Pen pals for prisoners

Queer-positive, anti-prison activists speak out at the 2110 Centre

Last Saturday, October 24, I spent the afternoon at a panel titled, Beyond Prisons, Toward Community Strategies: Supporting Work within and against Prisons, hosted by the Prisoner Correspondence Project, Action santé travesti(e)s et transsexuel(le)s du Québec (ASTTeQ), and the 2110 Centre for Gender Advocacy.

Before attending this panel, I had honestly never really thought about the incredible difficulties that queer and trans people face in the prison system. The five panellists shed light on the ongoing abuse queer and trans people suffer both from police and fellow prisoners.

Farah Abdill, a local community organizer and previous trans sex worker, gave an emotional account of her personal experience in prison, describing the ridicule and humiliation she suffered as prisoners forced her to take off her wig, bra, and high heels. Prison guards refused to respond to her complaints; the only solution the prison system has come up with to “protect” queer and trans prisoners is to isolate them. Speakers also raised the issue of HIV/Hep C transmission and the difficulty of having safe sex in prison.

The aim of the panel was to highlight the work already being done inside prisons to protect and help gay, lesbian, and trans people, outline the concrete conditions of people living in prison today and develop broader connections with outside groups and projects.

To emphasize the fact that there are activists both inside and outside the prison system, two panellists were not physically present, because they are both still in prison. Peter Collins is incarcerated in the Bath Institution in Ontario, and Amazon Contreraz is a prisoner at Corcoran, California. Collins contributed a taped interview, and Contreraz wrote letters because the project was unable to get an audio interview, due to a month-long prison lockdown. This also served to demonstrate the difficulties the Prisoner Correspondence Project comes up against in terms of generating discussion with prisoners on the inside; mail censorship and lockdowns are a constant reality.

Liam Michaud and Kristin Li, two of the organizers for the panel from the Prisoner Correspondence Project, explained why such a project and talks such as the one on Saturday, are important. “The collective core of the project is comprised of people that identify as queer or trans. Since gay and trans folks are affected disproportionately by criminalization and the prison system, we as a community must seriously challenge these structures in the same ways that gay communities came together at the outset of the AIDS crises,” wrote Michaud and Li in an email.

Gisele Dias of the Prisoner HIV/AIDS Support Action Network from Toronto and Sadie Ryanne from the DC Trans Coalition (DCTC) in Washington, D.C. were both speakers at the panel, and both supported this collaborative and collective idea of activism.

Many of the speakers hold the belief that activists need to broaden their discussion around prison abolition strategies to include stopping people from going into prison in the first place. This means addressing homelessness, criminalization of drugs and sex work, immigration issues, et cetera.

As Dias said, many groups are solely focused on harm-reduction strategies for when people are already incarcerated, but she wanted to look past this and “stretch the way people think about reforming prisons.”

Dias also advocated creating relationships with prisoners; she believes activists need to know whom they are fighting for, and prisoners need to know that they have a support group on the outside. “Prisoners need our support. [We] can’t ask them for help and then not support them if repercussions of [our] advocacy work affects them,” explained Dias.

Dias is working right now on updating a document regarding HIV in prison, written first in 1992. She works collaboratively with Peter Collins on the update, and has found that the transmission of HIV is 10 times more likely in prison, and the transmission of Hep C is 40 times more likely. Health is one of the main issues that the Prisoner Correspondence Project focuses on, along with the issue of isolation, both structural and emotional, which directly results from incarceration.

“We understand isolation and health as urgent because they are at the core of the daily struggle to survive, as experienced by the 200+ inside pen pals and participants in the project,” wrote Michaud and Li. They are currently working to expand their pen pal program that helps prisoners to deal with isolation. They are also working on a resource series, Fucking Without Fear, which is built from information, tips, strategies, and experiences shared by their contacts inside prisons.

Sadie Ryanne from DCTC brought up the issue of hormone access for trans people, which was something the DCTC fought for and won the right to in 2007. Despite the gains the DCTC has made in gaining rights for trans people in D.C. jails, Ryanne echoed the sentiment that the bigger issue is fighting to prevent trans people from being arrested.

As Michaud and Li expressed, “If we’re serious about defending our communities and we’re serious about trans/queer safety, then we need to start working toward movements that don’t just ask for bigger cages and longer chains, but work to destroy the source of that harm and violence itself.”

The Prisoner Correspondence Project will be co-presenting a film, Criminal Queers, at the H-110 Cinema at Concordia on November 13. If you are interested in getting involved with the project or have further questions, you can email them at