LGBTQ Prison Support Group Black and Pink Works to Empower their Incarcerated Members

Posted Sept. 13, 2017

MP3 Interview with Reed Miller, technology coordinator with the LGBTQ prisoner support group Black and Pink, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

prison

Black and Pink is a grassroots nationwide organization led by formerly incarcerated LGBTQ individuals who support 14,000 LGBTQ community members currently in prison. Their website states, “Our work toward the abolition of the prison industrial complex is rooted in the experience of currently and formerly incarcerated people. We are outraged by the specific violence of the prison industrial complex against LGBTQ people, and respond through advocacy, education, direct service and organizing.” Among other work, the group publishes and sends a monthly newsletter to its incarcerated members.

The Black and Pink name refers to the colors of the queer anarchist flag, though not all members identify as anarchist. In Nazi Germany, gays and lesbians were labeled with pink and black triangles.

The group held its second national conference in Chicago Aug. 4-6, where the theme was "Celebrate, Learn, Heal and Build. The focus was on strengthening the movement towards abolition and the needs of LGBTQ and HIV-positive people.

Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Reed Miller, Technology Coordinator with Black and Pink, who lives in New Haven, Connecticut. Reed, who attended the Chicago conference, first explains the origins of Black and Pink, which located 14,000 LGBTQ prisoners that are currently active in the group’s penpal program. [Rush transcript.]

REED MILLER: So, yeah, Black and Pink started about 12 years ago. Our founder, Rev. Jason Lydon, who’s a UU (Unitarian Universalist) minister, was incarcerated doing civil disobedience at the School of the Americas Watch. And as a result of his incarceration, when he got out he wanted to stay in touch with the people who supported him while he was in prison' he was put in what the Georgia prisons called a "homo bin." Basically, he started with friends over a dinner table and they wrote to a couple dozen penpals.

BETWEEN THE LINES: How did they find the people to write to?

REED MILLER: I guess there’s three ways our address in Boston got around. One was some penpals would say to other folks in prison, "Hey these people are writing me and if you give them your address they’ll write you too." So it just spread, friend to friend, word of mouth like that. We’re in some guides, like prisoner resource guides, so if a person has a law library you might be able to look us up and get the address. And then primarily, we send out this monthly newspaper and most of the content is submitted by our prisoner members. So they write in handwritten letters; we have several dozen volunteers every weekend processing the literally hundreds of letters we get every week, including submissions to our newspaper, so they get typed up and included in our newspaper, which is important, I should say, also because prisoners in general aren’t allowed to write to one another, and as a result of the traumatic and abusive experiences they’re having inside prison, feel very isolated and so the newspaper is a way for people to connect across prisons. And we hear often, "Oh, I was alone until I realized this person in Pennsylvania – here I am in Texas – is experiencing similar things." OR, "WOw, here I am in Florida and that’s similar to my situation." For every ten letters that we get in, we get four new people who have heard of our organization, so we’re growing at an almost exponential rate, sort of limited by how many volunteers we have to process all that mail and how many funds we have to send out more and more newspapers.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Wow, that’s amazing. So, your organization just had a national meeting in Chicago. So, what was the focus of that, or what came out of it?

REED MILLER: Yeah, the focus of the meeting was, since the prison system with its over two million incarcerated and many more millions on probation or parole, has people scattered about the country. It’s an opportunity for us to get together in a centralized place to look toward our long-term goals. We are an explicitly abolitionist organization, which means that we don’t believe the prison industrial complex has the capacity to bring any sort of justice to our communities in the situation where harm is done. Of course, so much of the harm that happens in our society is rooted in the inequality driven by capitalism and the structures of power that are driven by the inequality and lack of access to resources. And that’s compounded, especially for our organization with LGBTQ folks and folks who are HIV-positive experiencing – when they’re not in prison – extreme levels of discrimination, lack of access to housing, to employment, to health care, and folks needing to resort to survival economies like trading sex or trading drugs in order to get by.

Other folks have caused other people harm and we do think that in a world where transformative justice is our means of restoring justice between people that people who cause harm to one another will have an opportunity to make amends if possible, and we don’t believe in throwing people away. We want people to remain part of our communities, and we don’t think that a person should be defined by the worst thing they’ve ever done. All of us have done bad things on some level or another and that shouldn’t define us entirely.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Does Black and Pink work with other prison abolition groups or with other LBGTQ groups to achieve your goals?

REED MILLER: Yeah, absolutely. With such a behemoth as the prison industrial complex, it’s completely necessary for us to work in coalition with other organizations. We work with LGBT groups on a national coalition that’s kind of got some mainstream folks in it and has some other more radical LGBT groups working on broad criminal justice reform as it pertains to LGBTQ folks and so that’s been an ongoing partnership for a number of years, and putting together some sort of policy proposals. Some groups might be more extreme, some groups might be more mainstream, but things that we can all get around. All of these groups we really respect the work they’re doing, because it’s really about working with individuals and building power toward our collective liberation. And it’s also important to recognize we’re not here as a charity for prisoners. We want to empower prisoners and we respect the ideas and actively try and solicit ideas from our members.

For more information on Black and Pink, visit Blackandpink.org.

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