Queer bodies behind bars

The Prisoner Correspondence Project talks LGBTQ+ communities

By: and

There is arguably no place wherein bodies are regulated quite as aggressively as a prison. Society sanctions, or even encourages, violence against bodies we deem to be ‘criminal’ or ‘dangerous’ – by virtue of their actions, or sometimes just their skin colour. In prison, this violence looks like isolation from friends and family, mandatory underpaid labour, physical brutality, and sexual assault. For many incarcerated LGBTQ+ people, it also looks like replacing one’s right to self-determination with a rigid gender binary, where one’s genitals are assumed to indicate one’s gender.

Imprisoned LGBTQ+ people face a higher risk of social isolation, sexual violence, HIV/AIDS, and lack of access to medical care or hormones. The Prisoner Correspondence Project (PCP) is a non-profit initiative based out of QPIRG Concordia, which pairs imprisoned LGBTQ+ people with LGBTQ+ penpals outside the prison system, to exchange letters. The McGill Daily spoke to Parker Finley, a collective member of the PCP, about queer communities, policing bodies, and Trudeau’s record on prison justice.

The McGill Daily (MD): Why is it important for queer people inside prisons to correspond with other queer people?

Parker Finley (PF): Prisons work by taking people’s bodies out of communities and putting them in a separate space from the world that they were in before. So the point of the PCP was to try and connect people with a sense of community that they wouldn’t have otherwise. The reason that we specifically reach out to LGBTQ+ people is that those are people who are in prison and maybe don’t have a queer community or a gay community or a trans community inside prison. It’s important for all queer people to have other queer people in their lives that they’re in touch with, just for support and to have someone who ‘gets’ some of the stuff.

MD: How could relatively privileged university students be a helpful support mechanism for imprisoned people?

PF: This is the beautiful thing about the fact that we pair people up because they both identify as [queer]. And yes, often our penpals on the outside are privileged university students and often people on the inside are very much not that, but it is amazing that even that small sliver of some sort of commonality does give people enough to talk about, especially just in the beginning. For example, I started writing to my penpal, and then we spent two letters both talking about our coming out processes as teenagers, and our first few boyfriends. Almost everything else about us is very, very different, but that gave us enough to start, and once you start this conversation with this stranger you just talk about what’s going on in your lives.

“Jail forces people into smaller and smaller boxes – physically and in terms of identity categories.” – Parker Finley

MD: What are the effects of removing queer folks from communities of other queer people?

PF: A lot of times, trans women get placed in men’s prisons, which puts them [at risk of] much more danger and abuse from fellow prisoners and also guards. And in those instances where trans women are in men’s prisons and they are in danger, they often put them in what’s called “administrative segregation,” which is the same practice as solitary confinement. It’s the same size of cell, and it’s the same regimen of 23 hours in there a day, with one hour of outside time. But in this case it’s for safety, it’s not as a punishment. But it’s the same box, so it’s punishing people for being placed in the wrong place – for their identity to not fit in the box that they’ve been placed in. That’s what makes prison, often, an even more evil and torturous thing for people to go through. Because once you enter that space, they take away this part of you that you have been identifying with, in the outside world and your own community. They separate you from all your friends and all your people, and then tell you that your name isn’t your name, and your pronoun isn’t your pronoun, and you can’t wear what you want to wear. The prison system not only separates bodies from their communities, but separates people’s understandings of their own bodies from themselves. Jail forces people into smaller and smaller boxes – physically and in terms of identity categories. There has been a movement to push back against the policies around the placement of trans prisoners, but it’s always been within an unacknowledged framework of a binary. Usually the change in policies make it sound like “trans women can now go to women’s prisons and trans men can go to men’s prisons” but where does that leave people who are more fluidly in between those two things? There are no prisons in Canada that have a mixed population.

MD: There’s this moral panic about men infiltrating women’s prisons, which echoes the bathroom debate – about whether trans women should be allowed to use women’s bathrooms. Can you speak to the parallels between these sorts of public/private spaces that regulate bodies and have this particularly intense worry about the wrong genitals being in the wrong space?

PF: Yes – it’s bathrooms, prisons, shelters. There is just something about there being certain places in the world where there is a separation between the two groups of people we [supposedly] have, and something about mixing those two groups terrifies people. And it also happens in places of intense vulnerability for people – perceived or real. So people feel vulnerable, so they want that space to be kept safe, and the thing they think keeps it safe is keeping it segregated.

MD: Can you speak to the intersections of race and LGBTQ+ prisoners? Does racism heighten the existing problems we’ve talked about, or does it introduce a new set of problems?

PF: Both. In the Canadian context, the over-incarceration of Indigenous peoples is outrageously awful. In Manitoba, [over] 70 per cent of prisoners in Manitoba prisons are Indigenous, whereas [Indigenous people are] only [15] per cent of the provincial population. There’s also a huge over-incarceration of Black bodies in Canadian and especially [U.S.] prisons […] and then obviously, there’s a lot of racialized LGBTQ+ people in prison as well. The reason I say it does add to existing problem is people might find it even harder to find community, because maybe the only other LGBTQ+ people are white, and there’s that gap in understanding between each other. Also for two-spirit people, maybe they aren’t able to find community with other trans prisoners.

MD: PCP encourages people to send porn or erotica – especially queer porn or erotica – to prisoners. Where did that idea come from?

PF: Along with other things that prison tries to regulate in people’s lives, people’s sexualities is definitely one of them. Like, often prisoners aren’t allowed to have sex with each other. There was actually this law that got passed in the States over the past decade, that was called the Prison Rape Elimination Act, it’s a very famous piece of legislation that was aimed at reducing sexual assault rates in prison, but what it actually did was make prisoners having sex with each other illegal. The argument that we’re putting forth is that people really need access to sexuality, in order to have a healthy life. Especially in a time of being in prison, having access to your own sexuality and having access to sexual materials that are in line with your sexuality is so important, and something the prison really tries to keep away from you. And that’s why we’re trying to fill that in. We have a lot of written smut, because you often can’t send naked pictures, and we have some softcore stuff. It is a really important thing, people find it therapeutic. It’s one of the thigs that people on the outside would take for granted – that once you go inside it becomes much harder to masturbate and have access to things that help you do that, that are in line with your sexuality.

“The prison system not only separates bodies from their communities, but separates people’s understandings of their own bodies from themselves.” – Parker Finley

MD: What is Trudeau’s record on prison justice, and does that signal a change in how imprisoned people will be allowed to express their gender identity?

PF: [Trudeau] has been recognized as this ally to the gay and trans community because he’s so open and friendly and whatever. But on the other hand, we’ve had one of the biggest cuts to frontline HIV/AIDS gay organizations and trans organizations in a long time, under the Liberal government. That’s what’s really frustrating – it’s so classic, people always make fun of the Liberals for “campaigning left, leading right.” But this is what they do – [Trudeau’s] such a photo-opper that he chooses these things that aren’t that controversial to push through to happen, but then on the other hand, cutting the resources to help people on the ground.

The good thing out of all that, though, is that with the addition of gender identity and expression to the hate crime legislation, that does give people a legal grounds to be able to sue the government on certain policies around placement of trans prisoners in prison. Like, in the federal system – which is everyone who has a sentence of over two years – people get placed based on their birth sex, but also taking into consideration whether they have a diagnosis of dysphoria. If they have a diagnosis and  a couple letters, then a trans woman can be placed in a woman’s prison. But otherwise they’d get placed in a man’s prison. Which, under the new hate crime legislation, is actually illegal. But it takes someone to do the suing and take it up to the court. Or, for that to happen and the government to change the policy. So it doesn’t just happen over night with adding that to the hate crime legislation – it just gives people the grounds to actually file a case.

Those wishing to get involved locally can contact the Prisoner Correspondence Project at  info@prisonercorrespondenceproject.com, Open Door Books, and Solidarity Across Borders. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.