The Incarcerated LGBTQ People Asserting Their Humanity Through Art
In a new exhibition, prisoners ask people on the outside to envision a world where mass incarceration doesn't exist.
'Life Without a Net' by Larry S.
On the inside is a new exhibition at the Abrons Art Center in New York that features work by people who found art, and their immense talent for it, after they were incarcerated. The artists featured in the show are currently locked away in the vast network of the United States prison system, which criminalizes people at the highest rate in the world. They identify across the LGBTQ spectrum and—through imaginative self-portraiture, detailed studies of Rihanna or Michael Jackson's face, and sketched visions of Christ—are asking us to see them as not just prisoners, but people.
The show, which opened November 4, is curated by Tatiana von Furstenberg—the daughter of the designer Diane von Furstenberg—who amassed these prisoner-created artworks after she reached out to Black & Pink, a prison abolition organization that distributes a newsletter to 11,000 LGBTQ people who are currently incarcerated. At first, she was just looking for a pen pal, but soon her correspondence with people on the inside became a sprawling project. She placed an ad in Pink and Black's newsletter asking its readerships to submit their artwork, and eventually ending up getting 4,000 pen pals from 183 different prisons over the course of four years. The prisoners were gifted donations to their commissary accounts for each accepted submission.
"This show isn't typical prison art," a woman named Jennifer, who sent in artwork to the show before she was released from a prison in Texas, said on a panel that was held last week to mark the opening of On the Inside. While incarcerated, Jennifer was used to drawing things like cards with Care Bears on them for her fellow inmates' children in exchange for other goods. Art in prison, she said, is a clandestine currency and many people discover their capacity for the craft out of necessity. "It's not the typical day-to-day stuff that as an artist in prison you're almost required to do to survive because it's what people want."
Many of the works are by transgender women who are currently incarcerated in male prisons. According to Black & Pink, nearly 100 percent of transgender women who have not had genital reconstructive surgery are subjected to this systematic violence, despite the fact that it is against the law. But in boundless sensual portraits, these women have imagined themselves outside of the clothing and presentation restrictions that have been forced upon them.
In a tiny box within the main gallery space, the size of a solitary confinement room, there are more explicit, and detailed, drawings are displayed. There are also drawings of civil rights leaders and heroes, which also double as self-portraits that illuminate the aspects of strength and resilience in the artists. Across genres, all the art is made with items accessible to a prisoner—Kool-Aid, the wobbly plastic ink inserts of pens, inhalers fashioned into airbrush machines, pencils, deodorant—or stolen from somewhere technically not accessible to a prisoner. Next to each illustration is a number that you can text to send a message to the artist to let them know you have seen them. (The text will be printed out and mailed, which is the only way to write someone in prison.)
As part of the panel, Janetta Johnson, a formerly incarcerated transgender woman who is now the director of TGI Justice, said that the artwork reminded her of the conversations she had with LGBTQ people in prison. She said she talked with inmates about their hopes and dreams for the future, about the life they saw for themselves, "to better understand what systems of oppression keep us in prison," and realized that many people ended up behind bars because they were trying "to meet the basic necessities like food and housing."
After viewing the show for the first time, she said, "My immediate thought was what would happen if we as a society or we as people invested in people before we went to prison. It would be nice if we could check in with people and just ask what do you need in order to evolve in a way that you don't need to participate [in crimes of survival]. What do you need to be successful in your artwork or anything else?"
Indeed, LGBTQ people are disproportionately homeless and unemployed, leaving them at risk for police harassment and arrest. And if criminalized, LGBTQ people face inequalities in the criminal justice system and once in prison are subject to an alarming high rate of abuse and sexual assault.
Jason Lydon, the national director and founder of Black & Pink, emphasized that the artwork in the show is not only a call for visibility. "People are able to create despite horrific violence, despite being held in solitary confinement while having their brains destroyed. People are creating while being tortured," he said. "They are creating things to inform our work and what we do on the outside, to ensure that not only this art moves us to feel solidarity but to fuel a call to action. This creativity should not just be locked behind walls or in some shows. It needs to be free. It needs to escape back into the community."
The show is call to those of us on the outside, in other words, to think about how we have chosen to deal with people who get caught breaking the law, and how those people are disproportionately people of color and people from the LGBTQ community. A week after the opening, and a few days after Donald Trump became heir to our mass incarceration system, I talked with Lydon over the phone about what the future would look like without prisons and the Trump's immediate impact on the most vulnerable people who are currently jailed.
BROADLY: At the opening for the show, I was a little surprised that none of the artwork was centered around the impending election. I remember you told me that the prisoners you're in contact with don't really have any interest in the election because neither candidate had a platform to improve their conditions. But now that we are facing the reality of Trump's presidency, I was wondering if you think he poses a specific threat to prisoners and people living in heavily policed communities.
Jason Lydon: On one level, Trump is going to have a serious impact on the Federal Bureau of Prisons, which is the largest system that incarcerates people in the United States. The Attorney General that Trump appoints will be deciding who is the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and there are rumors that it will be Rudy Giuliani. I would be concerned about Giuliani's long legacy of horrific policing in New York City. It's one of broken windows policing and of increasing surveillance in black and brown communities. I would be concerned that he would appoint a director who would perpetuate these programs and perpetuate harm and violence against prisoners.
I did get a letter from a prisoner who was concerned about Mike Pence, [asking] if his support of conversion therapy could possibly be enforced on folks in the Federal Prison System. There's a concern that LGBTQ folks in the federal prison system could be forced to go through these torture programs, which is what they are, where they try to force LGBTQ people to deny their identity. So I do think there are specific levels of anxiety at this moment because of the control his administration would have over federal prisoners. If the federal system becomes much worse than it already is, it could empower other state officials to do the same thing. It's relevant that the police force has endorsed Donald Trump. Many of these fraternities of police also include prison guards in their membership. Prison guards are part of this culture of white supremacy and anti-LGBTQ sentiment that are emboldened by a Trump presidency.
On the Black & Pink website it states, "By building a movement and taking action against [the prison] system, we will create the world we dream of." Can you talk a little bit about how dismantling the prison industrial complex is fundamental to the fight for equality?
The prison industrial system is really the culmination of many aspects of oppression and how they operate in our country. It's at the intersection of targeting black and brown people through systems of white supremacy and policing; the rounding up of undocumented immigrants; the dismantling of poor communities and the increase of policing there. All of that leads to incarceration.
In our current system, the "harms" of society are being put into cages. So we imagine abolition as what we can do different. Abolition isn't only destructive. It's also creative. Abolition is about creating new systems of accountability, so when folks are causing individual harm we are recognizing their humanity but also holding them accountable for that harm they have caused. That means creating a community response team and spending the money and time to train people in communities to do interventions to deal with harm. When it comes to the white supremacists that are being emboldened by Trump, [abolition] also means teaching each other self defense. We can't rely on the police to protect our communities. We need to defend our communities not only from white supremacy, but also the white supremacy of police. That includes figuring out ways to fight back.
The reality is that as terrible as the Trump presidency is for the LGBTQ community, and particularly communities of color and poor folks, people have been living with the reality of white supremacy for generations. And people have been fighting back for generations. They will continue to fight until liberation is secured. That's what abolition is about.
One of the key things for all of us to remember is that most of us are criminals.
You mentioned that the show is a call to action. How can people get involved in improving the lives of prisoners?
First and foremost, everybody should get a pen pal. Building connections between prisoners amongst themselves and between prisoners and free world folks is at the heart of who we are. On our website you can scroll through the names and bios of thousands of prisoners who are all looking for someone to write to. You can also get involved in local campaigns. Every major city has anti-prison campaigns. Lastly, donate money. Donate organizations that are led by formerly incarcerated people. Donate to organizations that have prisoners in their leadership and make sure your money is going to people who authentically engage in the work that builds the power of prisoners.
I think the real change is going to come from two places. One is prisoners themselves. September 9 saw the largest prisoner strike, and they've been making demands and forcing changes in terms of their working conditions and pay. That is something I think we should continue to support. While they face severe consequences they are able to make some of the biggest changes. Along with that, litigation on the outside is important. We need to continue providing encouragement for lawyers to take on prisoner cases.
The main theme of On the inside is visibility. Most people don't think about prisoners in their day-to-day life, and what's worse is that most people don't think about prisoners as people deserving of basic humanity. On Colorado's ballot last week, they were able to vote to remove the clause in the state's constitution that bans slavery in the case of criminals. But by a very small margin, they voted against it. I was shocked. People were basically like, "No we're cool with criminals being slaves." How do we continue to change this mindset?
One of the key things for all of us to remember is that most of us are criminals. We break the law all of the time. The difference between people on the outside of prison and on the inside of prison is that those on the inside got caught and had less resources; we have a system that's anti-black, anti-queer, and anti-people with disabilities. That's not to suggest we need to incarcerate more people. That's to suggest that prisoners are not that much different from everybody else we spend time with.