When Carlos Morales reflects on the four and a half years he was incarcerated, he recalls being treated like a second-class citizen by correctional officers.
“There’s absolutely no dignity whatsoever; you get treated like an animal,” Morales said. “When you’re first new to this, and you’re trying to learn how to function in this environment, how to survive, especially as a queer individual, and then the person that you should be able to turn to for protection is treating you like crap.”
But Morales, who left prison six years ago, says the letters he received inside helped him push through his sentence by finding a sense of community and acceptance — a rarity, especially for LGBTQ+ people, who are often subjected to higher rates of violence while behind bars. And when he got out, his pen pal recruited him to work for the very organization that introduced them.
That pen pal program is run by Black and Pink Massachusetts, a group advocating for prison abolition and supporting incarcerated people who are LGBTQ+ or living with HIV/AIDS. The group sends surveys to inmates to learn about their experiences, then matches them with volunteer letter-writers through an online database. Through that program, the organization has matched over 170 LGBTQ+ people incarcerated in the state with people in the “free world,” helping cultivate new friendships in a hostile environment.
Michael Cox, who leads Black and Pink Massachusetts, said the pen pal program is the hallmark of their work. For those writing letters from the outside, connecting with an incarcerated pen pal can be an enlightening experience, where one can learn about prison life while developing a new companion to share life experiences with. For those on the inside, a pen pal can provide connection like Morales experiences — and it can even be life-saving.
Cox was formerly incarcerated for shoplifting. He told GBH News he was subjected to sexual abuse and unfair punishment while in prison, including 45 days of solitary confinement with no explanation from correctional officials.
He said Black and Pink Massachusetts’ pen pal program provides a layer of protection from harassment that LGBTQ+ inmates often face. A study by the National Inmate Survey showed that members of the LGBTQ+ community are disproportionately subjected to abuse while incarcerated. He said inmates and correctional officers take note of who gets mail and who doesn’t, which can serve as an “insurance policy,” by showing that an inmate has an outside support system.
“It becomes like a status thing; you feel like there’s somebody, you know, people love them,” he said. “It does sort of form this unspoken, intangible little shield around people — not a real one, not impenetrable — but guards would think twice, right?”
And sometimes, pen pals can step in to help.
Taylor Shine, a 40-year-old transgender woman incarcerated at the North Central Correctional Institute in Gardner for drug-related crimes, called one of her pen pals her “champion” for taking action after a transphobic incident.
Shine told GBH News through an inmate e-mail service that she wound up in the hospital after being attacked by another inmate. She said correctional officers then punished her for the altercation by putting her in solitary confinement, firing her from her job and taking away an opportunity to join classes offered by Mt. Wachusett Community College.
Upon hearing details of the attack, Shine’s pen pal alerted authorities.
“She contacted the commissioner’s office and took it a step further and contacted her local senator's office and notified them of the unfair and indifferent treatment I’ve experienced since transitioning,” Shine said, who has since been restored to her previous cell, job and school enrollment. “Black and Pink has been a wonderful support and very helpful, and even more than just a pen pal program.”
Black and Pink Inc., the national organization, was founded in 2005 by Jason Lydon, who spent six months in four different Georgia county jails and a federal prison in Massachusetts for taking part in an act of civil disobedience.
He told GBH News that during those six months he was incarcerated, correctional officers conducted 25 strip searches on him and witnessed nurses on multiple occasions withhold HIV medication until inmates provided them with oral sex.
Lydon says the humiliation he and other queer and HIV-positive inmates suffered moved him to speak with advocacy groups across the country.
“When I got out, I reached out to a lot of mainstream LGBT organizations to say, ‘Hey, this is what happened to me. Do you know what’s going on?’” Lydon said. “I received the response of, ‘Well, we’re not really working on criminal justice issues now. We’re really focused on marriage.’ And I was so angry — I felt like there was a lot of ignorance and intentional lack of care.”
“When I got out, I reached out to a lot of mainstream LGBT organizations. ... And I was so angry — I felt like there was a lot of ignorance and intentional lack of care.”Jason Lydon, founder of Black and Pink Inc.
After his release, Lydon kept in touch with other inmates. But as word spread, more and more gay, bisexual and transgender inmates began to write to him. Lydon was pen pals with about 30 people when he realized he needed to enlist the help of some friends.
The national Black and Pink Inc. organization now has multiple volunteer-led chapters and more than 20,000 current and formerly incarcerated LGBTQ+ and HIV+ members.
The organization's overarching goal is to abolish the criminal punishment system and offer support through advocacy and organizing. Past legislative efforts here in Massachusetts include passing the Criminal Justice Reform Act in 2018, which included substantial provisions for incarcerated LGBTQ+ people. Today, the state organization is working toward passing legislation like the RIGHTS Act, which aims to improve conditions of confinement for LGBTQ+ people and those living with HIV.
Emery Jeffreys, a 22-year-old now residing in Worcester, has been involved with Black and Pink Massachusetts since the racial justice movement of 2020 and, for more than two years, has been exchanging letters with an incarcerated 70-year-old man, who asked GBH News to keep his name private.
“The thing that has been the most rewarding for me is having a relationship with another queer person in the world, especially an older queer person who’s been through life more than me and can give advice about things,” they said. “I’ll tell [the pen pal] what’s happening in my life, where I’m trying to work, and he’s like, ‘Oh, I have a friend who works there, if you’d like, I can get you connected.’”
Ultimately, Jeffreys views their pen pals as friends and says the program is an excellent opportunity to connect with someone who understands a component of your identity.
Lydon says the pen pal program may also help generate support for the prison abolition movement.
“For me, the pen pal program is not only a support program for people who are currently locked up; it’s also a political education program for people who are not incarcerated, who are learning about the devastation of incarceration,” he said. “In my experience, there are liberal to progressive folks who start writing with people in prison and become abolitionists almost overnight because they realize how horrible the incarceration system is.”
But in Lydon’s eyes, the organization's mission must be shaped by incarcerated people.
“If we’re going to fight back against [the prison industrial complex], it must be done while in authentic relationships with people who are going through the worst of the experiences that one can go through,” he said.