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Holiday Card-Making Party for Incarcerated LGBTQI Individuals

Project Overview

A holiday card-making party for incarcerated LGBTQI individuals, with an optional pen-pal matching component.

Identifying the Problem

Prison is an alienating, depressing experience for most incarcerated individuals, and it is particularly bad for LGBTQI-identified people. On the whole, LBGTQI inmates are more likely to be victimized and less likely to have strong outside support from family and/or friends. While many incarcerated LGBTQI individuals try to remain closeted out of fear for their safety, they are often subjected to harassment and assault based on their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. Trans* women are particularly vulnerable, often being housed with the wrong gender or forcibly placed in “protective custody,” an assignment tantamount to solitary confinement.

Despite a multitude of research showing that solitary confinement serves no rehabilitative purpose and results in irreversible psychological damage, solitary confinement remains a heavily over-utilized tool in the American prison system. The practice has become even more widespread in recent decades with the proliferation of “supermax” prisons – correctional housing containing only isolated units. Tens of thousands of prisoners spend significant amounts of time in isolation, despite a lack of evidence showing that they would pose a security concern in integrated correctional housing.

As Alex became increasingly interested and more involved in issues regarding LGBTQI people and the criminal justice system, he wanted to find a way to bring more attention to these issues. He was aware that Black & Pink, an organization that brings together LGBTQI prisoners and “free world” allies, was running an initiative to host Winter Holiday Card-Making Parties for LGBTQI prisoners. Alex thought this would be the perfect opportunity to bring together people he knew to do something meaningful for the holiday season that would also shine light on important issues surrounding the treatment of LGBTQI individuals within the prison-industrial complex.

Creating A Solution

Alex decided to host a Winter Holiday Card-Making Party for LGBTQI prisoners at his home. He began by reaching out to friends and acquaintances to see if the idea generated enough interest. Once he determined that there were plenty of people who were interested in participating, he calculated the maximum number of cards his group would be able to write. He then asked Black & Pink for a list of about 60 incarcerated individuals who had indicated that they would like to receive mail from the outside.

In addition to the materials provided in a prefabricated kit sent by Black & Pink, Alex prepared a variety of card templates and decorating materials to make the cards as ornate and personalized as possible. Alex clarified what materials were considered acceptable by all prisons – for example, many prisons do not allow mail featuring heavy construction paper, glue or crayon – and bought supplies accordingly.  Alex then scheduled the event early enough during the holiday season to ensure that all the cards would make it through the mail security system and be received by the prisoners by Christmas. In addition to the card supplies, Alex provided participants with the biographies of the prisoners, which helped the participants to write cards that addressed the unique interests of each prisoner. At the conclusion of the event, Alex created a personalized card for every inmate for whom a card had not already been made.

Alex’s project had a dual purpose: (1) To infuse some humanity into an inhumane situation by providing a point of personal contact to people who do not regularly receive such contact, and (2) to humanize incarcerated individuals and initiate conversations on prison reform within his own community. With the emphasis on social community that exists during the holiday season, it seemed particularly important to express solidarity with individuals who often feel abandoned or neglected by the outside at that time of year. Despite the plethora of amazing forums and events hosted in the area by organizations like the Correctional Association of New York, the Fortune Society and Black & Pink, many of these events are attended only by a self-selected group. By holding the event in his home and advertising it as a social event, Alex was able to draw people who may otherwise have little exposure to the issues faced by incarcerated individuals, and in particular LGBTQI incarcerated individuals. 

This event served as a very effective educational tool, in large part due to the biographies of the prisoners. Many participants came in unaware of how widespread the use of solitary confinement is, or that inmates can be held in solitary confinement not just for dangerous behavior while in custody but on grounds of pre-classification (administrative segregation) or because they are perceived as at-risk themselves (involuntary protective custody). This was further illuminated by the fact that almost all the prisoners who had requested to receive mail from people on the outside were themselves in administrative segregation or protective custody for indefinite periods. Many participants were similarly enlightened to how excessive sentencing can be, such as in the cases of prisoners who had been serving decades-long sentences without parole since they were teenagers. 

Alex and the participants received a strong response from many incarcerated individuals, with over 75% of letter recipients writing back to express that the card(s) had made their day, or even their holiday season, and thanking letter writers for the personalized nature of the cards. Alex believes that this event also facilitated some level of attitudinal change toward the treatment of incarcerated people by some of the participants. He followed up with participants after the event to encourage them to become pen-pals with the prisoners to whom they wrote the holiday card. Many of the participants have since become pen-pals, an experience that has led one of Alex’s friends to reconsider prior assumptions about individuals involved in the criminal justice system.

Lessons Learned

Alex underestimated the level of response and how quickly incarcerated individuals would invest in those who sent holiday cards. Pen-pals are often the only meaningful personal contact people in solitary confinement have, and as a pen-pal, one can quickly assume an enormous role in an inmate’s life. Many people, including Alex, did not anticipate this happening as quickly as it did. Potential pen-pals should thus be prepared for the level of responsibility that this activity can bring.

On a logistical note, Alex underestimated how expensive and time-consuming addressing and stamping all the envelopes would be, and suggests that people who hold similar events in the future ask guests to each bring a stamp or two and that they seal and address their own letters.

Get Involved!

Anyone interested in becoming a pen-pal with an LGBTQI prisoner can do so through Black & Pink’s website. The organization has local chapters in major cities across the United States, and contacting these chapters is a great way to find out about mothly events and other opportunities for direct action on issues of prison reform and/or abolition. If you would like more information beforehand, Alex would be happy to discuss his experiences and give tips on pen-pal relationships privately. You can contact him through his Senior Fellow page.

Funding

Names and biographies of inmates were provided by Black & Pink free of charge. All the card-making supplies were paid for out of pocket, and cost less than $100.

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About This Project

HIA Program:

Germany Germany 2014

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