New Love

I wasn’t ready for how lonely I’d feel when I got out of prison. I wasn’t prepared for it. I was prepared to be poor, I was prepared not to work, I was prepared to have problems with my children. I wasn’t prepared for missing my girl. It threw me way off balance.


After incarceration, there is one struggle women face that isn’t easily addressed by changes in the law, public policy, or job placement services: their relationships with the partners they’ve loved and, in many cases, still love. Women’s attachments and their search for affection and intimacy continues to play a role in their lives, alternately challenging and reinforcing their commitment to healing and empowerment. In her beautiful book The Ex-Prisoner’s Dilemma, Andrea Leverentz describes how formerly incarcerated women “tried to balance a goal of independence with changing the ways in which they relate to others and the desire for strong, positive connections.”1 Leverentz explains how women resolve this dilemma as they tend to end former romantic relationships and friendships while preserving family ties. Additionally, most of the women “avoided romantic relationships or only engaged in casual relationships in order to focus better on themselves and their own recovery.”2

This shed light on something I kept observing and didn’t completely understand. While I was hearing a lot from women about all the issues they faced in their lives, there was a blank space when it came to certain topics: their relationships and their sexuality. Adela confided that she and Pati Zarate, the chef and founder of the Homegirl Café, had often talked about “becoming like nuns.” I suspected that other women felt that way—but why? As Denise and Clara, along with so many others, explained, their relationships with men were part of what drove them deeper into gang life and crime, or precipitated their return to such a life during the vulnerable time of reentry. Adela reminded me of the example of Ivy and how her involvement with Pedro had short-circuited her recovery. It was important to learn who women cared about, who they were attracted to, and, just as significantly, how they negotiated sexuality as they reentered their communities. I also knew there was a very good reason why all this took a backseat—they had too much going on in their lives.

“I don’t have time to think about a man. I don’t have time to think about sex,” Cynthia Diaz told me. “The only man I’m thinking about is my probation officer—and I’m not thinking about him that way. I’m thinking about how I gotta stay out of trouble.” What Cynthia told me wasn’t unusual. The women I knew felt overwhelmed with all the requirements they were trying to fulfill and all the obstacles they were facing.

But as we spent hours together, these same women grew tired of focusing on the problems they faced. They wanted to gossip and talk about the times they got to party or have fun and enjoy themselves. We’d talk about men, and they’d ask me endlessly about my marriage. Many of them started reminiscing about their past loves. Others wanted to talk about the significant relationships popping up in their lives. And then there was the small group of women who opened up about how incarceration had changed the way they viewed themselves and their sexuality.

The sexuality of women in prison has always been a source of curiosity and titillation. Over its seven seasons, the TV show Orange Is the New Black explored the relationships that existed between women and how attraction, love, and loss occurred during lockup. As we talked, what I began to learn about women and sexuality was much more complex than anything that could be portrayed on a television series. I also knew that despite the time I’d spent with the women I knew, I still had very limited knowledge of the LGBTQIA community, a subject that warrants many books, particularly by those who have direct experience with gender-expansive identities.

The Prison Policy Initiative cited a study showing that 33 percent of incarcerated women identified as lesbian or bisexual, compared with less than 10 percent of incarcerated men.3 But there’s been limited examination of what happens with women’s sexuality during incarceration, and even less study of women’s sexuality after incarceration. It almost felt like no one really wanted to look too closely at sexuality, a reluctance reinforced by explicit and implicit homophobia. Maybe it’s because sexuality wasn’t the real issue. The real issue involved how relationships began and developed during incarceration and how that affected women when they returned home to their families.

Both men and women create structures for themselves in prison, and—no surprise—these structures are gendered. Incarcerated men’s hierarchies are largely based on power, and that power is exerted through intimidation, illegal activities, gang rivalries, and rape. The last led to President George W. Bush’s signing the Prison Rape Elimination Act into law in 2003, legislation aimed at protecting individuals from what was viewed as an epidemic level of prison rape.4

However, in prison women’s hierarchies are based on attachments and relationships, often mirroring family structure; they also involve extensive caretaking. This was certainly what I learned from the women I interviewed. They formed strong bonds with one another while they were locked up but also after they were free.5 Researchers have also found that women create what have been termed “pseudo-families” while in prison, where they tend to be locked up for longer stretches of time than in jail or other correctional institutions. While similar relationships occurred in men’s prisons, with a stronger man “protecting” another man who becomes his lover, there’s really no documented equivalent for these pseudo-families in men’s incarceration. In creating these interdependent families and relationships women pair off with a sexual partner and care for younger women who represent children or kin in their care. The families offer support, attachments, and interdependent relationships. In many instances, these prison families are closer to an ideal family than the women’s real families. Older women serve in a strong parental role, being deeply protective and acting as caretakers and mentors toward younger women. And just like their families outside prison, incarcerated women’s relationships and roles are dynamic and change over time.6

Within these pseudo-families, sexual relationships are accepted; they’re seen as just another part of life during incarceration. The idea that women would be “affectionate” or care for one another and how that might translate into sexual relationships has been studied somewhat inconsistently. Again, this is evidence of the implicit homophobia and bias that stalks research into prison behaviors. Still, some research has been done. One of the earliest studies of how women act on their sexuality while locked up was conducted in 1965 at Frontera Prison (now Chowchilla), at that time the only women’s prison in California. Based on responses to a questionnaire, the researchers reported that 50 percent of the women there were involved in same-sex sexual activity.7 Most of the time, this activity was for pleasure and wasn’t viewed as meaningful. But occasionally, these interactions turned into serious relationships.8 Over ten years later, in another study that used questionnaires administered in women’s prisons, sociologist Alice Propper described the multiple reasons women gave for engaging in same-sex relationships while locked up: fun, to combat loneliness, needing companionship, and economic gain.9 More recently, in 2014, a study found that consensual same-sex relationships were viewed as just part of life in prison for both men and women.10 Maybe these attachments were best described by Kate Johns, a London lawyer who spent five years in prison after being convicted of tax fraud. She referred to such relationships using the familiar phrase “gay for the stay,” explaining that they existed “out of pragmatism and as a counterbalance to loneliness.”11

This scant published research was no substitute for the personal stories women told me. Adela brought up the subject one day spontaneously, bursting out, “One of the biggest things I remember about being in there was that I never saw so many lesbians in prison or anywhere else in my life. I was, like, what the heck? I’d only been in there for like two weeks and a new set of girls came in. Some of them were beautiful girls and some of them looked like vatitos, like boys. I thought this was only a women’s prison. What were they doing here? Then I learned that these were girls who were straight-out looking like dudes. They cut their hair like guys—they walked like guys—they talked like guys. Oh my gosh, I just couldn’t believe it. I had been around dykes with long hair. But nothing like this. These were women who looked like men. These other girls were taking care of them like their wives or girlfriends. I learned so much!”

Their relationships were subject to the same insecurities and jealousies that were part of romantic entanglements on the outside. Even though she didn’t get involved, Adela was enlisted to keep an eye on women by their partners. “I remember one of them saying, ‘Juarez, I trust you—is my girl being with anybody in your unit?’” Adela refused to cooperate, telling her, “Girl, you might trust me, but I’m not a snitch, so you’re going to have to figure that out on your own. I don’t get involved in your thing—your relationship—or whatever you got going on.”

Rachel, Adela’s “bunkie,” soon got fed up with all the jealousy. She told Adela, “My husband cheated on me outside. So, I’m in here and I fall in love with Ella. Then I got thrown in the hole. I come back—she’s with somebody else. It’s the same shit—they promise you this and that, they’re gonna wait for you—I come back, she’s with somebody else.” Adela viewed this all at a remove, refusing to get involved, refusing to be judgmental. “I thought it was cute in a way—these women, fighting for their women. In the end, I would benefit from it. I would get their makeup when they went to the hole for fighting.”

So much of what Adela was talking about sounded like what’s often called out as situational sexual behavior—when individuals engage in relationships that differ from their usual sexual preferences. Many women were open about it. Adela remembered, “My other bunkie, Juana, switched off. When she was on the unit, she’d be with a girl. She went home with her kids and boyfriend and came back on a violation. When she came back, I asked her, ‘Are you going to be a lesbian again?’ And she said, ‘Fuck that, I’m not doing that again. I’m going to do my time and go home.’”

Adela never got involved in a relationship in prison, and Juana remained celibate until she was released. But not every woman was as clear about her sexuality. For some women, things get much more complicated when what starts out as a substitution actually translates to lasting change in a woman’s life and identity. Incarceration led women to new discoveries about relationships and their sexual preferences. These women wondered if their newly discovered sexual attractions were just due to being locked up and in an environment that accepted gay relationships. Or were they the sign of something deeper?

Adela saw the doubts that women around her struggled to resolve. These uncertainties around their identity and sexual preferences affected women more strongly than any jealousy and possessiveness. Some women, believing they were truly in love for the first time, didn’t know what do to. Because Adela wasn’t involved and had the strength I would later observe at Homegirl, she was a source of support for the women in prison, particularly those who felt conflicted. “Girls would say, ‘Don’t judge me. I want to ask you, Do you think I’m wrong?’ I’d say, ‘I just feel you’re confused.’” Adela knew these women had husbands or partners on the outside, and she thought they didn’t really know what to do. “Rachel, my bunkie, was like that in the beginning. Then she realized that for her, it was all fake. She wasn’t a lesbian. She stopped getting involved. But some of the girls were really mixed up. A lot of them—first they used a girl because they were lonely. Then they got confused. I saw these beautiful girls; they had a husband and children, and then they had a girlfriend. They were so mixed up inside. I think they were fluid, but we didn’t have words like that back in the day.”

Adela watched this happen over and over again. She also believed that the prison had a hand in it. At orientation women were told, “‘All you girls who have someone out there, forget about them, do your time. Because right now, there’s somebody else in your place.’ We all looked at each other, like, what the heck?” Adela believed that this fear of betrayal by loved ones, along with loneliness and desire, drove women into relationships they didn’t anticipate. And she admitted even she was surprised when she saw who women paired up with.

“I would trip out. I didn’t understand how women could change who they wanted to be with permanently. There was this girl, she was with the vatito girl, then she got out and found out her vatito girl was cheating on her. She violated again just to get back in.” Adela is laughing as she says this. “I couldn’t believe it! This girl was beautiful. She’s got a husband and kids. Why would she want to come back on a violation just to be with her vatito? There was another girl, and she was beautiful too; she had a girlfriend in here. During visiting day, I told my sister, ‘When you walk out of here, give that girl’s husband my number.’ He was gorgeous.”

Not everyone was as open as Adela in describing what happened in prison. For many, how their sexuality was expressed while incarcerated, and what occurred romantically after jail or prison was an area they shied away from discussing. Many women didn’t hesitate to talk about violent acts they’d witnessed, including homicides, and they also described, in detail, complex criminal operations. Yet, they hesitated to discuss their sexuality unless it had something to do with their lives before being locked up. As time passed and we spent more time together, women ultimately opened up about how the attachments they made in prison and the relationships they engaged in often had far-reaching consequences for their lives.

Though they were few, some women acknowledged that they had always known they had feelings for the same sex. This had caused problems for them in their lives long before incarceration. But there were also women who didn’t realize or didn’t want to recognize the truth of their sexuality until much later in life. One of them began by saying candidly, “I’m forty years old now—and I can’t believe I’m finally finding out who I am.” Angela Washington told me this while we sat eating tacos at Danny Trejo’s restaurant on La Brea. People stop to stare at Angela—her physical appearance is that arresting. She is tall and thin and has incredibly long legs. Her skin is a beautiful dark brown, reflecting her Caribbean and African American heritages. Angela’s father was Black, her mother Puerto Rican, and, as she laughingly explained, “I’m just an American girl.” She never knew her father and to this day has no idea where he is. He was a musician who romanced her mother when she worked as a cocktail waitress and he played in a house band at a club popular with Puerto Ricans in New York. After her mother gave birth to Angela, he abandoned the two of them. “My mother doesn’t know where he went. All I’ve got is his last name and some photos of the two of them when they were young and in love. To this day, sometimes I think I see him in the streets. It’s really just a dark-skinned man who’s tall and thin. Once in a while, if I meet someone from New York, I ask them if they’ve ever heard of him. I don’t really expect an answer. It’s just a dream, just a fantasy. Besides, do you know how many Black men are named Washington?” Angela laughs again as she says this, while her eyes fill with tears.

Angela’s mother eventually did marry, a man named Enrique, and they had two sons together. Her mother insisted they were all one family, but Angela always felt like an outsider. Enrique developed an addiction to cocaine and began to abuse her mother, beat the boys, and threatened Angela that he was going to kick her out. “I knew I had to get the hell out of there as fast as I could.”

When she was seventeen, her boyfriend offered her the opportunity she needed. “Kenny and I were in love, and I got pregnant, so we got married.” There was one problem: the couple had absolutely no money. But Kenny had two brothers in business in Los Angeles, and the couple soon decided to join them.

Once they arrived in LA, it wasn’t long before Angela discovered that the family “business” was drug dealing. “I was pregnant and just decided I didn’t want to know.” While Angela remained in a state of willful ignorance, Kenny was making money. She gave birth to a son and, eighteen months later, found herself pregnant again. Within three years, she’d gone from being a girl in love to the mother of two sons. The family graduated from an apartment to a small house with a yard and a patio. Despite their success, there was turmoil. Angela begged Kenny to stop dealing drugs; she worried about the arsenal of firearms he was accumulating in their closet.

“And then it all came crashing down,” Angela told me. “Kenny didn’t come home one night—I didn’t think much about it. He was gone two or three nights sometimes; he had to go out to get more ‘product’—that’s all he told me. Then, when he was gone for more than a week, I started to worry.” Her concern was well founded. Ten days after she last saw her husband, his brother Mikey told her that Kenny had been killed, in Colorado. “It was crazy,” she said. “I still don’t know if he really got killed or if he just ran away. It didn’t matter. All I knew was, I was on my own.”

She tried to find work, but there was no one to watch the kids, so, she went on welfare and food stamps. Even then, there was never enough money. “I really tried,” Angela insisted. “The only other job I could get was in a club—serving drinks or being an exotic dancer.” In the end, she asked Kenny’s brothers to cut her into the family business. Angela refused to deal what she considered hard-core drugs—meth and heroin. “Mostly it was pot, cocaine, and crack. I kept thinking, ‘I’ll just do this until I get the boys through school.’”

She kept a low profile and was only arrested occasionally for drug possession; she’d end up spending a week or two in the LA County jail. By then, her sons were teenagers and could fend for themselves while she was locked up. When she turned forty, the boys were finally out of the house, and working; one was a truck driver and one stocked shelves at Costco. “I was proud of my boys,” she told me. “They never joined a gang, and both of them finished school. I went to two high school graduations. All that time, I stayed home with them, I know I did the right thing.”

Her sons were the center of Angela’s life. She never remarried. “I’d meet guys, but there were never any sparks,” she told me. “After Kenny was gone, I’d tell guys I thought he might come back. Now I know, I really wasn’t interested in being with a man.” Her older son, Trayvon, had a girlfriend, as they had a baby; Angela loved being a grandmother.

Around this time, she scaled back her drug dealing. She started selling clothes, jewelry, and other items out of her apartment. Everything went well until an LA County sheriff showed up at her door with a warrant for her arrest for receiving stolen property. They also had a search warrant and soon discovered the small cache of drugs she kept on hand to sell. Now her case was turbocharged and wouldn’t be straightened out by a few nights in jail. Angela panicked. “I was scared. I knew I wasn’t a criminal, and I didn’t have money for a lawyer. And the charges were serious.” At the urging of her public defender, Angela did the only thing she could: she agreed to a plea bargain and ended up with two strikes and two years in the Central California Women’s Facility, or, as it is better known, Chowchilla.

Chowchilla is the largest women’s prison in the United States, covering 640 acres, with an operating budget of $140 million. It’s notorious for its high-profile residents, including Kristin Rossum, whose story was documented on television’s 48 Hours, and former Manson family member Susan Atkins, now deceased. Despite its large budget and size, it’s overcrowded. Designed to house 2,004 women, by 2020, Chowchilla was housing 2,640—132 percent of its official capacity.

Despite the crowding and her fears, Angela soon learned that if she adjusted to the routines and avoided getting into trouble, she’d be eligible for Chowchilla’s early release program. She also learned something else: she was attracted to women.

“All my life, I’d been with men, from the time I was fourteen and lost my virginity. When I was locked up everything changed. I met a woman there, Ronnie. She said she’d take care of me. There were women who hooked up with other women. They said they did it to get through prison. For a while, that’s what I said too. It turned out for me, this wasn’t just a way to get through prison. I fell in love with Ronnie.”

There were problems. Ronnie was locked up for multiple murders: her sentence was twenty-five years to life. “I was getting out in a year or less. I knew if I couldn’t be with Ronnie, I wanted to be with a woman. I’d never been so happy with anyone as I was with Ronnie. None of this bisexual bullshit. I was a lesbian. It was crazy. I hated every minute in prison, but I also finally learned about myself.”

Angela was lucky. The women in Chowchilla told her about a place in Claremont, Crossroads Halfway House. She went there when she was released. Located about forty miles east of LA, Crossroads traced its beginnings to a couple running a dairy farm next door to the California Institution for Women. They routinely supplied the prison with milk. One day, after a conversation with the prison warden, the couple agreed to take in a foster child whose mother was incarcerated. After her release from CIW, the mother moved in as well, until she and her child were able to live on their own. The couple, seeing how meaningful their support was, continued taking in women after incarceration for ten years, until Crossroads “officially” opened a small home for six women in Claremont in 1975. With its mission “to provide housing, education, support, counseling, and employment training in a homelike environment for women who have been incarcerated,” it’s still considered “the best-kept secret in Claremont.”12

By the time Angela arrived, Crossroads had grown, sheltering twenty-four women in two houses—California bungalows under big shady trees. Angela loved the program and the woman who ran it, Sister Terry Dodge. Sister Terry understood reentry; her brother had cycled through jail and prison for over a decade.

I’d been introduced to Sister Terry by one of my students and was immediately struck by her compassion, humor, and commitment to the women she served. Crossroads flourished under her leadership. Its model shares similarities with ANWOL, but there are differences as well. While it’s not a faith-based organization, it’s largely underwritten by donors associated with the Catholic Church, operating on a very limited budget. Also unlike ANWOL, it’s affiliated with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. The Crossroads program emphasizes women’s autonomy and financial sustainability. Once her case manager determines a woman is ready, she is placed in a paying job and required to save 75 percent of her earnings for moving out. This all works and, according to self-reports, 86 percent of the women who have graduated from Crossroads don’t reoffend or relapse into criminal behavior and are “self-sustaining after six years.”13

Although Angela missed Ronnie, she settled into Crossroads and focused on getting better—she wanted to be financially independent through legal activities. She was also eager to be up-to-date. When she compared herself to other residents who’d never even used a cell phone, she “was happy I wasn’t that far behind, and I wanted to learn. Everyone was talking about Facebook. I wanted to catch up.”

Angela blossomed at Crossroads, but she also knew she had to move on. Claremont was different from Los Angeles—a quiet town. She missed her sons and her friends. After six months in the program, she found work as a receptionist at a small nonprofit in South LA. A coworker told her about an apartment next door to where she was living that was for rent, and Angela grabbed it. Her coworker became more than a neighbor.

“It was easy to fall in love with Simone,” Angela said. “The hard part was telling my boys. They’d visited me in prison, but they’d never met Ronnie. I knew I was gonna have to tell them what happened one day. My relationship with Simone made that one day come faster.” Her older son, Trayvon, was fighting with his girlfriend—they’d broken up and she wouldn’t let him see his little boy. Preoccupied with his own problems, he took what Angela told him in stride. “He joked that he couldn’t understand why I’d want to be involved with a woman after he was having so much trouble with his baby mama, and we both laughed. He also told me he figured something was up because I’d never had a serious boyfriend. He said lots of men had wanted me, and I didn’t seem to want them. I guess he knew more than I did.”

Trayvon’s reaction didn’t prepare Angela for how her younger son, Tyrone, would respond. When Angela explained that Simone was moving in, Tyrone angrily told her he’d never visit her as long as they lived together. “He called me all kinds of names and said I was sick in the head. I was heartbroken.” Angela tried to reach out to him, and in the process told more people about her new life. “In the beginning, it was hard. You know the Black community sometimes has its troubles with gay men and lesbians. Two of my friends thought I just had to get prison out of my system.” Angela shook her head as she told me this.

She tried to joke with me about the impact of “coming out at forty-three,” but the truth was that she felt transformed. “I know now the people that loved me are gonna go on loving me. I’m hopeful about Tyrone too, and I know it’s gonna be baby steps.” He’d finally answered the phone when she called him and accepted her invitation to dinner.

Angela felt deeply fulfilled with the relationship she’d started after incarceration. I didn’t know if other women had the same experience. Beyond their struggles with economics and children, their anguish and their joy, what happened to women after incarceration in their search for love? Many had told me they didn’t have time to think about romance while trying to rebuild their lives, but maybe they felt the way Angela did: “I just want what everyone wants—someone to love who loves me.”

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