It has been a few months since I wrote explicitly about the realities of incarceration in our LGBTQ communities. As Massachusetts moves forward with plans to build and/or expand three women’s jails and as New Hampshire sets up a contract with the Corrections Corporation of America to operate a private prison in the southern part of the state, it’s key for queers and trans folks to remain vigilant.
Black and Pink, an LGBTQ prisoner-support and grassroots penal abolitionist organization I work with, had a vibrant presence at Boston Pride this year (hundreds of our stickers and pens also showed up in New York City, Chicago and San Francisco). Thousands of people walked by the Black and Pink booth during the Pride festival and hundreds of people stopped to talk with us. One of the primary objectives of the day was to get individuals to commit to beginning a pen pal friendship with a currently incarcerated LGBTQ prisoner. Black and Pink’s long-term objective is the abolition of the prison industrial complex, but until the United States has a different system of securing authentic justice, there are 2.4 million people in prison and jails who need support. The choice to become a pen pal can feel somewhat daunting of a task at first. Where does one start? What can someone on the outside say to someone locked inside? What were the people convicted of in the first place? These are among many common questions people ask. Another question I’d encourage everyone to ask is, What happens when we do not connect with our LGBTQ family behind bars?
Letter-writing to individuals who are locked up is not only a great opportunity to build strong relationships with new people (or, obviously, to keep in contact with your loved ones), it is a simple harm-reduction tool for people inside. Think for a moment about mail call in a prison. This time of the day is often in a place where prison guards and other prisoners can hear whose name is being called. Imagine a young transwoman who was homeless before getting locked up, unlikely receiving any mail. Prison guards and other prisoners already isolate, harass, sexually assault and demean transgender women prisoners and the knowledge that no one on the outside is paying attention simply empowers them to inflict suffering with impunity. Becoming a pen pal means that this individual’s name will be read out loud and others will know that someone is looking out for them and cares about them.
The harm-reduction role extends to the prisoner pen pals themselves. LGBTQ people are disproportionately held in solitary confinement, overwhelmingly experience sexual violence, and are constantly religiously abused by right-wing preachers. This can lead to a deep internalization of self-hate which can manifest as self-harm or suicide. Your letters may be the only kind words this person hears. Your efforts to get to know this person could be the only positive recognition they receive as LGBTQ people. Black and Pink is regularly told that our efforts are the only connection people have to the outside. Chrisdilla, a transman in Illinois, wrote, “I’m in segregation 24 hour lock down. I’m lonely, I’m in need of a friend. … Hope I continue to hear from you all and hope to one day meet you all!” You could be part of alleviating suffering of a member of our LGBTQ community who is so often forgotten.
Efforts to support LGBTQ people in prison are not limited to the adult penal system. The recent hearings by the Massachusetts Commission on GLBT Youth included reports about young people affected by the Department of Youth Services, the criminalization of LGBTQ youth behavior, the school-to-prison pipeline, and the blatant racial disparities in detention. Unfortunately, Massachusetts does not have a current organizing project working specifically on the needs of young LGBTQ people affected by the juvenile justice system or the larger adult penal system. The commission has made recommendations in the past for training of DYS facility staff, but training is only a very small part of the solution. Nicer, friendlier detention centers are not what our youth need, ending criminalization and providing authentic alternatives are key steps Massachusetts needs now and the Commission needs to take a lead on this. Pride month has come to a close, but the work of celebrating and honoring the lives of all LGBTQ people still has much work to be done. Feel free to check out www.blackandpink.org to find out more about that project and learn more about how the penal system harms LGBTQ people.
*Rev. Jason Lydon is a Unitarian Universalist minister in Boston. He is a long time anti-prison organizer and founder of Black & Pink, an LGBTQ-focused effort working toward the abolition of the prison industrial complex. Jason is also an avid lover of famous people and blockbuster action flicks. You can reach Jason at firstname.lastname@example.org.