At San Quentin, LGBTQ prisoners and once-biased inmates try to heal together

Ten years ago, Rafeal “Nephew” Bankston landed in solitary confinement in San Quentin State Prison for refusing a gay cellmate.

“Where I grew up, we called it gay bashing,” he said. “We hated them, robbed them,” Bankston added matter-of-factly.

On a Wednesday afternoon in April, he told that story to a classroom of 15 other inmates. About half of them were LGBTQ. Photos of LGBTQ icons — Janet Mock, Ellen Degeneres, James Baldwin — smiled down from a whiteboard at the front of the room.

A federal inmate threatened another for being gay. Then guards moved them into the same cell.

The stepmother of inmate Alec Arapahoe called the prison facility where he was incarcerated to relay a message. It was early August 2014.

She said Arapahoe — who is gay and Native American — told her that other Native American inmates were making threats toward him and that he felt his life would be in danger if he was not placed in protective custody, according to a federal court complaint.