Identity

A Story of Friendship That Started with a Letter from Prison

On this week's episode of Queerly Beloved, a trans woman helps a gay incarcerated man reconnect with his mother after years of estrangement.

by Sarah Burke
Oct 10 2018, 7:10pm

Illustration by Laura Breiling. 

This story is adapted from Broadly's Queerly Beloved podcast.

When Jeffrey received Dorsey’s first letter, he was in “ad seg”—aka administrative segregation, or solitary confinement. After nearly two decades spent in prison, he says he was considering hanging himself. But the prospect of starting a new friendship with someone on the outside stopped him.

It was a simple letter, he recalls, saying something along the lines of: “Hi, I’m Dorsey, and I’m not great at writing letters so I may not write often, but you can feel free to write me.” So he did—pages and pages of letters about his life, his family, his relationships. And Dorsey wrote back.

Dorsey is a 27-year-old trans woman who lives in the Bay Area. She found Jeffrey through Black and Pink, a national organization that connects queer and trans people inside prison with queer and trans people outside prison. Dorsey joined at a time when she was looking to get engaged in LGBTQ-related activism, and found that getting involved gave her a renewed sense of purpose and community.

Jeffrey wrote to the org in 2008, sharing some details about himself. In 2013, Dorsey saw the listing and was the first pen-pal to reach out.

At first, the two connected over music. Jeffrey’s father was a well-known drummer and Dorsey plays in a punk band. Eventually, they moved on to talking about their identities, relationships, and day-to-day ups and downs.

“I could tell we had a lot in common even really early on when we didn’t know all that much about each other,” recalls Dorsey. “That same feeling where you meet someone new in person and you just connect on some level, that was really apparent I think from the beginning.”

Eventually, the two moved on from letters to phone calls. Then, three years into their correspondence, Dorsey visited Jeffrey in prison for the first time. She recalls being nervous about the circumstances: sitting in an uncomfortable visitation room for four hours, what if we run out of conversation topics? Would it be awkward? “But it wasn’t,” she recalls, “it was really nice, we had tons of things to talk about.”

“It just feels really important to be able to see each other in person,” adds Dorsey. “It just means a lot to both of us and it’s important to me because it feels a little bit like we can feel, for a little bit, like what it will feel like when he does get out.”

Before Jeffrey was incarcerated, he was married. “She was committed, but as times goes by, because I’m a lifer under the California three strikes law, her being a young lady, we decided to go ahead and go our own separate ways.”

Jeffrey’s biological family used to visit him as well, but over time, they slowly became disconnected. The last visit he remembers was from his mother and his nieces, who came to see him in 2014. Today, the rest of his immediate family has passed away, besides his younger brother—who works full time to support his three children. And his mother, being in her seventies and living on a fixed income, has a hard time getting around.

To add to the difficulty, Jeffrey was recently transferred to a new facility: “You’re not allowed to inform your loved ones or family and friends to where you’re going,” says Jeffrey, “because basically you really don’t know until you get to where they’re sending you.”

Over the past few years, though, Dorsey has stepped in as a kind of chosen family. Even after Jeffrey was transferred across the state, she has continued visiting him.

“Inside prison, if you don’t have any outside support or someone to communicate with—you know a lot of guys’ families have set them aside or through circumstances aren’t allowed to come visit or are on a fixed income, and a lot of that prohibits guys from getting visits…So, it’s really a blessing to be able to have a friend like that.”

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Not only that: Dorsey and her friend Sam, who has visited Jeffrey alongside Dorsey, have helped Jeffrey reconnect with his mother. With information from Jeffrey, they reached out to her on social media and let her know where he is. Now, Jeffrey says he’s ecstatic to be expecting an upcoming visit from her and his nieces for the first time in many years.

“I definitely consider Jeffrey family and one of the ways that it’s important is that I think we can rely on each other in a way that we are not gonna just disappear,” says Dorsey. “I like when there’s a little mushiness between chosen family and family of origin so I think it’s kind of cute in this case that chosen family have been able to help bridge the gap with family of origin.”

To hear the full story straight from Jeffrey and Dorsey, listen to the Queerly Beloved episode "The Pen-Pals." And for more stories like this, check out the whole column here.