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Communicating While Queer Is Being Punished in Prison

A lawsuit accuses Illinois of cutting off LGBTQ prisoners’ lifeline to supporters.

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Mia Whatley, a trans woman from Chicago’s South Side, was incarcerated in a men’s Illinois prison in 2010. She had been receiving hormone therapy as part of transitioning before she entered the prison system, but needed information on how to get the medical treatment while incarcerated. That’s when her pen pal, told her about Black and Pink, an organization that supports LGBTQ people behind bars.

Black and Pink sent her more than just the medical advice she sought: birthday and holiday cards, newsletters and chapter updates. Their mailings often include information on lawsuits, bills being passed in local government, and some times, medical care information. They also provide pen pal services to their 900 subscribers in Illinois prisons.

In 2016, Whatley began having an issue receiving Black and Pink materials. While she was at Lawrence Correctional Center, Whatley says, she was told that her correspondence with Black and Pink would be terminated. Despite filing grievances, she kept hitting walls.

Correction officers began intercepting her mail with Black and Pink, she said, and they told her that if she attempted to contact the organization again she would face a disciplinary report.

My experience with segregation was hell within your cell.

Mia Whatley formerly incarcerated trans woman

Shortly after she was told to stop contacting the organization, according to Whatley, correction officers searched her cell, finding old Black and Pink materials and letters that were saved from past months. Whatley received a disciplinary report for violating a direct order and violating mail privileges; she received 30 days in solitary confinement.

“My experience with segregation was hell within your cell,” Whatley told The Appeal. “It’s a whole different deal, a whole different environment.”

She later discovered she was far from the only prisoner whose subscription was being intercepted.

On Oct. 18, Uptown People’s Law Center and the MacArthur Justice Center sued the Illinois Department of Corrections director on behalf of Chicago’s Black and Pink chapter for censoring the organization’s mail sent inside state prisons. According to the lawsuit, 11 prisons censored and refused mail from Black and Pink Chicago on over 200 occasions since 2016. The DOC’s censorship of Black and Pink material is part of a wider pattern of discrimination against LGBTQ people, the attorneys said.

“LGBTQ prisoners are isolated in prison … I mean everybody is isolated in prison, but it’s isolation within isolation,” Alan Mills, executive director of Uptown People’s Law Center, told The Appeal. “Therefore, the ability to communicate with people on the outside and know that they have supporters, know that they are not alone in there, is absolutely vital.”

Everybody is isolated in prison, but it’s isolation within isolation.

Alan Mills executive director of Uptown People’s Law Center

Across the country, LGBTQ prisoners report facing abuse and discrimination while behind bars. In Illinois, Strawberry Hampton, a trans women incarcerated in a men’s prison, has filed three lawsuits against the Department of Corrections stating she has been sexually abused by correction officers and abused, groped, and threatened by other prisoners. Earlier this year, Hampton filed for an emergency relief to be transferred to a women’s prison after facing more abuse and taunts at Dixon Correctional Facility. Trans women incarcerated in Pittsburgh and Colorado have also filed lawsuits alleging abuse and harassment from staff and fellow prisoners after being housed in men’s facilities. Last year, the American Journal of Public Health published a study that found lesbian, gay, and bisexual prisoners across the country are at a higher risk of sexual assault and being placed in solitary confinement than the general prison population.

In 2014, Black and Pink conducted a survey of about 1,200 LGBTQ prisoners nationwide, mostly consisting of its prisoner membership. A report that the organization published in 2015 described the findings as the largest survey of LGBTQ prisoners in the nation. The group found that roughly half of the survey respondents had spent two or more years in solitary confinement while incarcerated, and 85 percent have spent some time in solitary confinement. Fifteen percent of the respondents reported being barred from prison programs because they were LGBTQ, and four out of five respondents didn’t have access to any LGBTQ-affirming books. Roughly four out of five transgender or nonbinary prisoners who responded said they  experienced emotional pain from hiding their gender identity during incarceration or within the legal system.

The lawsuit accuses the Illinois Department of Corrections of censoring Black and Pink introductory letters that inform potential subscribers about the organization’s services, as well as censoring informational zines, pen pal services introductory letters, birthday cards, chapter updates, national newsletters, and on three occasions, personal pen pal letters. The Department of Corrections said it could not comment on pending litigation.

One of the most commonly censored materials was Black and Pink Chicago’s Stop Solitary zines that the chapter sent out in 2016 and 2017. The two zines were censored 122 times in nine prisons, according to the lawsuit. The 2016 edition included a list of prisoners’ rights groups and their contact information as well as information on proposed state legislation that would limit solitary confinement to no more than 10 consecutive days.

The eight-page zine included artwork by prisoners, a report on Stateville Correctional Center, and testimonies from anonymous prisoners in Illinois about their experiences in solitary confinement.

“Upon release we are left with a mental shell shock and unprepared to deal with the everyday life in society,” one testimony read. “We are programmed with this isolation that has dramatically down spiraled our very own thought process to full destruction.”

It’s a sentiment that Whatley agrees with. She contemplated suicide when in segregation, and the isolation still has an effect on her mental health and well-being.

Back when I was in segregation, I wanted to take my life.

Mia Whatley formerly incarcerated trans woman

After Whatley was sent to the segregation unit for 30 days for having Black and Pink mail in her cell, she continued to face disciplinary charges for trying to communicate with the organization. She said she was placed in segregation multiple times in part because of her correspondence with Black and Pink. As she faced more charges for her communication with Black and Pink, her time in solitary confinement increased.

“Back when I was in segregation, I wanted to take my life,” Whatley told The Appeal. “I was telling myself that ‘Why should I care about me?’ I don’t have anybody out there in the free world that care about me. If they don’t care about me then I don’t have a reason, I don’t have a reason to fight, I don’t have a reason to fight for who I am today, I don’t have a reason to stand up against administration heads that come around to make you live for their own selfish games.’”

To her, the singling out of Black and Pink feels like yet another way for corrections officials to target LGBTQ prisoners.

“I feel like this is just a direct aim, hit of harassment, towards not just Black and Pink but a hatred act against those that chose to live their truth,” she told The Appeal. “Being in the LGBTQ community, I feel like there is no justice. … They have constantly, constantly repeated that they don’t care.”