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David Booth knows a letter can change a life. As someone who spent six months in prison at the age of 19, it would have changed Booth’s.
The 34-year-old, who uses xe/xem pronouns, was incarcerated in Virginia just three weeks after the death of xyr parents. Booth recalled totally shutting down during that time and becoming a “shell of a person.” While in prison, xe could barely eat or sleep and would just go through the motions of every day. Xe compared the experience to living like a zombie.
“I was in this space of grieving on my own while I was stuck inside,” Booth said. “I didn’t even know how to exist as a human because I was so torn up with grief.”
Booth’s traumatic experience was worsened by the fact that xe had few people on the outside to call or write to when things got too difficult to bear alone. Now, Booth is the deputy director for the Omaha, Nebraska-based prison abolitionist organization Black and Pink, and part of xyr job is to help alleviate that struggle for currently incarcerated LGBTQ people. Booth helps oversee the pen pal program, through which volunteers sign up to write letters and provide support to queer and trans people in prison.
Black and Pink estimates that hundreds of the organization’s incarcerated members are enrolled as pen pals. And they are always looking for more people who are interested in writing to them. Here’s how to get involved.
Why Does an LGBTQ Pen Pal Program Exist?
Booth said the pen pal program is critical for individuals who are incarcerated because it “reminds people of their inherent value” in a system that can be especially dehumanizing when you’re LGBTQ. According to the National Center for Trans Equality, trans women are more than twice as likely as the average person to have spent time behind bars, and 10 times more likely to have been sexually assaulted in jail or prison.
The risks of incarceration are even more extreme for transgender people of color. According to NCTE, an estimated 47 percent of Black trans women have been placed in a lockup facility at some point in their lives. Many are housed in men’s prisons where they face extreme levels of harassment and violence from other inmates, as well as guards at the facility. Ashley Diamond, who was incarcerated for three years on a nonviolent offense, filed a lawsuit against the Georgia Department of Corrections after she was raped on seven different occasions.
According to Black and Pink, forming pen pal relationships with individuals on the outside is a means of harm reduction because it signals to guards and other prisoners that there are people paying attention to an inmate’s welfare. Booth said it’s also common for pen pals to send a “good portion of their paycheck” to help people in prison afford items from commissary, which can include everything from health and hygiene products to cosmetics.
How Does Pen-Palling Relate to the Greater Goals of Prison Abolition?
The end goal of the pen pal program is focused on transformative justice, a model that advocates for looking past criminal punishment as a solution and examining the root causes of why an individual might have ended up incarcerated. Booth said that a transformative justice model seeks to ask: “What are the social institutions—like racism, homophobia, or transphobia—that allow that harm to happen in the first place? And what can we do to make sure that harm doesn’t happen again?”
“When you look at transformative justice, it’s about tearing down social institutions that take away people’s equitable chance of living,” xe said. “The system itself is inherently violent, and we don’t believe you can solve harm by perpetuating more harm.”
As an organization that ultimately advocates for the abolition of prisons, Black and Pink believes the connections forged in the pen pal program can help demolish the barriers that allow the prison-industrial complex to continue to exist. The idea is that when individuals on the outside begin seeing the people they correspond with as deserving of dignity, they will begin to understand that no individual should be imprisoned.
“It’s just about realizing that we’re all in it together,” Booth said. “That connection between people is what reminds us that we can be supportive, we can be affirming, and we don’t need the system to try and change that for us.”
But Booth knows that the pen pal program is also simply about being there for others. Nearly every single day, Black and Pink hears from people who say that receiving weekly or monthly letters has saved their lives by giving them the resources they need to survive under inhumane conditions.
The experience of prison was so traumatizing that the majority of Booth’s memories from between the ages of 19 and 26 “are totally gone,” xe said. “I barely have anything left from that time period.” For people who are facing that same situation, Booth hopes the pen pal program helps to send an important message: “We see you, we hear you, and we want to provide a little bit of light.”
OK, So How Do I Become a Pen Pal?
Signing up for the program is very simple. Those interested in becoming a pen pal should visit Black and Pink’s website and read the guidelines for participants in the program. While there are no specific requirements, Black and Pink asks individuals to assess whether they have the capacity to continue a correspondence, rather than just sending a single letter. They also suggest that individuals ask themselves whether they are prepared to hear about the abuses of the prison-industrial complex and whether they have support systems in their own lives to help unpack the stories they might hear. Another thing for potential pen pals to consider: whether they are comfortable sharing personal information, such as their home address, with a stranger.
“There is… extra stigma around sharing information with incarcerated people,” the organization states on its website. “In general, we encourage people to use their home address and to take time to question where these anxieties are coming from. … We encourage everyone to do what feels right and best for themselves while at the same time looking deeper at what is causing fear and work on that as we build our movement towards abolition.”
What Do I Write in My First Letter?
Black and Pink advises pen pals to communicate up front about how often they are able to write, as incarcerated people often come to depend on the correspondences for emotional and psychological support. Because prison is not a gender-affirming environment, recipients might not be using their preferred names, so Pen pals should ask what name and pronoun the individual would prefer to use in their letters as well as whether they are comfortable with discussing their LGBTQ identity openly. Prison officials often read letters that inmates receive, meaning that details regarding their sexual orientation and gender identity may be sensitive for someone who isn’t out at their facility.
Many people in prison also sign up for the pen pal program seeking companionship or an intimate relationship. While Black and Pink does not discourage pen pals from writing letters that are sexual in nature, the organization stresses that it’s important to disclose what type of relationship a pen pal is seeking early on, whether that’s strictly platonic or romantic.
Booth also suggests for pen pals to “invite curiosity, not only for yourself but for those who are experiencing incarceration.”
“It’s traumatic and violent inside those walls,” xe said. “Lean into compassion and check your privilege. Understand that you have so much more freedoms and access than people inside do. Act with loving kindness with your pen pal and make sure you know why you are writing them. That helps both of you.”