By Xuanyan Ouyang
It’s pre-Christmas season, but this room is already in the spirit. Christmas songs are playing, food is being prepared, the space is filled with about three dozen people chatting and laughing.
They are coloring and writing holiday cards to places that are cold and harsh, and to individuals whom the others find it hard to understand.
“He said he’s bisexual in the bio, so I used both pink and blue,” said Christian Branch while coloring another holiday card. She is putting pink to the edge of the upper body of the penguin on the card and blue to some other parts.
Black and Pink, a LGBTQ prisoners support group, organized its 4th Annual Holiday Card-writing Party this Tuesday. It invited people to decorate and write holiday-themed cards to 400 LGBTQ inmates in Illinois on its mailing list. Along with trying to make life more tolerable for LGBTQ prisoners, the group ultimately aims to “abolish the prison system.” At the card-writing event, they handed out a report that catalogued problems with the prison system including the use of solitary confinement.
“I as a black person, I understand that the law doesn’t always respect people who are different,” said Branch, invoking the shooting of Laquan McDonald, a 17-year-old African American boy fatally shot by white police officer Jason Van Dyke 16 times in Chicago.
Branch thinks she has “intersectional interests” and can relate to the LGBTQ inmates, though she is heterosexual. She said she can imagine that discrimination is “worse” for LGBTQ people, she said, something they probably face everyday behind bars.
Black and Pink will send many of the holiday cards to inmates in their pen pal program, which connects inmates with the outside world by writing to a pen pal volunteer who provides emotional support and if possible resources assistance.
Betsy Merbitz, an organizer of the holiday card-writing event and one of the pen pals, said she has heard about “bad, disturbing and distressing” incidents from incarcerated LGBTQ people. Merbitz said she found it most horrifying when reading and transcribing the survey about solitary confinement conducted by Black and Pink’s Chicago chapter.
“Sometimes what is happening now is that LGBTQ people are often put into solitary, which is not a good solution,” said Merbitz. “It’s said for their protection, but it’s essentially really like isolating, depriving and really like a punishment for them being LGBTQ.”
In November, Black and Pink published Coing Out of Concrete Closets: A Report on Black & Pink’s National LGBTQ Prisoner Survey. The group says the report has “the largest ever dataset available on the experiences of LGBTQ prisoners” in the U.S. It sent out surveys with 133 questions toinmates and received nearly 1,118 prisoners’ responses.
The survey shows that 85 percent of respondents have been put into solitary confinement at some point during their incarceration. Half of them have spent two or more years in solitary.
“Altogether, respondents have spent a total of 5,110 years in solitary confinement,” the report says.
The report also includes excerpts of the prisoners’ response.
“Sexually abused by staff member…”
“I was placed in solitary after being raped… only released after it drove me to a suicide attempt.”
“Was raped BADLY and cuz Trans, scared of being hurt cuz of how feminine I am and I was 18 years old. So scared.”
Erin Rusmi, said the pen pal she has been writing to for three years was put into solitary confinement before. She regards it as “torture” and said the solution is to abolish the prison system.
“It’s essentially a mental torture device, in that regard,” said Black and Pink member Aaron Eischeid of solitary confinement. “I get why it’s used to prevent destructions, but at the same time it can be also used as a psychological weapon to trying to make somebody insane. ”
But he said he does not agree with tackling the problem by shutting down the prison system. He said “to a point” prisons are necessary to keep the public safe, but he thinks the system needs to be modified.
The controversy over solitary confinement has been continuing for years. A federal lawsuit filed in June accused the Illinois Department of Corrections. with frequently using solitary confinement to punish inmates even for minor infractions. The suit said that about 2,500 prisoners were in solitary confinement in Illinois by mid-2013, and 15 percent in maximum-security prisons were being kept in solitary confinement.
The United Nations has also kept decrying the overuse of solitary confinement in the U.S. The death of Herman Wallace, who was convicted of murder, has triggered another round of debate on solitary confinement. He died the day after his release after years of battling with cancer. Wallace had spent 41 years in solitary confinement. The U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has asked to visit federal and states prisons in the U.S. multiple times over the years, but never gotten admission. President Obama called on prisons to reduce the extensive use of solitary confinement in his speech to the NAACP earlier this year.
As far as LGBTQ prisoners are concerned, administrators have said that solitary confinement is to protect the inmates from potential harm or abuse from other inmates.
According to government statistics, LGBTQ inmates in the U.S. have been suffering from disproportional discrimination, violence and abuse in prison.
The U.S. Department of Justice’s Sexual Victimization in Prisons and Jails Reported by Inmates shows that LGBTQ inmates constitute the highest portion of sexual abuse victims. In its report for 2011 to 2012, 12.2 percent of LGBTQ inmates were sexually victimized by another inmate, and 5.4 percent were sexually victimized by staff. In contrast, 1.2 percent of their heterosexual counterparts have reported being victimized by another inmate and 2.1 percent were victims of staff sexual misconduct.
Photos by Xuanyuan Ouyang