ART & WRITING BY THE UNFREE
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Sarah Baker is a transgender inmate in a male prison. She was formerly known as Alan Baker, before her transition in 2011, and has spent over 25 years in prison (despite a tariff of just nine years), having received a discretionary life sentence for the attempted murder of another prisoner.
Although this award-wining author’s second book highlights her perilous journey through an abusive home life, the care system, youth custody and the prison system, it is clearly her way of revealing to the reader the choices she made and the reasons why she felt compelled to make them in the first place. Any transgendered person, whose bad decisions have trapped them in prison for life, will always face a difficult time keeping their true identity hidden from their fellow prisoners.
In memory of all those who believed that death by their own hand was preferable to a life sentence behind bars.
Latchmere House Remand Centre, Richmond, Surrey
I was 15 and five feet tall. My cellmate was 19 years of age, six feet tall, racist, sexist, homophobic and xenophobic. I had never had to share a room with anyone before, apart from my brother, and I was terrified. None of my family knew that I had been locked up, and I didn’t know if anyone gave a shit about me. In-cell sanitation had not been introduced in British prisons at this time, and we had to share a piss pot and a washing bowl. We were locked in our cell for 23 hours a day and often had to take a shit on a newspaper on the cell floor, before throwing it out of the cell window for the seagulls to fight over.
My cellmate would often brag about all the ‘birds’ he had fucked over the years and I would pretend to laugh along with him, whilst feeling sick in my stomach. I could identify with these ‘birds’ that he was making obscene comments about, and I felt that I was betraying them by laughing. I knew that while inside I had better suppress any feminine feelings that I had, the way I walked, talked and presented myself, if I wanted to survive.
My cellmate soon turned on me, after he began to suspect that I was a ‘poof’. He punched me to the floor, then kicked me in the head, saying that I was a weirdo, because I knew nothing about sport, had never played football, didn’t like motorbikes and was obsessed about cleanliness and tidiness! When the staff opened the cell door, I pretended to be ‘hard’, shouting obscenities at the screws until they dragged me down to the remand centre’s segregation unit and put me in a strip cell. My clothes were ripped from my body and a mattress was thrown on top of me. The screws then started kicking the mattress, their purpose being to inflict internal injuries without leaving external bruising. After a painfully frantic two minutes, the screws left me crying on the cell floor, feeling lonely and sorry for myself. After a couple of hours the pain subsided and I started to feel happy that I was on my own.
It was at about this time in my life that I became aware that my hands were the size of a girl’s, and that I was not becoming hairy like other boys of my age; and I was frightened when I started to develop breasts. I felt in my heart that I was a girl, but knew that in the eyes of the world my penis made me a boy. I wished that I was brave or daft enough to cut it off, but I was scared of the fact that I could die alone in jail from blood loss. For the next 28 years, I purposely wore clothes that were too big for me, just to disguise my breasts, which, although only small, were big enough to be noticed by other prisoners, who seemed preoccupied by comparing the size of their chests with those of other men.
Under my baggy clothes, I would wear tight T-shirts to bind myself, but would be ‘discovered’ when forced to share communal showers with other teenagers. They would often point at me, calling me a poof, faggot and rent boy. When I tried to explain that this is how God made me, my explanations fell on deaf ears. Every cruel jibe and comment was like a knife being stabbed into my heart. I would often cry when asked to go into a communal shower and sometimes shouted abuse at prison staff, preferring a period in the segregation unit to enduring the humiliation inflicted by the other boys.
I have always loved being in the company of women, away from the aggressive, macho posturing of my peers. I could sit and discuss my feelings all day and always seemed to find the perfect presents for female friends. I have never considered myself to be a gay man. I am a female and have always felt that I was trapped in the wrong body. I often felt that God was playing some trick on me, by making me an outsider to both sexes. I never knew what it was to be a boy, and I do not know how to be a man. I only knew how to act like a man, or as I thought a man should act. Unfortunately, my main role model was my father, a man so full of hate, anger and spite that any son who modelled himself on him was doomed to be an outcast, feared and detested, throughout his life.
I had once spent a Christmas sleeping rough, mainly under the Embankment with other runaway children. The area where we used to sleep was divided by a small road. One side was full of old alcoholics, with paper stuffed inside their clothing for insulation, who slept in cardboard boxes to keep out the wind that howled constantly.
Approximately 50 of us children slept on a pavement on the other side of the road, huddled together under sleeping bags that had been donated by the Salvation Army. Every night, about midnight, a soup van would arrive with middle-class Christians handing out bread rolls and soup. A large green van would draw up soon after and take away the bodies of the old people who had died in the night. We would hound any passerby, begging money or cigarettes, and abuse the perverts who would try to pick up the youngest of us, offering a bed for the night. Alone, we were vulnerable, but as a pack, no one could hurt us.
After getting no help from my probation officer, I took the bus to the West End of London and got a bed for the Christmas period in the Centrepoint homeless shelter on Shaftesbury Avenue. It was warm, the food was good, and I could get my clothes washed. The boys and girls slept in two dormitories, and if you had anything of value, you would have to sleep with it tucked inside your underwear, or it would surely vanish in the night.
One evening, we were told that someone famous would be visiting and that we should be on our best behaviour. An hour later, Lady Diana was shown into the hostel and one of the girls gave her the 10-minute tour. The rest of us were made to stand in a line as Diana handed each of us a bottle of shower gel. I asked her what I should do with it. She looked me straight in the eyes, asking if I was homeless. I said, ‘Duh! What do you think? I’m in a homeless hostel at Christmas, and when I leave, once Christmas is over, at least I’ll have a bottle of shower gel to keep the cold out!’ My sarcasm was lost on her, and she just smiled and moved on to the next waif in the line.
I must confess that she did have the most beautiful teeth and shoes that I had ever seen!
Art by Anna-Louise Oakland
June 25, 2015
April 15, 2015
April 15, 2015