Web Analytics Made Easy - Statcounter

Unexpected friendships: Nonprofit Black & Pink connects Queers in confinement with needed support

Share this Post:
Photo courtesy of Black & Pink
Photo courtesy of Black & Pink

It was on a sunny afternoon in late April that I encountered Black & Pink (BAP), in the form of a binder of letter-writing guidelines, on a table at an anarchist 'zine event. A few cards were laid out beside the binder, scrawled with short messages of support.

Matching up pen pals in different countries isn't unheard of among charities; it serves to build a more personal relationship between donors and those in need. But the cards at that table were headed for a place in some ways more distant than anywhere across the ocean: a prison in Washington state.

Anyone who has had a friend or relative in the prison system likely knows what it's like trying to get in touch. Phone calls are time limited, and what emails are available require the purchase of "digital stamps," to say nothing of in-person visits. It's inconvenient and often frustrating, but for those on the inside, it's a source of constant isolation from needed support.

A local BAP rep was outside the gallery, sitting in a folding chair with a signup sheet. We spoke briefly at the time, but over this Juneteenth weekend, I gave them a call to learn more.

"Black & Pink is about addressing the violence of prisons in our society," Scout said, "with a focus on how it affects Queer and Trans people, and people living with HIV/AIDS." Scout asked to include their first name only, and uses "they" pronouns.

Methods and activities differ depending on the chapter, but they all share a few things in common: they match people on the inside with pen pals on the outside, and they collectively produce a newsletter that includes art, writing, and other inmate perspectives.

In 2015, BAP used its newsletter to field responses for "Coming Out of Concrete Closets," one of the largest and most sweeping surveys of Queer and Trans inmates to date, and it should be news to no one that LGBTQ+ inmates have it particularly bad.

Among other things, the survey found that a majority of Queer, Trans, and HIV-positive inmates were arrested as minors, most before they completed high school, and most of their sentences were much longer on average than the general population's. They were also overrepresented in high-security prisons.

Overall, Scout said, BAP intends to "connect Queer and Trans people with networks of support and community," which is precisely what prisons take away.

Photo courtesy of Black & Pink  

Connections on the outside can grant access to material resources, like hygiene products, books, and after release, gender-affirming clothes and housing. But Scout emphasized that BAP doesn't use the standard "top-down" charity model, in which distant patrons get a tote bag and a sense of accomplishment for sending food or money. The strength of BAP's pen pal program lies in forming lasting and "unexpected friendships," as Scout put it.

"It's like a politicized version of a Queer relationship," Scout said. "That's how a lot of Queer relationships start, in an unexpected way."

BAP's "solidarity model" also means they listen to inmates about their needs, and let those needs inform their responses. The guidelines I mentioned earlier, established soon after Scout joined the organization in 2018, are a part of that goal. They make it clear to participants that signing up is a commitment.

"We'd match people with someone, and they'd never follow up," Scout said, which was disappointing for the inmates involved, and a waste of everyone's time. The guidelines also stress the importance of people on the outside setting realistic expectations, and not overpromising just to underdeliver.

Another key advantage of the pen pal program is its boost to public awareness of prison conditions, so participants can take informed political action for reform.

Although not all the matches work out, feedback about the program so far has been positive. Pen pals attending BAP meetings have expressed their appreciation and shared their experiences.

Recently, of course, the pandemic has made meetings like that — and keeping up with communication in general — far more difficult. But the organization has persisted, keeping around 75 pen pal pairs connected monthly, by Scout's ballpark estimate. That's 75 more people with a lifeline to the outside world, and there are plenty more in need.

To learn more about Seattle's chapter of Black & Pink, visit https://www.blackandpink.org/chapters/seattle/, or find its table at this year's Trans Pride Seattle on September 2.