‘My aim is to try and brighten their day.’
Kuchenga Shenje is a trans woman from the UK who started writing to other trans women in prison.
‘It was 2015 and I had just left quite a traumatic relationship. I needed to become involved in something liberatory and transgressive with people who were more underprivileged than myself,’ she tells GSN.
‘Their only contact with other LGBTI people is through the letters they receive sometimes,’ she adds.
Shenje is part of Bent Bars, a UK-based program putting in touch LGBTI pen pals with queer inmates.
There are other organizations in different countries, such as Black and Pink in the US and the Prison Correspondence Project, which also covers Canada.
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Being out on the inside
Many inmates aren’t out because they feel it wouldn’t be safe for them to disclose their sexual orientation or gender identity in prison.
In 2015, 1,118 prisoners across the US answered Black and Pink’s 133‐question survey. Prisoners helped design the questionnaire, which addresses a variety of topics, from being out to discrimination and violence behind bars.
The survey revealed that 70% of respondents experienced emotional pain from hiding their sexuality during incarceration.
Significantly, the percentage of trans people suffering from having to hide their gender identity in prison was slightly higher (78%). And an overwhelming 44% report not having access to hormones in prison.
‘The system can stop creating laws that inherently affect LGBTI people and people living with HIV and AIDS,’ says Dominique Morgan, executive director of Black and Pink, which also advocates the abolishment of the prison industrial complex.
‘The system can stop the physical, emotional and mental assaults that take place in these institutions due to untrained staff, dangerous living conditions and transphobic policies.’
Their daily lives
Programs matching LGBTI inmates with pen pals provide prisoners with the chance to talk to someone within the community.
‘We mainly just talk about their day-to-day lives on the inside,’ says Shenje.
‘I want to be a distraction for them. More often than not, I send them a lot of books, articles and magazines,’ she explains.
‘One of the girls I write to, she’s quite a carer and she looks after the older inmates in the prison, in the mental health ward also.
‘The other I write to is a massive reader so we talk a lot about literature and her past. I think she enjoys reminiscing.’
Sexual assault behind bars
The data regarding sexual abuse behind bars were quite shocking.
LGBTI respondents were more than six times more likely to be sexually assaulted than the general prison population.
The survey also highlighted that prisoners are over three times more likely to have committed sexual assaults on LGBTI prisoners than prison staff.
76% also report that prison staff intentionally placed them in situations where they would be at high risk of sexual assault from another prisoner.
‘I also have seen the limits of the criminal justice system because I was fearful of writing to people who committed sexual violence. Actually, all the women I’m writing to are survivors of sexual assault, inside and outside the prison system.’
Sexual abuse was what connected Shenje to the other trans women she writes to in prison.
‘I’ve now found people who I can share compassion with for what we’ve both been through,’ she explains.
‘All the trans women on the inside that I write to are regularly victims of sexual assault.’
‘For me, loneliness is an ever constant companion,’ trans woman Patricia tells GSN. She’s housed in a men’s maximum security prison in Missouri.
‘Although I am looked up to as a mother figure, I am the only woman in my housing unit. This means I have no one to talk with about “girl” stuff.
‘The cis heterosexual men are always able to develop that “bro” bond with the other heterosexual men. They lift weights, work out, talk about sports or women. Those within the LGBTI community are typically shunned from those groups.’
In many countries, trans inmates are still placed in prisons based on their birth-assigned gender. This leads to sexual harassment and abuse by both other inmates and guards.
‘Sure, there are a lot of conversations to be a part of, but none that are relaxed and spontaneous because any man in conversation with someone known to be LGBTI is not seeking just conversation,’ Patricia also says.
The UK legislation in place asks the Prisoners Assessment Board to judge each case in terms of safety for the individual and other inmates.
‘All the women I write to are in men’s prisons,’ Shenje says of her pen pals.
‘It’s a bit antiquated and in need of review. Essentially, trans women are being viewed as potential rapists because they were assigned male at birth.’
She furthermore adds: ‘As a result of that mythology, they’re being kept in an environment where they’re sexually assaulted regularly.’
LGBTI youth in prison
Of the young people behind bars in the US, as many as 20% identify as LGBT.
Already at risk for mental illness, sexual assault, and violence, LGBT youth face even higher risks while incarcerated, research shows.
85% of LGBT youth incarcerated are people of color, meaning racial inequalities add to the inequalities presented by orientation.
Black and Pink will start a program called LGBTQ Youth Leadership Academy this summer. It will help younger inmates develop their leadership skills. Moreover, it will address the lack of comprehensive sex ed programs and training, including sex ed and STI/HIV prevention for young LGBTIs in prison.
How to become a pen pal
If you’re interested in becoming a pen pal for LGBTI inmates in the UK, you can contact the Bent Bars project page.
Those who are in the US can contact Black and Pink, which currently has matched more than 20,000 pairs of pen pals.
The Prison Correspondence Project receives more than 100 letters a week for prisoners in the US and Canada. You can check their list of FAQs here.
These programs recruit pen pals identifying as LGBTI, although straight allies can take part in certain programs. The only requirement is to make a commitment and try and write regularly.
What is Digital Pride?
Digital Pride is the online movement, by Gay Star News, so you can take part in Pride whoever and wherever you are. Even if you are from a country where being LGBTI is criminalized or leaves you in danger – it’s a Pride festival you can be a part of.
In 2019, Digital Pride is tackling loneliness and isolation with articles and videos connecting LGBTI people. Join us by reaching out to someone who needs it. The festival takes place on Gay Star News from 29 April to 5 May 2019. Find out more.