Conjugal Rights: Prisoners’ Rights: Prison Homo-sex

Saturday 27 [October 1984]: No woman. No sex. As months develop into years, the desire for sex becomes almost unendurable. The deprivation of sex, of a woman’s love, becomes the greatest sense of torment, next to the everpresent, anguished longing for freedom.
—Maina wa Kĩnyattĩ, Kenya: A Prison Notebook

Kenyan prisoners are not granted conjugal or partner visits. Nor are they provided with condoms. The two issues are related, but not the same. A recent report by KTN news broached this issue through the backdoor: by framing conjugal rights in relation to prison homo-sex, defined, variously, as “homosexuality,” “sodomy,” “rape,” “secrets,” “sin.” The argument for conjugal rights, which is approximately two minutes out of the fifteen-minute video, was a thinly-veiled excuse to peer into the “secret” world of male-male prison sex.

This world is, of course, not so secret. It features prominently in several Kenyan prison narratives by authors including John Kiriamiti, Wahome Mutahi, and Maina wa Kĩnyattĩ. Indeed, it’s almost impossible to read a contemporary Kenyan prison narrative without encountering some version of homo-sex. Readers of Foucault will recognize the structure I am describing. An “explosion of discourse” is framed as a “secret” to create what Foucault terms “the speaker’s benefit”: those who “break” the “secret” of sex imagine their acts as transgressions, modes of resistance. And, in the KTN video, what can be more “transgressive” than a woman discussing homo-sex with prisoners?

Prison homosexuality has a relationship to prison sodomy and prison rape and prison love and prison intimacy and prison hate and prison resentment and prison survival and prison suicide. And on it goes. It has a relationship to the structural conditions of Kenyan prisons, to their histories, their presents, and their futures. It has a relationship to the worlds brought in to the prison from diverse geo-histories and psycho-socialities. It is not one thing. It is, as Binyavanga might put it, a many-thing.

This many-thingness is evidenced in the obvious disjunction between the English-language report with its sparse translations from Swahili and the rapid-fire Swahili and bodily movements of those interviewed, especially the two figures who identify as queer. As one says, “sometimes you want it, and sometimes you don’t want it,” going on to add, “the prison guards are indifferent to how queers are treated in prison.” An eloquent bodily testimony emerges of prison brutality: bite marks linger as scars, a body ravaged by a system that does not protect its queer prisoners. But “sometimes you want it, and sometimes you don’t want it.” That’s important.

Whereas one version of the narrative that KTN wants to promote seeks to collapse all prison same-sex encounters into “rape,” “sin,” and “perversion,” alternate narratives emerge of desire and negotiation, of prison economies where sex is a form of currency. In pointing this out, I do not mean to overlook the very real sexual violence in prisons. That would be irresponsible. Instead, I want to register the complexities in prisoners’ testimonies that are erased through bad and absent translations into English (for those who don’t understand Swahili) and through equally bad and misleading framing by KTN.

I am interested, as well, in how the figure of the homosexual becomes legible within Kenyan media and the uses to which this figure (as metonym and sediment of/from prison sex) is put in political discussions. Against the logic suggested by the KTN report, which argues that conjugal rights should be provided to “prevent” the scourge of prison sexual violence and prison sexual activity and sodomy and homosexuality (these are not the same things), I would suggest that one can be for prison reform, for prisoners’ rights, for conjugal and partner visits, for queer prisoners’ rights, and for prison health reform. These are not all compatible, of course: in my ideal world, prisons would not exist. Humans should not live in cages. Nor should animals. And so when I think about “prison reform,” I’m really thinking about abolishing prisons.

In the here-and-now, the durative present, I can be, must be, for prisoners’ rights, conjugal and partner visits, and queer prisoners’ rights. To be more precise, I can be, must be, for prisoners’ sexual rights, regardless of taste, desire, orientation, or preference. I have insisted on conjugal rights and partner rights because if prisoners are going to have consensual sex with non-prison populations, it should not be dictated by marital status or relationship longevity.

I am happy to support conjugal and partner visiting rights and to support prisoner sexual health and to advocate against prison sexual violence. I am delighted that the Kenyan parliament is discussing prison sexual rights and prison sexual health, albeit at a pace that is much too slow. And I think it’s way past time to have a national conversation—and activism against—prison sexual violence.

But prison sexual violence should not become the metonym, the figure, for male same-sex intimacies or homosexuality. And it’s troubling to see a news report that so easily, casually, and lazily uses “homosexuality,” “rape,” and “sodomy” as synonyms, implicitly suggesting that “homosexuals” are the biggest threats to decent Kenyans. Toward the end of the video, a prisoner (we assume) is interviewed. Unlike many others in the video, he is dressed neatly in new-looking clothes, a far cry from the many other rag-clad prisoners the camera has shown us. And he proclaims his (voyeuristic) disgust at prison sex, because he is a Christian. The camera—and interviewer—invite us to identify with this man who, though in prison, has turned to religion. He is, in fact, what a certain Kenyan Christian imaginary hopes will happen to prisoners: not that they will be released or granted rights, but that they will find religion, atone for their sins, and accept imprisonment as a just consequence.

This Christian prisoner can represent “decent” Kenyans because he looks the part. And, through an imaginative act that erases his materiality, one fostered by the camera, we can identify with him: we are “all prisoners” on this ungodly earth, the narrative goes. This (misguided) identification enables a further one: his disgust at prison same-sex acts (all conflated as sin and deviance) is supposed to mirror and represent our disgust. He is, through a sly trick, the “decent” Kenyan we claim to be. The Kenyan who must be—and should be—defended against prison sodomy. His reassuring masculinity is juxtaposed against, and comes after, the disturbing gender-bending presented earlier in the video which, it is suggested, repeatedly, both precedes and emerges from imprisonment.

Conjugal rights will save good Christian Kenyan men from turning into fags. Good Kenyan masculinity is decent, Christian hetero-masculinity, and it must be saved.

The Kenyan prison has been—and will continue to be—important to how we understand Kenyan sexual cultures and, in particular, same-sex cultures. Reforming prison sexual cultures to provide health and care and comfort should begin from a prisoner’s comment. And I give this comment the last word: saa ingine waitaka, saa ingine hautaki.