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Sexual Minorities in Georgian Prisons

April 29, 2020
Lazare Jibladze

The blog is produced within the framework of EU-funded project „Monitoring Government’s Commitments and Promoting the Reforms in the Penal Sector through the Engagement of CSOs“ implemented by Penal Reform International together with the partner organizations: Rehabilitation Initiative of Vulnerable Groups and Human Rights Center.

Prisons are traumatic and often dangerous places, especially for sexual minorities.

A sexual minority is a group of people whose sexual identity, orientation or practices differ from the majority of the surrounding society. The term originally meant gay and lesbian, but now it is also referring to bisexual, transgender, or transsexual individuals.[1]

Numerous studies have shown that Georgia is ranking on one of the last places both in the Post-Soviet and rest of the world by the Tolerance Index towards homosexuals. Equal Rights for sexual minorities remain challenging, and discrimination against LGBT + people is an integral part of everyday life.

On a daily basis, under such circumstances, belonging to a sexual minority in Georgian prisons is often linked to abuse and humiliation, physical and sexual violence, and fears that disclosure would have more painful consequences.

The organization Human Rights Center has been working on the rights of prisoners for years. In this regard, together with our partner organizations, we made a lot of positive changes, but there are still many challenges that pose a serious threat to human rights.

When you visit prisons, you often notice prisoners who have a “white ribbon” on the uniform as a sign of identification, they often carry out various sanitary activities with bowed head. Such prisoners, in the language of the prison, are called “Hen” (Georgian word: „ქათამი“ which means “a hen”) and the wing where they live is called “Hen coop” (Georgian word: „საქათმე“ meaning “a hen coop”.)

The “hen coop” is an informal name of the cells or barracks in Georgian penitentiary institutions, where prisoners are allocated according to their special sign. Such a sign could be a prisoner’s sexual orientation and gender identity. Very often, it does not depend on the real sexual orientation of a particular person and/or his gender identity, but on the assumption of other individuals. Another precondition for getting into “hen coop” is the type of crime for which the convict is serving his sentence. Such crimes include crimes against sexual integrity, such as rape, lewd acts, and so on. In prison practice, “Spoilage” (Georgian word: “გაფუჩება” meaning: “to damage”, “decay”, “spoil”)  is also actively used, which is a common form of violent sexual assault of a man by another man. The reasons for the “Spoilage” can be various, for example, conflict with other prisoners or employees of the prison administration, non-payment of debts, etc. At such times, prisoners are transferred to the “hen coop” for punishment. According to the unwritten law of the prison, a prisoner allocated in the “hen cooop” can never leave it. Regardless of the re-conviction or transfer to another institution, the place is predetermined for him. Numerous practices of “Spoilage” have become clear to the public when the so-called “Prison Footage” has been published. Rape or other forms of sexual violence was used by the prison administration for various purposes. The form of “Spoilage” in prisons can be the spreading of false information about a person’s sexual orientation or sexual practice. Another reason may be physical contact with the “hen” (contact like a handshake, kissing, etc.). In prison’s reality, the so-called “hen” is associated with “impurity”, so they may be responsible for cleaning and other sanitation activities, but they are not allowed to prepare food for other inmates or otherwise be involved in the process of food delivery.

Strange as it may sound, alike practices in prison is an everyday reality. The ”hen coop” is a prison inside the prison, a zone of discrimination and isolation. The practice of “hen coop” is part of the Soviet reality, which later moved into the post-Soviet space. The argument of the prison administration, despite the time and reality, is unchanged – the security of the prisoners.

However, daily in the prison, prisoners are usually taken from their cells or barracks (“hen coop”) to normal cells and they are in direct contact with other prisoners. As far as the main activity of the “hens” is tidying up, they also have to clean the cells of other prisoners or corridors. This is the time when they are most vulnerable. The “Hens” are also used for various sexual practices. Often, these crimes never reach the daylight because of the fear and real danger that if disclosed, they can become the victims of violence.

UN Handbook on Prisoners with special needs[2] notes that if a prisoner rapes a same-sex prisoner, the abuser without a second thought is called a homosexual. However, in reality, these individuals consider themselves heterosexual men and the victim for them replaces a woman. A typical way for a gay or lesbian prisoner is to get protection from a prisoner “husband” – this is a rather powerful prisoner in the prison hierarchy who can push the rest against the wall if sexual demands are made on him. At the same time, the victim may be “rented” to other prisoners, which aggravates the prisoner’s sufferings, as a victim of violent prostitution.

Nika was recently transferred to a penitentiary institution. He has never been convicted before and had little knowledge of the situation inside the prison. Within the first few hours, cellmates questioned him about his identity, studied the environment in which he grew up and lived; they named several people and asked if he was aware of them, although he knew none of them. He was then asked about this conviction and soon was told which bed suited him. Several references were made about the need of money, noted the “Watcher”, “Hens” and “Donkeys”  but no one explained in detail the meaning, because he showed no surprise to receive the new information, and probably everyone assumed he was aware of the prison’s “inner kitchen”, as anyone else.

On the same day, it became known to Nika that in the same facility, a few cells away, Levan, a guy from his neighborhood was serving his sentence. They had not seen each other for a long time, but upon hearing this news Nika blushed what raised a question from one of the prisoners if why he had such a reaction.

Levan was from Nika’s block. They were no classmates, however, they attended the same school for several years. The quarrel started in childhood over the girlfriend turned them into sworn enemies, at that time, they were still 13-14 years old, and after Nika was forced to move to another area due to family issues, he did not hear much about Levan. Nina kept communication with Nika for several months, then their romance ended.

Instead, Levan still remembered Nika and the fact that Nina had not chosen him at the time. They saw each other a few days later, and the meeting went fine, if not to mention Levan’s disgusted look and glance.

Nika soon realized what it was all about. On Levan’s instructions, the prisoner (“hen”), who had entered his cell for tidying, sat down on his bed and then hugged him in front of the other prisoners. Nick shook him off with his hand, but it turned out to be enough to spread the word in prison. Two days later, his cellmates refused to stay with him in one cell, while other cells categorically refused to accept the prisoner, with several inmates secretly telling the prison staff that leaving him would lead to a riot. Nika was temporarily transferred to a solitary confinement cell, and the next day, when he entered a new cell at the request of a prison officer, he soon realized that his new placement was a “hen coop”.

For a long time, he could not get used to the new reality, because he already knew well what it meant to get into the “hen coop”. Every day, when he was in contact with other prisoners, the disgusted glances and various comments were aggravating his life. Nick had two suicide attempts during a year, the first time when he was raped by other prisoners in the “hen coop”. This incident had been repeated several times. 768 is the number of days he spent in prison. On the wall of one of the “hen coops,” the number 768 is still visible, vertical lines engraved by a pen tip.

After leaving prison, the home became a new prison for him. He was reluctant to leave the house, unable to communicate with anyone for months, but tried to make his alienation visible to no one because he feared that others would find out that he had spent his prison time in the “hen coop.”

A year later, Nick married Nina. After leaving the house for the first time, Nina, who worked as a saleswoman in the store, gave him the reason to leave the house more often. Soon, the buyer-seller relationship turned into love, and then, with the help of Nika’s friend’s father, they got married in the church.

With the help of a friend, Nika started to work in a stone workshop, and Nina soon became a store manager. In a few months, they rented a 1-bedroom apartment. Nika tried to never return to his old neighborhood, did not want to see his old “buddies”, rarely visited the home, his parents associated with the past and, at that time, Nina was the only person with whom none of the above was associated, especially the painful past. Within a few months, Nina and Nika got a baby. Nika was waiting for the delivery of a baby outside the ward, next to the door. When the doctor called him in, he entered the ward. Nina was already pressing the babe to her heart. She glanced at Nika for him to approach her. Nika’s eyes filled with tears, and suddenly he broke out in a cold sweat, he could not touch the baby. At first, Nina didn’t think it was weird. She thought he was nervous about labour, but even after returning home from the hospital, Nika never touched the baby. Each time approaching the baby, his hands starting to shake, and eyes were filling with tears. This was strange for Nina. The initial anger changed the surprise and then aroused interest. Nika always avoided asking questions about this topic. Nina, for a long time, had various thoughts in her head. She was angry and couldn’t get used to the fact that Nika refused to touch the child. Nevertheless, Nika helped Nina raise her child in every way, and soon this strangeness became a common story in their lives.

Giorgi will be 3-year-old in July, he has even learned to count, but he still can’t understand why, like other fathers, his father doesn’t play with him and doesn’t walk him to kindergarden by holding hands.