“Here, the word lesbian seldom, if ever, is mentioned. Most, if not all, of the homosexual relationships here involve role playing. The majority of relationships are either asexual or semi-sexual. The absence of sexual consummation is only partially explained by prison prohibition against any kind of sexual behavior. Basically the women are not looking for sex. They are looking for love, for concern and companionship. For relief from the overwhelming sense of isolation and solitude that pervades each of us.
Women who are “aggressive” or who play the masculine roles are referred to as butches, bulldaggers or stud broads. They are always in demand because they are always in the minority. Women who are “passive,” or who play feminine roles are referred to as fems. The butch-fem relationships are often oppressive, resembling the most oppressive, exploitative aspect of a sexist society. It is typical to hear butches threatening fems with physical violence and it is not uncommon for butches to actually beat their “women.” Some butches consider themselves pimps and go with the women who have the most commissary, the most contraband or the best outside connections. They feel they are a class above ordinary women which entitles them to “respect.” They dictate to fems what they are to do and many insist the fems wash, iron, sew and clean their cells for them. A butch will refer to another butch as “man.” A butch who is well liked is known as “one of the fellas” by her peers.
Once in prison changes in roles are common. Many women who are strictly heterosexual in the street become butch in prison. “Fems” often create butches by convincing an inmate that she would make a “cute butch.” About 80 percent of the prison population engage in some form of homosexual relationship. Almost all follow negative, stereotypic male/ female role models.
There is no connection between the women’s movement and lesbianism. Most of the women at Riker’s Island have no idea what feminism is, let alone lesbianism. Feminism, the women’s liberation movement and the gay liberation movement are worlds away from women at Riker’s.”
Assata Shakur, Women in Prison: How it is for Us