Justice

How Pen Pals Help LGBTQ Prisoners Survive

LGBTQ inmates can experience higher rates of violence. But having an outside connection can help keep them safe

BY


The Walrus

Eve Parker Finley opens the door to a small, quiet room crammed with bookshelves on the second floor of an unremarkable building in Montreal. The non-profit worker pulls a box filled with unopened letters and begins to sort them into labelled boxes. Every week, dozens of envelopes arrive addressed to the cramped office housed in Concordia University. Rene Callahan-St John arrives, greets Finley, and quickly jumps in to help her. It’s March, and the letters have been pouring in. Together, the two volunteers finish organizing the letters. Soon, it’s time for the most rewarding part: opening and reading the hundreds of letters sent by LGBTQ prisoners from all over Canada and the US.

Finley and Callahan-St John volunteer for the Prisoner Correspondence Project (PCP), the only Canada-based pen pal organization for LGBTQ prisoners. The initiative started serendipitously—and informally—in 2007. On a trip to Montreal, a volunteer with a similar organization in the US brought nearly 100 letters to a party they attended in the city. Dozens of people there pitched in to help sort and respond to the letters. From there, a new collective formed: the PCP. One of their goals is to break the isolation of the 3,000-plus LGBTQ North American inmates who are signed up for the PCP, including many in Canada, by connecting them with a larger community. Today, all of the group’s volunteers are LGBTQ; both Finley and Callahan-St John identify as transgender.

“I liked the idea that it’s something tangible,” says Finley, who joined the collective three years ago. “You have a person that you write back and forth, and you support that person.” The help, adds Finley, is concrete, practical. Today, the project relies on about a dozen devoted members, a small group of whom meet twice a week for several hours to open letters sent by prisoners. Many inmates write asking to be paired with a pen pal. Others just want to share their stories and know that someone is listening. Still more inquire about reading resources they don’t have access to in prison. The PCP has a collection of over 100 zines, pamphlets, and guides—about topics ranging from bisexuality to hormone transition to rape support—that it collects and mail to prisoners in need. In total, the organization receives around 5,000 letters annually—and sends back about the same amount of mail all over the continent.

When they’re not running a complex mail system, volunteers also advocate for and raise awareness about better conditions for LGBTQ prisoners. While much has been said about the brutality of the prison system in the US, LGBTQ prisoners in Canada don’t always live in much better conditions. In May 2017, Finley and Callahan-St John testified in front a Senate committee focused on the application—and violation of—human rights in the Canadian correctional system. Together, the two volunteers shared anonymous accounts of discriminations and violence that LGBTQ inmates have shared with them. Callahan-St John recounted how federal prison officers allegedly destroyed one transgender woman’s makeup during a search of her room. The inmate wrote that she felt targeted and that the makeup was not replaced. Other transgender inmates had told the PCP that they did not disclose their gender identity in prison out of fear for their safety. Still more said they were denied gender-affirming clothes.

While there is only limited research looking at the experience of LGBTQ prisoners in Canada, a 2013 study by Trans Pulse, a research project focusing on access to health and social services for transgender people in Ontario, offers some insight. The study found that one-third of its twenty-three respondents who had been in Canadian prisons reported experiencing physical violence. Two-thirds reported verbal harassment and feeling unsafe. A more extensive survey published in 2015 by Black and Pink, an American pen pal organization for LGBTQ prisoners, found 70 percent of respondents had experienced discrimination and verbal harassment from prison staff. One-third of them had been sexually assaulted—a ratio six times higher than the general prison population. But respondents also reported that the pen pal program both helped them deal with the stress of incarceration and helped them feel accepted in their gender and sexuality. What’s more, such initiatives can also help keep LGBTQ inmates safe. Regular, ongoing correspondence can signal—to both other prisoners and prison staff—that others care and, as Finley says, “are keeping tabs” on them.

Some days, Finley and Callahan-St John receive letters that detail harrowing experiences. These letters often confront volunteers with the brutal reality of what it’s like being LGBTQ behind bars. They recently received a letter from a transgender woman in a men’s prison who told them about being placed in a cell with a white supremacist. She said the man was aggressive toward her and added that she suspected the prison guard had knowingly put her there in harm’s way—something that’s written about in many letters the PCP receives, says Finley. In Canada, Ontario, BC, Nova Scotia, and Saskatchewan are the only provinces where inmates are placed in prison based on the gender they choose to identify with, says Jen Metcalfe, the executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services, operated by the West Coast Prison Justice Society. Since late December 2017, federal prisons have also placed inmates based on their preferred gender (unless there are overriding health or safety concerns), according to Correctional Service of Canada (CSC). Other provincial prisons still mostly operate on an opaque case-by-case basis.

Several stories in which trans women inmates in Canada recounted their experiences of humiliation, discrimination, and fear living in close quarters with an all-male population have appeared in Canadian media over the last years. In 2015, the West Coast Prison Justice Society, the only full legal-aid clinic for prisoners in Canada, filed a complaint against CSC with the Canadian Human Rights Commission on behalf of transgender inmates. In one of the testimonies, Nastasia Laura Bilyk, a transgender prisoner at a federal prison who underwent hormone therapy in prison, recounted drawing attention because of her changing appearance; as her therapy went on, she says, she was repeatedly raped. While she was placed in segregation, she said, she only showered twice in a three-week stretch because of lack of privacy in the bathroom, which forced her to shower with men nearby.

Because of the danger transgender women inmates can face when they’re housed in men’s prisons, they are also often put in solitary confinement to separate and protect them from the other inmates. The report by Black and Pink found that 85 percent of respondents had been held in solitary confinement at some point during their sentence, and approximately half had spent two or more years in solitary. In a 2011 United Nations report on torture, the international body called for a ban solitary confinement, noting it was, unfortunately, a global and widespread practice. It’s worth remembering that LGBTQ prisoners placed in solitary confinement are also experiencing another layer of punishment—one that they weren’t sentenced to, says Finley. “It’s a very cruel practice.”

Shortly before I interviewed him, Callahan-St John had read a letter from a transgender woman in solitary confinement who wrote the PCP because she didn’t have anyone else to talk to. Letters like that often arrive two weeks after they’ve been sent, and it can be difficult for him and other volunteers to find a solution or to protect a person immediately. Despite that occasional feeling of powerlessness, the group hopes that connections with pen pals with whom inmates can feel comfortable will alleviate some of their daily prison realities. Part of the PCP’s advocacy also involves running awareness campaigns and educational talks. A particular focus is on advocating for policies that would place transgender inmates into the prison populations with which they identify. The group additionally pushes for better health resources, including access to hormones and surgery. “Because we’re the only organization in Canada doing something like this,” says Finley, “we have a specific responsibility to insert ourselves in the political conversations that have to do with queer and trans prisoners and the issues they’re facing.”

Phoenix, a thirty-one-year-old black gay man, was in prison several years ago when he read about the PCP in Cell Count, a quarterly newsletter for prisoners. He sent a request to be matched with a pen pal. He had been in and out of the correctional system since he was thirteen and felt disconnected from society. For Phoenix, letter writing was an important connection with the outside world. Both putting his thoughts on paper and receiving words from someone were sources of joy. “Having that one letter that slides under the door, or when your name is called over the big PA system like a Grammy nomination,” he says, “there is this feeling somebody gives a fuck.”

In prison, Phoenix felt it was too dangerous to be open about his sexuality and talk about his personal struggles with other inmates. He says other prisoners can often treat LGBTQ prisoners differently after their sexuality is disclosed, and sometimes their relationships can become volatile. He’s seen staff harass inmates as well as take away or destroy their personal belongings. He knows some people who died by suicide in their cells. He thought keeping his sexuality to himself would be physically safer, despite the emotional pain it caused him. “You don’t find a lot of people who are open about their sexuality [in prison] because there’s a fear,” he says. “It’s like the Wild West, so you can’t let people know that’s your weakness.”

Resources for LGBTQ prisoners are limited in the federal and provincial correctional system, he adds. It wasn’t until about a year and a half before his release that he eventually discovered a two-hour group discussion for LGBTQ people held every month in Warkworth, a federal prison in Warkworth, Ontario. He explains it wasn’t easy to access information inside the prison, particularly when it comes to LGBTQ initiatives, and he hadn’t known the group existed. He adds he never found any specific LGBTQ programs in provincial prisons.

Phoenix remembers prison as a highly volatile environment, characterized by constricted spaces and prisoners who are prone to violence. There was also, he notes, a general lack of tolerance—from prejudice to hatred—toward the LGBTQ community. He waited to be matched with a pen pal from the PCP for a long time. Delays to be matched can be long because there are fewer volunteers signed up with the initiative than there are inmates in need. Sometimes inmates can wait up to two years. Phoenix finally received his first letter in the winter of 2015. It was the second time Sasha, a genderqueer worker at a non-profit in Vancouver who uses gender-neutral pronouns, had written him—Phoenix was being transferred to different prisons, but his mail was not. He was both ecstatic and nervous when he got his first letter. As much as he’d waited for it, he was now stressed that his new pen pal wouldn’t be “the right fit.”

The pen pals didn’t share much in common in terms of age, race, or even interests. Phoenix was passionate about MMA fighting while Sasha knew little about the sport. But over the following months, they learned to connect and grew more comfortable talking about many things, including sexuality and racism. They also talked about Sasha’s daily activities and Phoenix’s plans to go to college after serving his sentence.

Within months, an unusual relationship had formed.

Sasha wanted to be “useful” by volunteering in the LGBTQ community, which they felt is too often forgotten. The commitment was a serious and, at times, challenging one. The ongoing correspondence, of nearly 100 letters, cards, and packages, helped Phoenix survive his last months in prison. For Phoenix, having a pen pal sent a sign to staff and guards that someone cared about him and was looking out for his safety. “It let me know I wasn’t alone in my struggle,” he says, “not only to return back to the community but that I wasn’t alone in here.”

He was released in 2016, and he still keeps in touch with Sasha. They have moved to newer communication methods, including phone calls, texts, or Facebook messages. Sasha says they offer their ear when Phoenix calls to talk about a bad day—or a good day. Phoenix even remembers receiving a birthday card from Sasha but not his mother. He says it can be stressful to re-adapt to non-prison life. Despite the challenges ahead, Phoenix has hope and, shortly after his release, had already planned several projects, including directing two short films. He also started college to study film production in the fall. “I feel like [Sasha] came into my life right on time, right when I was starting to make a turn for the better” says Phoenix. “[They] came in and helped me get through hard times.”

Clothilde Goujard is a freelance journalist based in Montreal and Brussels.




SIGN UP FOR OUR NEWSLETTER. Get the weekly roundup from The Walrus, a collection of our best stories, delivered to your inbox. Learn More »


Elsewhere on TheWalrus.ca