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Dismantling a Black & White Narrative: LGBTQ+ Activists Discuss Prison Reform, COVID-19

(CW: sexual assault)

by

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At the start of our FaceTime call, Isabel tells me that things have been slow for her in the weeks since her release from prison, just four days after Governor Baker announced the stay-at-home advisory in Massachusetts. I’m surprised to hear her definition of slow: “I’ve been hiking a lot, that’s something I really like doing,” she says. “I’m also starting college in a couple of weeks online.” 

 

“I’m gonna focus a lot on advocacy work over the next couple of years,” she adds. “And, you know, work a regular job to pay bills, but I want to have a higher education degree to fall back on.” 

 

It has been just over a month since Isabel was released from NCCI-Gardner. In some ways, this global pause works in her favor: “It’s actually been kinda helpful for me, because I’ve been able to slowly transition from being in the prison environment to being out here.”
While the transition from prison to the outside world is an adjustment for anyone, Isabel’s release has afforded her a new level of liberation that she was not afforded inside. “I had a really rough bid living as a woman in a prison with a thousand men,” Isabel says matter-of-factly. “That’s like, really, really hard to do.”

 

Isabel is a 27-year-old transgender woman. She is studying for a degree in accounting, loves being in nature, and describes herself as “an explorer and scientist at heart.” At age 18, she was sentenced to 9 years in prison, and she split her bid between MCI-Norfolk and NCCI-Gardner, both of which are men’s prisons. 

 

Isabel is one of three transgender women whom I interviewed for this article. She, Angie, and Charlie, a 29-year-old activist originally from France, are all advocates for the LGBTQIA2S+ community through the organization Black and Pink

Angie made history as the first trans woman to be transferred to a women’s prison in the state of Massachusetts, and the first trans woman in the country to be transferred as result of a court order. While this historic victory certainly sets Angie apart, both she and Isabel were subjected to daily harassment and degradation by both inmates and staff throughout their time in prison, including several instances of grave physical and sexual assault. 

 

The goal of this piece is to elevate the voices in our community that too often go unheard. Now more than ever, stories like Angie’s and Isabel’s should be amplified. “We’re seeing marginalized neighborhoods being targeted by violent enforcements of social distancing, highlighted by activists like Shaun King,” Charlie notes. “Policing comes with mistreatments and double standards. We need to make sure that these voices are heard and centered.”

 

“As Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley said at MCI-Norfolk earlier this year,” she adds, “‘the people closest to the pain should be closest to the power.’” 

 

Black and Pink’s COVID-19 Response

 

“Black and Pink, as the colors say, is a queer anarchist group,” explains Charlie. “Our actions are rooted in the belief in an egalitarian society and in queer autonomy. Of course, Black and Pink activists may not identify as anarchist, but we still function based on anarchist principles and operate with a horizontal/non-hierarchical structure.”  

 

Black and Pink has mobilized its large network of members to address the specific needs of their community during this time. These start at the most basic level: sanitation. “Prisons in Massachusetts are densely populated and viruses spread like wildfire,” Charlie points out. “When you’re incarcerated, [soap is] a luxury product. Our response is to try to make sure people can afford the bare minimum to protect themselves.” 

 

Black and Pink has coordinated these efforts with several organizations, including DeeperThanWater, which has served more than 500 incarcerated members in New England, as well as the Boston Immigration Justice Accompaniment Network (BIJAN), Coyote-RI, and Families for Justice as Healing (FJAH). These partnerships have allowed activists to broaden their reach to aid ICE detainees and sex workers, among others affected by the virus.

 

“I think our main strategy right now is to strengthen the links of our community and make sure no one is left in a blind spot,” says Charlie. Though weekly drop-ins in Cambridge and Jamaica Plain have been halted due to virus concerns, Black and Pink continues to send mail through their pen-pal program. They are also setting up a virtual method for transmitting funds to members of the community still in prison.   

 

Charlie hopes that during this dramatic social freeze, we can rethink what we consider to be normal: “We’re living a small rupture in our epoch where capitalism is slowing down, time is taking another meaning, and people are reaching out to one another.” She quotes a recent speech by activist Angela Davis:  “‘Sometimes we have to pause and say that things don’t have to be the way they are—and to imagine a different time.’” 

 

“Criminalization and disciplinary control not only leave heavy stigmas, but also marginalize the minorities who experience them,” adds Charlie. “In this COVID crisis, marginalization means death.” 

 

For Black and Pink, mass incarceration is an inevitable consequence of the economic inequality that has established and propelled capitalism across the globe. “In our capitalist world, economic interests are often at odds with social problems, in particular with problems associated with poverty and racism, and these economic interests are constantly pushing to sustain their own expansion,” says Charlie. “The mechanisms behind the extent of this crisis and behind the politics of mass incarceration are the same.”

 

Su’ganni Tiuza, an activist in MCI-Norfolk, goes into great detail about the historical origins of criminalization in his recent report, which Charlie paraphrases for me. “Criminalization is a historically loaded topic,” she explains. “Think of the public torture and execution of women and LGBTQ+ folks in Europe and its colonized territories, or the Black codes enforced in post-slavery societies.” This history of criminalization still sends shockwaves through the prison system. “The gay liberation has not yet arrived to prisons: intimacy is criminalized,” says Charlie. The introduction of the Prison Rape Elimination Act in 2003, meant to protect often-targeted inmates, like many in the LGBTQ+ community, has often been used to justify targeted acts of punishment and to enforce a heteronormative standard of affection and love.

 

Personal Experience with COVID-19

While Isabel and Angie have both been released, their lives have nonetheless been greatly impacted by COVID-19. 

 

Some aspects of Isabel’s adjustment into a world gripped by pandemic hysteria have been more difficult than others. In addition to not being  able to file for unemployment due to the virus, other government support has stalled. “The hardest thing for me is, it took me two weeks to get my food stamps,” she says. “Almost three, because everything’s closed.” 

 

I ask her if the Department of Corrections had implemented any sort of special protocol for inmates released during the pandemic. She shakes her head. 

“They took my temperature and then kicked me out the door.” She stops and thinks for a second. “I mean, which I was happy for,” she says, smiling. “Luckily I have a family support system, but if I didn’t? The DOC didn’t do anything to help me. I didn’t know what my insurance was, I didn’t know when my appointments were, I didn’t know anything.”

 

Still, Isabel is making the most of her first months outside: on top of starting college and picking up a job with her roommate’s gardening company as soon as it is safe to do so, she will be running Twitter and Instagram accounts for Black and Pink. 

 

In recent months, Angie has been striving to put the pandemic in perspective and focus on her own health. When I first get on the phone with her a few days after my FaceTime with Isabel, she answers like this: “Hi, my name is Angelina Marie Resto. I’m a transgender woman, I’m 56 years old, and I’m feeling good today, you know?” Her voice is vibrant and warm, and I smile reflexively.

 

Angie came out as trans at the age of eleven, and has become a force in the LGBTQIA2S+ community, traveling to Washington, D.C. to advocate for prison reform in both the House and the Senate. She is currently working with Michael Cox, Director of Policy for Black and Pink’s Boston chapter,  on a number of initiatives. The two have been close since Angie’s time in MCI-Norfolk. “He picked me up the day of my release,” says Angie. “He was at [MCI-]Framingham with a big bouquet of flowers. It was amazing.”

With an incredible year of activism under her belt and plans for a book in her future, it’s been difficult to slow down in the wake of the pandemic. “It’s been really hard,” Angie explains, “not just for myself but for many of my friends and family. I also lost [my ex-] husband, he died of COVID-19. We buried him two weeks ago. It was hard for me to accept it, you know? But I also have to understand that if you don’t take care of yourself and you don’t protect yourself, these things can happen in life, so I try and take care of myself as best as I can.”

 

These isolated conditions have put a stop to any programs and travel that Angie might normally engage in, but they haven’t stopped the flow of communication. These safety measures have actually strengthened her connection with her friends and family: “We’ve been more united and we look [out] for one another more than we did before.” 

 

One of the ways Angie has been able to retain a strong sense of community is by giving back: “Me and my friends, you know, people from the LGBTQ [community], we’ve been making masks and donating them to the firemen, to charities and stuff like that. So we did that last week. We passed around over 250 masks. Other than that, thank God my family is fine, and I’m fine.” 

 

COVID-19 Response in Massachusetts Prisons

Isabel and Angie are also directing their energy towards another issue: fighting for the release of their partners. In addition to the women’s own experiences, they are able to communicate daily with their partners by phone, so they have a window into how Massachusetts prisons are handling the pandemic. 

 

“My fiancé is a really healthy person, so that’s good,” says Isabel. “But, it’s hard because there’s no visits, there’s nothing. I’m kind of freaking out some because I’ve gone from spending every moment of my day every day with him to not seeing him at all.” 

 

For now, Isabel has to settle for the hour her fiancé is given every day: 30 minutes in the morning, and 30 minutes in the evening. Isabel is usually able to talk to him for about 20 minutes every day. “I guess that’s good, but when you don’t have visits, you need that so much more. And in [NCCI-]Gardner,” she adds, “they’re saying they lock them in their cells, not just the tiers.”

 

In MCI-Norfolk, inmates only have 20 minutes to use the microwave and phone. In her daily conversations with her husband at MCI-Norfolk, Angie gets updates on how her friends in the trans community are doing. She also stays in touch with some of the trans men she met in MCI-Framingham: “I still write to them. And they told me right now they have the whole jail locked down. They’re only allowed to be on their floor.” 

An excerpt from Black and Pink News, Volume 11, No. 2. – March/April 2020

 

 During Isabel’s last few weeks at NCCI-Gardner, she saw the beginnings of the prison’s response to COVID-19. The quality and quantity of everyday needs like food and soap have declined in prisons across the state.  Black and Pink quickly jumped into action, with volunteers sending in money orders so that people could afford necessities. “I was there when the first round of money orders came in, and some people were like, ‘I haven’t had money in my account in so long. This is awesome.’ It was only $10, $15, or $20.” Any amount of money, Isabel explains, is especially valuable now. “The food is horrible,” she tells me. “They’re feeding everyone in the cells, and they’re half-size portions. They’re lying, saying they’re giving people extra nutrition. It’s a lie. And there weren’t even hand sanitizer pumps on the units until three weeks after they said on the website [that] they put them out everywhere.”

 

Resilience and Resistance: Isabel’s Story

Isabel emphasizes the importance of directing resources and donations to inmates, as opposed to relying on the Department of Corrections to provide them adequately. “They’re already living in hell on earth. That’s how I see the American prison system: hell on earth,” she says. “Everyone says they’re scared to go to hell when they die. I’ve already been there, you know?”

 

“I didn’t understand what gender dysphoria was until I was in prison for six years, because of the life that I grew up in,” Isabel explains. “I thought there was something horribly wrong with me.” She says that if it weren’t for her time in prison, it might have taken decades for her to come to terms with her identity. 

“I’m so lucky,” she continues, “because I’m not from the generation of transgender boys and girls and queers and whatever on the spectrum you are, where we were allowed to be ourselves in the way you are in 2020. The way it was in 2010 was way different than it is now.” 

 

Isabel is thankful that her younger brother, a transgender boy, has had a much more progressive society in which to transition: “His life transitioning is so different from mine at that age. So, that’s really cool.”

 

Unfortunately, prisons in 2020 do not always reflect the progress Isabel describes. In one of many incidents during her time at MCI-Norfolk, Isabel was knocked out cold by one man after she came forward to report his friend for sexual assault. “I’m living as a girl,” she reminds me. “Like, I’m 135 pounds in prison, and you have this big guy come up to you and just hit you.” 

 

The prison’s responses to these situations are riddled with catch-22s and backwards logic, often resulting in further harm, not protection. Isabel was placed in solitary confinement, which she was told was for her own protection. “A week later they let my abuser back into general population, but kept me in solitary confinement,” she looks at me, shaking her head. “That same day they let him out, I went to mental health and was trying to understand how me as a victim was being punished in solitary confinement and my abuser’s in general population.” 

 

“It kind of terrified me,” says Isabel. “I became scared to be around men. All I saw was people trying to hurt me, trying to use me, and it really screwed up the way I transitioned.” 

 

Isabel pushed herself to use her time in prison to consider her own past and how she wanted to build her future going forward, all while fighting to survive on a daily basis. The irony doesn’t escape her. “The D.A. said in my case that I was going to go to prison for 9 years to rehabilitate myself and deal with my issues,” she recalls. “He said: ‘prison has all the programs you can want. It’s fine, you don’t need to go anywhere else.’”

 

Suffice it to say, Isabel’s development in prison, which included the difficult path to refiguring her relationship with drugs and alcohol, was precipitated by models in the LGBTQ+ community like Angie, and by her own sheer strength. “The only reason I’ve made a change in myself is because I decided to,” she concludes. “I woke up one day and said, I can’t put myself through this, I have to stop.”

 

In response to her expressing fear for her safety, MCI-Norfolk returned Isabel to solitary confinement on six different occasions. Isabel requested a transfer to MCI-Framingham, a women’s prison. Her request was denied. Ultimately, she was transferred to NCCI-Gardner, another men’s prison.

 

In his report, Su’ganni Tiuza categorizes this kind of excessive use of solitary confinement under the issue of dehumanization: “Dehumanization is a plague that distorts the mind and spirits of prisoners. Every single day in Massachusetts prisons, people are reminded that they do not count, that they’re worthless, that they’re the scum of the earth.”

 

Isabel similarly identifies it as a top-down issue: “The DOC does not care. I’m a number. They don’t see me as a woman. Because if they did, they’d protect me. When I tried to get help, they wouldn’t have put me in solitary confinement and punished me. Something has to change, because there’s other transgender girls there who aren’t living as women because they saw what I went through and they’re scared.”

 

She has kept a meticulous record of all of her experiences while at MCI-Norfolk and NCCI-Gardner, and hopes to soon hold a forum on trans rights and create an online video series to spread her story.

 

“I consider myself probably one of the very few lucky ones,” she adds. “And now have a duty to help and to reach out.”

 

Isabel and Angie met when they were both in MCI-Norfolk. “We were really close,” explains Isabel. “We lived in the same unit together.” 

 

When I mention Isabel, I can hear Angie’s smile through the phone. “Oh, Isabel! Well, I made her my daughter,” she says proudly. “We always talk. She went through a lot when she was incarcerated. What the guards put her through and what she had to do to survive, you know? It was crazy.”

 

“I remember one day it was me, Isabel, and another transgender woman, and we heard the CO clearly, clearly, say, ‘Here comes the chicks with the dicks,’” Angie recalls. “I started crying. I said, ‘Excuse me?’”

 

In response, Angie says the guard threatened to “lug” her (place her in solitary confinement).
“If there’s something I would change, it would be better training for staff,” she says. 

 

“And another thing,” she adds after a moment. “[If] you’re in jail, you’re there to do the time, not to get abused mentally, physically or sexually. No matter how much time you’re doing, they should still respect you as a person.”

 

Turning the Tide: Angie’s Fight for her Transfer

Angie has been out of prison for a year. Her landmark case against MCI-Norfolk, filed under the 14th amendment, has made her a force in the LGBTQIA2S+ community. She began by contacting Prisoners’ Legal Services (PLS) while in MCI-Norfolk, at the suggestion of her now-husband. 

 

“I also filed a couple of grievances with GLAD [GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders]. That’s when I met Jennifer Levi. She’s an amazing attorney.” Angie’s legal team was able to secure a decision that gave MCI-Norfolk 10 days to comply with various mandates to ensure Angie’s safety and dignity. These included a designated time for Angie and other trans women to use the bathroom and showers. The judge put a 60-day deadline on these and other changes, after which Angie would be granted her transfer to MCI-Framingham.

 

Angie describes the feeling of securing that victory:  “That was September 26th, [2018]. It was six o’clock in the morning. The guard comes to my door and says: ‘pack it up, you’re leaving to Framingham.’ That was the best day of my life. Because of the simple fact that, I said, I belong in that women’s prison. That’s really where I belong.”

Angie gives a speech at a GLAD event in October 2019.

 

While some aspects of her experience changed drastically after her transfer, Angie was still forced to confront prejudice and violence, which she says started about two months after her arrival at MCI-Framingham. “I made sure that I just stood my ground,” she says. “I went about it the proper way, with a grievance. Even though they found not enough evidence, which is what they always put. No matter how honest you are with these people and tell them the truth, to them you’re a liar. Because you’re a number. They’ll never believe you.”

 

Angie’s plans for the future include opening up a community center in Springfield, MA where members of the LGBTQIA2S+ community can come for resources, programming, and to share their stories. “People can come in and have a coffee in the morning, [we can] help them get a proper ID, if you’re on drugs [we can] get you into a program to better yourself. You know, things like that.” 

 

She also believes the exchange of stories can help reduce incarceration and recidivism in her community. “I could sit on a daily basis with transgender women and LGBTQ+ people and listen to their stories for a minute. And you know, you won’t want to go to prison after you hear my story. So I think it would help people in our community change their minds before they make a mistake out here.”

 

For other incarcerated trans individuals, whose identities go unacknowledged by the DOC, Angie encourages them not to lose hope: “No matter how long it’s gonna take, just keep doing what you’re doing, keep on appealing,” she says. “Don’t let them take your pride and your dignity from you. That’s what I fought for. I fought for my pride and my dignity.”

 

She specifies the message she sent to the DOC through her perseverance: “You can tell me when to go to sleep, you can tell me when to get up, to eat, but you will never take away from me my pride and my dignity. I refuse. I refuse for them to take that away from me. And I fought, and I fought, and I finally made it.”

 

One Step At a Time: Looking Toward a Post-Pandemic Future

Both inside and outside of prison, during the COVID-19 crisis and looking ahead, the road to prison reform is a long one. “Sometimes I overwhelm myself,” says Isabel, “because I always think I can figure everything out. I run into a wall when I can’t control a situation and it frustrates me, so I want that to change. I just have to remember that it’s a slow process. If I move too fast, I’ll end up re-experiencing the trauma I went through all over again when I talk about it. So I try to do it in small doses and just take it one step at a time.”

 

As Charlie points out, “queer people—as well as other minorities and colonized people—have been on the frontline of this political fight for decades.” Isabel, Angie, Charlie, Su’ganni, and others are part of a large group of activists who continue to push for more effective methods of rehabilitation, including mental health support, voting rights, and more robust programming around substance abuse. While these efforts have shifted to more immediate concerns in light of the virus, the approach towards prison reform retains its same spirit. In his report, Su’ganni distills it into one sentiment: “We should not be leaving prison worse than we came into prison.” 

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