Prison abolition organization gets students involved in pen pal system with LGBTQ inmates


Katie Pach/Daily Senior Staffer

Eddie Willis, member of Black and Pink’s Chicago branch, speaks to students about LGBTQ prisoners and the organization’s penpal system. The event was hosted by the Queer Pride Graduate Students Association on Wednesday night.

Yvonne Kim, Assistant Campus Editor

Representatives from prison abolition organization Black and Pink spoke to students Wednesday evening in hopes of connecting them to incarcerated LGBTQ individuals through a pen pal system.

The event was hosted by the Queer Pride Graduate Students Association, a social networking and advocacy group for LGBTQ graduate students at Northwestern. The association wanted to become more involved with queer organizations in Chicago and Evanston, said Eddie Gamboa, the group’s activism chair.

He said the association was interested in working with Black and Pink because of its affiliation with prison abolition and the Black Lives Matter movement.

“We had organized this event in hopes of giving an opportunity for the students here at Northwestern to not only get a glimpse of what the prison abolition movement looks like in the city of Chicago, but also to begin a discussion about the intersections of queerness (and) the prison abolition movement,” Gamboa said.

Black and Pink is a national organization that includes more than 10,000 LGBTQ prisoners in its network. It is described as an “open family of LGBTQ prisoners and free world allies,” the latter referring to people not in prison.

Two members of Black and Pink’s Chicago branch — Megan Selby and Eddie Willis, who first came into contact with the organization as an incarcerated penpal — were present at the event. Willis shared his personal history with the prison system and described his experiences with being a penpal on “both sides of the wall.”

LGBTQ prisoners face a very specific set of challenges, often perceived and discriminated against as “other,” Willis said.

“Not only are you one of the most vulnerable members of society and subjected to solitary confinement, hate and just a plethora of other inhumane conditions, but (prisoners) always find something wrong with the next man to feel better about yourself,” Willis said. “In prison, that’s often LGBTQ individuals.”

Willis and Selby also discussed “Coming Out of Concrete Closets,” which was conducted by Black and Pink in 2014 and is the most comprehensive study ever conducted about LGBTQ people in prison, according to the group’s website. They also mentioned the urgency of addressing solitary confinement, a system that further isolates certain inmates from other cells and which they said disproportionately affects LGBTQ individuals.

The act of sending a letter can profoundly impact someone else’s life, Willis said.

“I probably read (my first letter), like, 50 times,” he said. “I didn’t want it to wrinkle up so I put a book on it. … It just meant so much to me, just to have somebody to write.”

Students were provided the opportunity to read letters written by inmates and choose penpals.

For Amy Aldrich, a graduate student in the School of Communication, the event was a means for her to become more involved with LGBTQ groups on campus.

“Slacktivism is something that a lot of my friends participate in but still critique,” Aldrich said. “And like a lot of other people, I wanted to make that change.”

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