripped of their general-population, dark blue jail uniforms and given the powder-blue uniforms that signify they are gay or transgender. As Roy notes, “For the first time in my life, I was identifiably gay.”
According to one lieutenant, the gay inmates continually tweak their bleak environment. A row of poles embedded in a rooftop exercise yard, where inmates are allowed to spend a minimum of three hours a week, has become a popular outlet for pole-dancing. “They were entertaining themselves,” Lt. Sergio Murillo says with a grin.
The show doesn’t end on the jail’s roof. Every Friday, the gay dorms put on self-organized events such as “Family Night,” in which they present fashion shows, and engage in “dorm dating” (a form of speed dating). In one of the three gay dorms, inmates compete in Mr. Gay Dorm 9100, named after their room number.
“The community comes alive, they look after one another,” Roy says. “It’s not just about violence. They’re inventive.”
That’s surely an understatement. In the gay wing, soap becomes strangely effective hair product, and foil is carefully scavenged from the inside of cereal boxes to be fashioned into shiny silver buttons. Jail-issue bedsheets are fashioned — actually transformed — into fetching wedding gowns and tuxedos.
Weddings are fairly common in K6G’s culture, and even the deputies have borne witness to full ceremonies in which inmates invent fabulous, hand-stitched dresses and suits.
“People do find love in the loneliest of places,” says Dino Baglioni, 48, a K6G inmate in Room 9100, who was allowed to speak to the Weekly. “Coming in here was such a shock, but what I realize is that the people that are in these jails are not all bad people,” says Baglioni, who found himself in jail for the first time at age 45 for drug-related offenses. “They come in from all lifestyles, and we come in from all education levels, and talent — amazing talent.”
Technically, inmates are destroying county property when they repurpose their jailhouse blues, jail razors and official T-shirts. To them, however, it’s an outlet for their untapped and restless creative energy. And there’s only so much reprimanding that makes sense when inmates are essentially engaged in harmless activities.
To sew dresses and suits without a needle, which is a banned potential weapon, some inmates break apart their plastic shavers, extract the jail-commissioned shaver blade, file down the blade on the concrete floors into the shape of a needle, then bend the end of it to hold thread in place. Thread is ripped from the seams of their generally hated, light blue, oversized scrubs. Staples taken from the spines of magazines make the best needles for hand-stitching.
“Somebody had heard there was a guy on another wing with a needle,” Roy recalls, “and so he was, by hook or by crook, imported into the dorm and was set to work stitching for these women, who would give him these exotic projects to make up.”
Like any business, payment of some form was required. In this case, the imported craftsman was paid handsomely with food and whatever else the dorm could pull together, Roy says.
It might almost appear, to an outsider, as if MCJ’s gay and transsexual inmates are gently mocking society’s expectations of how criminals are supposed to act when confined behind bars for long periods of time. In fact, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s history has been one of extreme violence behind bars — on the part of both the jailed and the jailers.
For years, gay prison inmates have been singled out for mistreatment and persecution. Alexander Lara, writing in the Southern California Interdisciplinary Law Journal, reported that a 2007 study of California inmates showed 5 percent of straight men were victims of sexual assault including rape, while “an astonishing” 67 percent of gay, bisexual and transgender inmates were.
But the problems began decades earlier. A 1985 settlement of a key lawsuit, Robertson v. Block, brought by ACLU attorney John Hagar on behalf of gay and transgender inmates, set forth procedures and conditions for their safety and security. These conditions led to MCJ’s establishment of the gay and transgender dorms.
Early on, two jail deputies committed themselves to the reforms, according to UCLA law professor Sharon Dolovich, who has extensively studied the gay wing at MCJ. “The jail got incredibly lucky with the two deputies who wound up running the unit, Bart Lanni and Senior Deputy Randy Bell,” Dolovich says. “They were extremely dedicated over the course of several decades to making this program successful and ensuring the well-being of everyone in the unit. Because they treated everyone with respect, people in the unit trusted them, and as a result Bell and Lanni heard about it when things were going wrong in the unit. … Inmates were able to report things such as ‘Hey, there is a predator in here,’ or ‘There is a deputy on the floor using homophobic language,’ or ‘Someone threatened me.’?”
In the general population of MCJ, just as in the California state prison system, convicted street-gang bosses known as shot callers order stabbings, drug transfers and secret messaging among the inmates — an illegal system that long flourished under ex–Sheriff Baca and remains in place in MCJ’s general-population areas today.
Not so in the gay wing. “In K6G it’s different, they don’t run those politics,” Machado explains. “When we say ‘running politics,’ [it means] you’re going to do as the shot caller says you’re going to do.”
In K6G, instead of men cowering before a feared Mexican Mafia or Crips shot caller, the system operates largely as a democracy. In each dorm, the inmates vote for their “House Mouse,” the post to which Yah Yah was elected, in contests that attract a higher voter turnout than a Los Angeles municipal election.
The House Mouse explains that dorm’s needs — such as a toilet-paper shortage — to the jailers, and communicates from the jailers to the gay population. A House Mouse in another gay dorm, Rubin, explains that his role is to ensure that inmates follow deputies’ rules, such as quietly lying down on their beds, facing the aisleway and fully dressed in their blues, “out of respect” when the deputies bring in their meals.
“It was [initially] ‘House Mouth’ because we are the voice between deputies and inmates, but over the years they started making fun and it became House Mouse because supposedly we ‘tell’ and we work for the deputies and we became a rat,” Rubin says. “It’s all in good humor.”
Dolovich says another factor is that, unlike in the huge general population at MCJ, “There are officers who know everyone [in K6G] as individuals, and because people in the unit trust those officers to look out for their interests, they are willing to reach out to the officers when issues arise.”
Few inmates in the gay wing are accused of committing violent crimes. According to Machado, during the month of August, about 2 percent were in for murder and 4 percent for assault with a deadly weapon. Drug charges account for roughly 31 percent of the incarcerations, while burglary, robbery and other theft accounts for about 32 percent — crimes often linked to drug abuse. Another 8 percent are inside for probation or parole violations. He says none were in the gay wing purely due to prostitution — which today results in a citation and release in the field — though many are prostitutes.
Such contrasts between the gay wing and far more violent general population help explain why, at least in part, quite a few straight arrestees and convicts try to talk their way inside K6G. Among other things, inmates in the gay wing are escorted everywhere they go, including to the medical clinic or court. Machado believes straight men, fearful of gang reprisal in the unpredictable general population, are seeking added security when they try to talk their way into the gay wing.
Roy doesn’t buy that. During his time inside, he says, he found that only two kinds of guys tried to get onto the gay wing — boyfriends who got released from K6G and were purposely re-arrested to be reunited with their partners, and “trans chasers,” or straight inmates who want to sleep with and be served by transsexual women.
Says Roy, “If you’re going to spend the next three years in MCJ, what better position would you be in than to have a great-looking woman to look after you all the time?”
Not everyone is happy with the system used by the Sheriff’s Department to weed out straight men. For example, among the questions asked by classification officer Machado and another deputy are: What is the meaning of “size queen” and what does it mean to be “thirsty”? Some straight guys get caught out for giving rote answers — to the wrong questions. That tips off deputies that someone prepped them.
Machado says, “A lot of the inmates get coached by other inmates who are trying to get into the K6G population dorms. … [Our approach] is like asking a baseball fan, ‘You know what’s a double play?’ If you’re involved in baseball, you automatically know. It’s the same way in the gay community.”
There are plenty of critics of that approach, however. Andrew Extein, executive director of the Center for Sexual Justice in Washington, D.C., says the Sheriff’s Department screening system is “an attempt to understand the gay community, but it’s oversimplified. … The screening process is not correct — but I also don’t know a better alternative off the top of my head.”
Extein suggests, for example, that the jailers’ questions are based upon stereotypical views of gay and transgender life, and fail to acknowledge that some GBT men heading behind bars are not party-oriented or culturally up to date, and they simply don’t know the right answers.
Extein says, “I could see [them] not passing [the test] or not knowing what’s going on.” Yet even he admits, “It seems very progressive, for an institution that is very violent.”
While K6G’s environment is in stark contrast to that of the general population, at the end of the day it’s still jail.
Sure, the inmates of K6G may appear to be relatively comfortable, but talk with a few of them and they will reassure you that their lives are still hell.
“A jail is a jail — it’s a violent, and desperate, and cold and miserable place,” says Roy, who minced no words in claiming that Sheriff’s deputies openly mistreated inmates while he served his time in the gay wing. “Where there is that terrible cruelty inflicted on everyone, people find ways of dealing with it.”
Despite the very low levels of racial tension, there’s still violence among K6G inmates. Much of it stems from the relationships established between inmates behind bars. “There was a lot of jealousy,” Roy explains.
Another contributing factor to aggression in the gay wing, Roy says, may be that many of the trans women are taking hormones to grow or enlarge their breasts or reduce their facial hair or muscles, or they have been denied hormones that they were prescribed prior to incarceration and are experiencing withdrawal symptoms.
The fashion shows, the weddings, the family nights — all are a means of coping with dark pasts or deep-rooted problems. “There’s a lot of reasons we’ve turned to drugs in our lives — there’s a lot of pain, a lot of masking,” says Baglioni, whose dorm hosts the Mr. Gay Dorm 9100 contest on Friday nights.
Baglioni came of age at a time when many gay men still stayed in the closet. “Being homosexual and finding acceptance in our society is challenging, and there’s still a lot of struggling ahead of us, and as a result we hide or mask a lot of our pain in drug use,” he says.
The idea of masking one’s true self through the use of drugs was echoed by many inmates who spoke to the Weekly.
“Incarceration is a challenge because it is not really equipped to deal with the addiction problem,” Baglioni says.
David Arrieta, who has spent 17 of his 44 years behind bars, says he’s finally past the drugs and vows, “I’m not coming back — I’m done.”
Arrieta credits the Sheriff’s Department’s Education Based Incarceration (EBI) program, a fairly well-regarded internal system of coursework and modest leadership opportunities for inmates. The program was dramatically expanded in 2006 as a way to battle internal jail violence and high recidivism rates among freed inmates who re-offended and returned to jail.
“They never had these opportunities that they have now, so EBI is excellent,” Arrieta says. He cites the courses that helped him the most — “New Directions is one of them … and Harm Reduction, which teaches you about STIs and HIV testing.” Another inmate commented, “The first book I ever read was here.”
About 150 of the approximately 400 gay-wing inmates have committed to bettering themselves, and they attend these predawn classes that begin at 5 a.m. That makes coffee one of the prized possessions inside. Steven Weiss, a recently released K6G inmate, says Elaine Towner, overseer of the EBI program for the gay wing, “has hawk eyes and sees all.” Attendees can earn high school diplomas, attend Narcotics or Alcoholics Anonymous and take classes or workshops that reward them with certificates in such areas as substance-abuse education and anger management.
“One is always looking for hope in the jail, hope that things will change, hope for people’s early release. People are always living in hope that things are going to be different — that things will change,” Roy says.
But some, such as Yah Yah, have found purpose behind bars — purpose that they don’t find on the outside. She earned EBI-issued certification to counsel inmates in drug and alcohol abuse and teaches a “Character Matters” course in the gay dorm. She tells her students: “You’re not a dummy. You know what’s keeping you locked up. It’s up to you to make the choice.”
She sometimes worries about focusing too much on helping others and never fully healing herself. She cries as she says, “I don’t know if I’m going to make it sometimes. I think about that a lot.” She admits she struggles to take the same advice she gives others, saying she is addicted not merely to drugs but to the lifestyle. “Every time I get out, my head says, ‘Well, how long you going to be out this time before you get arrested all over again?’
“I can come to jail — not smoke a cigarette, not smoke anything and be OK,” Yah Yah says. “But when I’m out there, I immediately go straight to it. And I don’t get it.”
Through her tears, Yah Yah admits, “It’s like I learned in Narcotics Anonymous: Until Yah Yah gets into enough pain, nothing’s going to change — and apparently I am not in enough pain.”
Her dream for the future involves Los Angeles County Men’s Central Jail.
“I just want to be happy, that’s all I want,” the House Mouse says. “I don’t want to come to jail. I would love to walk in this place in a pair of high heels and a dress and regular clothes and facilitate some class and say, ‘I used to be where you were, and God brought me out, and I made it and I know you can make it.’ That’s what I would like to do.”
(Editor’s note: Yah Yah and David Arrieta are now out of jail.)
See also: Top 12 LGBT Movies You Need To See