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Seeking pen pals for queer inmates

'We are not just convicts, we are people, men here alone, literally fighting to stay alive'

Swathi Sekhar started a Prisoner Correspondence Project in Toronto after realizing the huge demand for pen pals for queer inmates. Credit: Elah Feder

When Uno signed up to be a pen pal, he’d been in solitary confinement for more than two years. Alone in his cell for as long as 23 hours a day, he was desperate for a friend and asked his psychologist to connect him with someone. That’s how he discovered the Prisoner Correspondence Project (PCP) for queer and trans prisoners and his pen pal, Swathi Sekhar.

“I loved his penmanship,” Sekhar says of her first impression. “He was just hilarious. He was super light, but also the way he spoke was very haunting.”

To find him, Sekhar had sifted through boxes and boxes of letters at PCP’s original office, in Montreal, each letter containing a few hundred words of self-description from an inmate. Finding the right pen pal can feel like an especially cruel online dating process. Many of those on the inside share heartbreaking stories in their applications, but there aren’t enough outside pen pals to meet the demand.

Sekhar started up a second PCP collective in Toronto, largely to manage this overflow in requests. Five months into operation, their immediate goals are to secure funding, build connections with local Canadian inmates and recruit more outside pen pals, particularly men of colour, corresponding to the identities and requests of those on the waiting list. The current wait time is up to six months.

Like the Montreal collective, the Toronto branch focuses exclusively on queer prisoners. Though data is limited in Canada, queer and trans inmates appear to be disproportionately represented in prison populations. According to American statistics, at least 15 percent of youth in the American juvenile justice system are queer, gender non-conforming or questioning and are more likely to have entered the system after being kicked out of or run away from home.

Once inside, the incarceration experiences of queer and trans people can be especially traumatic. Uno learned how dangerous it was to be out in his first year in prison. “A lot of guys would harass me publicly by day, yet expect sexual favours by night,” he recalls in a written interview with Xtra. “I quickly learned to behave in a much more masculine manner.”

Uno’s experience isn’t unique. A 2007 report for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation found that two thirds of “non-heterosexual” inmates reported being assaulted, compared with less than two percent of heterosexual-identified inmates. Trans prisoners and black queer men are at particular risk.

Eight years into his current term at a California state prison, Uno is firmly closeted and says he acts tough to ward off would-be attackers. “So . . . I’m safe, saved from the forced sex and harassment of my youth.”

James, incarcerated in Texas, describes his experience very differently. Despite homophobic slurs and an assault at the hands of a former lover, he doesn’t feel his orientation has been a major problem. He says some of the staff and prisoners are queer-friendly and those who aren’t generally leave him and other queer men alone. For James, the broader prison experience is the real issue. “Regardless of the tolerance or acceptance of queer people in prison we are still subject to the same humiliating treatment as many prisoners,” he writes, citing strip searches, petty harassment and threats.

As James describes it to his pen pal, corresponding with a queer person on the outside has been a way of maintaining his “civility” and a connection with the outside world as the years go by. His pen pal, Charli Rascal, feels similarly attached. James is a friend she can really trust. “There are things I’m able to say that I wouldn’t say with anyone else.” She also has an intellectual interest in the prison system, but she tries to ensure that her activist side doesn’t interfere with their personal connection.

One of the first questions people typically have for prisoners is about why they’re in jail, but PCP advises pen pals not to ask. Discussing the events leading to their incarceration can bring up traumatic memories for prisoners. This degree of empathy for inmates is unfamiliar to many, even offensive to some, and Sekhar is often asked how she balances this compassion for prisoners with the knowledge that some have victims they’ve seriously harmed. It’s a complicated question for her. “I just try my best to reserve judgment,” she says. “People do really horrible things to each other, but there are a lot of reasons why they perpetrate . . . A lot of decisions came out of not having choice. A lot of decisions came out of desperation.”

Near the end of his letter, Uno makes a plea for those on the outside to remember his humanity. “We are not just convicts,” he wrote. “We are people, men here alone, literally fighting to stay alive. We are capable of being a friend.”

Along with compassion, Sekhar agrees that some form of justice is necessary and that people need to be held accountable for their actions, but she and PCP take an abolitionist position on prisons. “Ultimately, prison’s not really making our communities any safer,” she says, explaining that the abolitionist goal is to “address the root causes of crime and actually focus on making healthier, safer communities without prisons.”

Those who sign up to be pen pals aren’t required to share these views.

Though Sekhar has long been engaged in the politics of prisons, Uno’s reality still hits her hard. “I didn’t expect how real it was going to be,” she says. His solitary confinement makes his situation especially difficult – though in the US there is now some movement on the issue. For the first time, the Federal Bureau of Prisons has decided to review its policies on solitary confinement, after the Senate took up the issue last year and a class-action lawsuit challenged its use in California prisons.

Meanwhile, the United Nations’ Committee Against Torture has urged Canada, which has seen a 7.5% rise in segregation cell admissions since 2010, to severely curb its use of, or entirely abolish, solitary confinement for those with serious mental-health issues. Likewise, the Office of the Correctional Investigator, an oversight body for federal prisons, has expressed serious concerns, noting that nearly one third of self-injury incidents occur in segregation cells. It also notes that women, aboriginal and black inmates are disproportionately represented.

For Uno, as prison life and solitary confinement take their toll, Sekhar has been a lifeline. Before they met, he says, he was on the verge of suicide. Now he has someone to care for who cares about him. He considers Sekhar family.

And despite his situation, Uno’s conversations with Sekhar aren’t all heavy. They write about travel, languages and food. Stuck with prison fare, Uno likes to hear in detail what Sekhar’s been eating. Overall, she says, it’s been an amazing experience, and she expects they’ll be in touch for the rest of their lives. Their correspondence isn’t charity or activism: it’s friendship.