We haven’t forgotten you: Connecting with incarcerated members of our community

By Trystan Reese, Task Force Senior Field Organizer

I’ve made many mistakes in my life. Fortunately I’ve never had to pay for those mistakes with my own freedom, but I can imagine what it would feel like if I had.

As a trans person, I imagine that I would be scared about where they would put me. I wonder if I would have regular access to my hormones, the critical link between me and sanity. I worry that if I was harassed, discriminated against, or even assaulted, that no one would come to my aid. Or that seeking help may actually result in more abuse.

And I would probably be very, very lonely.

Connecting Our Community

One of the first prisoner letters I ever received was from a man named Peter. He asked if we could find him a penpal, and his letter ended like this: “PS. Please write back. I don’t like being alone.” Something about that closing line hit me deep in my gut. I imagined what it would be like to be Peter, sitting in a prison cell far from friends and family, pleading with a stranger for some interaction and contact.

letterThe work we are doing is about connecting our community to each other. Every letter that the Prison Letters Project receives is from someone working hard to make themselves better, to find community again, and to feel less alone. Matthew is running a GSA at his facility in Florida; we send him organizing tools and give him advice on how to have productive discussions about homophobia with other inmates and guards, so he and other gay and bi inmates can have a safer experience in lock-up. L’Oreal is trans, and she worries about making healthy transition decisions behind bars. We researched the laws in her state and found her other trans women to correspond with. Adam is in solitary confinement, which means he spends 23 hours a day alone in a concrete cell with no windows. We send him books in his favorite genre, read the ‘zines he writes and hand-copies for us, and manage a team of pen pals who write to him and keep him company through letters.

For the past 2 years, we have been actively corresponding with LGBT inmates who reach out to us for help. Sometimes they need resources on how to fight discrimination or survive sexual assault or come out to their families. Often they need help locating re-entry resources to prepare them for life after release. Other times they need specific legal help for their cases; many were unfairly prosecuted because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. But mostly they want to feel connected to the community, to share stories about their lives, and to get to know someone who isn’t incarcerated.

judeStrength Through Solidarity

When the holidays came around this year, the Prison Letters Project at The Task Force linked inmates with “free world” volunteers who wanted to brighten up someone’s holiday with a hand-written card. We paired up with Black and Pink, who run a pen pal service for LGBT inmates in addition to many other critical projects affecting inmates. They provided additional names of inmates for us to write to, and we connected over 400 volunteers to more than 500 LGBT inmates around the country. The response back from those cards was astonishing. Here is what some of them had to say:

“Thanks for the card. It really touched my heart. Believe it or not, yours is the first and only card I have ever received in the 17 years I have been locked up. Thank you so much for taking the time to reach out to a lonely gay prisoner. It meant much more to me than you know, especially after the many years I have spent without receiving one.”

“Every time I receive mail, it’s a reminder to me that someone out there cares about me and that not everyone in free society has forgotten that I am here.”

“I never felt connected to any kind of gay community before you guys started writing to me. You have given me hope for a healthy life after release. Indeed, perhaps if I had experienced support like this when I was young, my life would not have taken the turns that it did.”

chloeSome facts about queer life behind bars:

  • 34% of bisexual inmates and 39% of gay inmates report being sexually assaulted in prison.
  • People of color make up 60% of the prisoner population in the US, and black offenders receive longer sentences than their white counterparts.
  • Incarceration often results in a cycle of poverty: ex-felons face severe discrimination by employers.

That discrimination, when coupled with anti-gay or anti-trans bias, can lead to a cycle of poverty and further incarceration.

I believe that as a queer community, we are stronger together. I believe that solidarity needs to reach beyond prison walls, and that compassion and kindness can only ever make this world a better place. A card or a letter, written to someone without any existing support structures, can change the way they see themselves as a queer person. It can help them connect to a bigger picture, a bigger community, and a bigger movement that is glad to stand with them.

To join our volunteer team, send a message to Trystan at treese@thetaskforce.org.