Culture  Letter Writing as a Political Act

Interview with Ivory Tong from the Prisoner Correspondence Project

This week, the Daily’s Radio Editor, Amy Lloyd, spoke to Ivory Tong from the Prisoner Correspondence Project, a completely volunteer-run Montreal organization that has been providing penpals to gay, lesbian, transsexual, transgender, gendervariant, two-spirit, intersex, bisexual and queer prisoners since 2007.

Amy Lloyd, The McGill Daily (MD): Why does the prisoner correspondence project specifically focus on members of the LGBTQ+ community? How does life present differently in terms of queer experiences?
Ivory Tong, The Prisoner Correspondence Project (IT): Well, we focus on members of the LGBTQ+ community because certain groups within the LGBTQ+ community are way overrepresented in prison. For instance, 47 per cent of Black trans women have been incarcerated or experienced incarceration before. But even so, these groups are often forgotten about. Just like when people think about prison, if we think about prisoners at all, they don’t remember queer and trans people go to prison. Even other Canadian prison abolitionist groups have told us, “we’re glad you exist for many reasons. But part of it is because you remind us that this is part of our struggle.” And of course, members of the LGBTQ+ community face certain unique difficulties that other groups in prison don’t necessarily face. It can be very difficult to find your community when you’re in prison, which is what we seek to change with our penpal program and with our newsletter that we send out. It is difficult for me to answer what life is like in prison because I’ve never been inside. But from the letters we get from our members who are inside, people can be very scared to be out, which isn’t to say that everyone who’s in prison is afraid to be out. There’s definitely people up there who are running their own LGBTQ+ support groups in prison, which is amazing. But it can still be a very difficult experience. They can be more likely to be subject to sexual assault. A lot of times trans prisoners, this a noted phenomenon, where trans prisoners who are at higher risk of assault will be put into solitary confinement, allegedly for their own protection instead of protecting them in other ways, which is obviously a form of punishment in and of itself. And of course, it can be really difficult for trans prisoners in other ways, like not being in the prison, but it’s their gender or not being allowed to express their gender.

MD: What has the response been to the project? How is it helped those both in and outside of prison?
IT: So the response to the project has been pretty overwhelming. We started twelve years ago. We’ve gotten a lot of spread in and out of prisons, which is really great. We currently have 4,000 members in our database and about 1,500 members, so that’s like penpals to people. I think that’s affected people’s consciousness. A lot of outside people will similarly say that they never thought about what it’s like for queer prisoners until they found us, or until they watched Orange is the New Black and then Googled “gay prisoners.” On the inside, we get a lot of letters from members that say that they’re glad that someone is thinking about [them], that they feel less alone, that it’s good to know that there’s like a lot of a lot of people like them, which is, again, one of the things that we tried to address with our newsletter, which we send out bi-yearly to about 3,000 of our members who have requested it, where we publish writing from other members so everyone can kind of see what each other is thinking. We’re working on building bridges between those on the inside and the outside, and through the project, people have made amazing friendships. They made friends even after getting out. Like sending each other [letters], just keep[ing] each other updated on their lives. I think it is just really important for understanding for people on the outside who may not necessarily know what someone on the inside has been through.

MD: And on your website, you described letter-writing as a form of allyship. Why is this?
IT: Oh, I think the letter-writing is kind of like the most basic form of allyship. It’s literally just listening to someone and hearing their problems and hearing them describe their lives. Then hopefully someone with the privilege of not being a prisoner [will be] able to share that story or share the experiences that your penpal had [through] this listening and [in turn amplify]their voices.

MD: And you mentioned earlier about trans prisoners being put in isolation. I’m wondering what is the correlation between prison isolation and mental health?
IT: [In regards to] solitary confinement and mental health, it’s pretty startling that any country would continue to use that kind of treatment. I don’t really have the statistics in front of me, but it’s pretty obvious. I think when you think about it, anything about how the UN has considered solitary confinement a form of torture, but pretty much every country should abolish that. It’s not good for you. Prison is already a place where a lot of mentally ill people end up because of the ways that we criminalize and push mentally ill people out of our society. People are far from their family and friends. They can’t get good health care, especially getting mental health care. They face abusive treatment from other prisoners and guards, there is also little to no gender-affirming health care, which can enforce gender dysphoria. So having that compounded with solitary confinement, it’s a pretty severe set of stresses.

MD: And what are some overlooked yet important factors that make prison for queer individuals so dangerous and so harming towards their mental health?
IT: Well, there’s so many. But some factors that I didn’t really think about until I joined the project is that a lot of queer people will have a more limited support system compared to their heterosexual and cisgender counterparts, which is already difficult in and of itself. It can be difficult for people to get money for commissary. So they’re considered indigent, which means that they have to wait to be given envelopes and all of that. So that limits their ability to communicate with other people. Now, obviously, in Canada, making phone calls is very expensive. So if you don’t have a strong support system on the outside that can support you financially like that then you don’t really get to talk to your friends and family. And furthermore, it can actually lead to people who are very vulnerable being targeted by guards. I didn’t really know about this, but apparently guards target people or target prisoners more often if they don’t hear their name being called in the mail room very much because they know that person is more isolated. I really was taken aback by the abuse of power by guards. I’ve seen movies and TV shows about prison, and I always thought it would be [for] dramatic effect. But reading the letters that we get, it is very real. They definitely target people who are more vulnerable.

MD: And what do you think people overlook about those who were present as a significant demographic in regards to mental health struggles?
IT: I think prisoners tend to just be forgotten and set aside in general – that’s how we’ve been raised to think about people in prison – in a lot of cases [those on the outside do] not think [of] people in prison [at all]. [Many] think of people in prison as like a homogenous mass of threatening individuals and not think of them as people with their own identity, who have been through their own struggles who have their own issues, just like people on the outside have issues. And some people will think that people in prison deserve not to get good health care [or] deserve to feel bad because of what they’ve done, which I do not agree with.

MD: And on the website, you refer to this project as a political act. Why should it be considered a political act?
IT: Well, we do things on more of the political side, like outside of the penpal program and our newsletter and our resource library. We are a prison abolitionist group. Even if not all of our members are abolitionists, we hope that through this project people will come to understand a little bit more about why we think that is important. In the past, we’ve done political education, like panels and workshops for people on the outside. And [we in general] tend to raise awareness about the conditions inside prison and how they negatively impact people more deeply based on other aspects of their identity. And then within prison, I think that we’re raising a group consciousness. Like I’ve been saying, people feel less isolated knowing that we’re there and they can see themselves as part of a bigger group that has the ability to change things. And I think that we’re just a political act because we build bridges between people who aren’t in prison and people who are, and people who aren’t in prison learn a lot about what it’s like in prison. And I think that in general, the way that a society chooses to treat people in prison reflects a lot about how society thinks in general.

MD: And lastly, what would your advice be for those who are considering becoming a penpal?
IT: A lot of things are kind of similar to being a good student – being diligent is great, just like not forgetting that you have letters to reply to and not forgetting to go to the postal office. That’s a pretty big step. It can be hard for a lot of people. Being a good listener, learning how to express that through writing. Definitely being open to other people’s experiences, most likely people on the inside have had a very different life. And it can be good to hear about, and […] good to hear about their viewpoint. It’s not something that you necessarily agree with, just understanding and building empathy. And don’t put it off, just do it today. Join the cause.

Readers who are interested in getting involved with the Prisoner Correspondence Project can visit their drop-in hours on Tuesday and Thursday from 3:00 p.m. – 8:00 p.m. at QPIRG Concordia (2100 Guy St #205). General inquiries can also be emailed to info@prisonercorrespondenceproject.com. More information can be found at www.prisonercorrespondenceproject.com.