by Donalevan Maines
“Carl is the most beautiful man I’ve ever met,” says Tom (both names have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals). “When I met him, I was in shock. I couldn’t speak, I couldn’t move. I thought, ‘Wow! You have got to be kidding.’ It took me several minutes to collect myself.”
Tom is convinced that Carl is “the one.”
But in prison, he’s just a number—at the Ellis Unit in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Correctional Institutions Division. Carl’s “gated community” is what brought the couple together—and also what keeps them apart.
Tom says their romance is real, but it’s tough to keep a gay relationship going when one party is behind bars. “I would love to play house with him,” says Tom.
Falling in love with a man who’s incarcerated “was the farthest thing from my mind,” he adds, when he stumbled upon a pitch from gayprisoners.net while surfing the Internet.
Tom was going through a brutal breakup with his partner of 17 years, the man he’d moved with from California to Fort Bend County. “I came home one day and there was a 19-year-old in my house,” he says. “It ended very badly. I just wanted to get away, to travel.”
Tom was reading online about places to visit in Eastern Europe when he found the website seeking “pen pals” for gay inmates in prisons across the United States. “I was very fascinated by the whole thing, and Carl’s [profile] seemed so heartfelt. It was so real,” says Tom.
They started corresponding in January 2013, and Tom made his first trip to Huntsville that May. “It’s an all-day affair,” he explains. “It’s exhausting and draining—two hours to get there, then you wait for your visit, and I get to see him for two hours. Then there’s all the traffic coming back on I-45.”
On one visit, says Tom, “we managed to do the deed. We got to explore one another. He’s very much a top, I have to tell you, which is great. I can’t say how we managed to do it, though, because I could go to jail and I’m not a criminal.” Anything is possible, he allows, if you grease the right palms. “Everybody has their hand out.”
As Tom told an assistant warden who pressed him about the nature of his relationship with Carl, “I am the person who supports Carl here.”
At present, Tom puts $25 in Carl’s account every two weeks. That’s the limit for Carl’s commissary since he was moved to maximum security for an “infraction” that may or may not be related to Carl admitting to the warden that he and Tom “are of an alternate lifestyle.”
“Now we’re on their radar,” says Tom. “They withhold privileges to be mean. They say, ‘You are here to be punished.’ But they’re also punishing family and friends. You have no idea.”
Actually, I do.
When my parents were alive, they took inmates into their home the second they were released from prison. Statistics show how crucial the first 48 hours are after an inmate’s release, and they wanted to do what they could to help inmates avoid recidivism. My parents didn’t just talk the talk; they walked the walk.
Upon release from Huntsville, my dad would be waiting to pick him up. They would go to Walmart and get whatever the guy needed, and then go to my parents’ house where the man would get his first home-cooked meal in years.
Every day for the next two weeks, my dad would take the man to a series of places to register him for benefits and services to help him adjust to civilian life. Three times a week, the man would accompany my parents to church, where he was embraced, to varying degrees, by other Christians—even those who worried that my parents shouldn’t be inviting felons into their home.
Okay, my siblings and I were concerned, too. We kept close tabs on my parents whenever a new guy arrived.
All of the men were what you might call “con artists,” but that doesn’t mean they were bad or that they conned my parents. It’s hard to con someone who isn’t asking for anything in return. My parents also stuck to a zero-tolerance policy, such as a 10 p.m. curfew. Once, a man broke curfew and explained to my dad that his girlfriend told him he’s a grown man and shouldn’t have to be in by 10 p.m. He left the next day and soon found himself back in jail.
Despite all of the “help” from government programs, none of the men could find jobs. (Carl thinks someone he knows might get him a job at a Dollar Tree.) Two of the men started their own businesses and became successful entrepreneurs. When the first one got married, he picked my dad to be “best man” at his wedding. My mother hosted the reception at their home.
When mother passed away, there was still one inmate waiting to be released from prison to my parents’ house, so I moved in with my dad and we received him. I even plotted a surprise birthday party for him and encouraged him to emulate my dad in every way.
None of those men happened to be gay, but I can imagine how much more difficult it is for gay inmates to navigate a system that holds all the cards, where unchecked power is placed in the hands of guards who must have been horribly bullied as kids. (Why else would they find such delight in punishing people as adults?)
As gay men, says Tom, “we are undesirables in this state. We can’t marry, but I’ve already told Carl I want to marry him. I tell him all the time that I love him.” In Carl’s last letter, he wrote, “I love you, Baby.”
Tom writes religiously, posting his letters so that Carl will receive one every Friday night. “Consistency is very important to him,” explains Tom.
According to Tom, Carl is serving a 28-year sentence for aggravated robbery of his girlfriend’s grandmother in 2000, the punishment running concurrently with sentences for a 1999 burglary and a 2005 drug possession charge.
Last August, he appeared before the parole board in what the couple thought would be a slam-dunk for his release. But in March, they learned that Carl’s parole was denied and he doesn’t get another hearing for three years.
“That really upset me,” says Tom. “That is not what I signed up for. I’m going to see it through, though. I am convinced this is the right person for me, I just am. It’s frightening. I wanted to travel. I wanted to taste other things, but these are real feelings and I can’t deny them.”
Donalevan Maines also writes about out actress Beth Glover in this issue of OutSmart.