By Najee Gibson
A lot of inmates from the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community feel lonely because either their families gave up hope for them, or they’re so caught up in the system that they feel like there’s no hope for them when they come out. So they stay back in the same addictive behaviors when they come out, which is not healthy for someone living with HIV.
I did 5 ½ years. I heard about Hearts on a Wire like 2 months before I got released from prison. They were doing an anonymous questionnaire for members of the LGBT community in state facilities: Were you getting health care? How were you being treated? I took the survey and informed them that I was going to be released in April. So they opened their arms and told me to come into the office. That’s how I got plugged in, and from there, things started to blossom. I liked what I heard. All of us need to be understood and cared for, and someone to identify with our hurt. Hearts on a Wire could identify with my hurt, and the bullshit that I put up with being incarcerated, being a person of color – the no-nos, the punishments.
Hearts on a Wire is about 2 years old. We cater to inmates in state facilities in Pennsylvania. We meet every Wednesday, and you pass on what was given to you. We make cards that say, “Keep your head up,” and send them to inmates.
The survey’s been done, and one definite concrete thing we know is that there’s no safe sex protection given out in state facilities. I feel very strongly about that, and it’s one of the main things we’re going to aim for. In Philadelphia county jails, you can buy condoms in commissary or go to the nurses’ station, no questions asked, but in the state facilities, it’s like, no. Automatically you are engaging in sexual activities, and that is one of the top-notch no-nos, and they call that sodomizing. An inmate gets a misconduct and put in a restrictive housing unit. And if someone’s coming up for parole, that can hold them back.
From the door, you’re stripped of any kind of dignity. Once I had on some jailhouse eyeliner – I took some Vaseline and a lead pencil and rubbed it on a piece of white paper, and made a light paste. This lieutenant’s response was, “If you don’t wipe that off your eyes, you’re going to get a misconduct for disobeying a direct order.”
There are certain facilities where glitter is not allowed. We made a card and we sprinkled some glitter with some Elmer’s glue, and the card got sent back. Security will either tell them to destroy it, or they’ll see our P.O. box and they won’t let the inmate have that mail.
Some people walk around for 5 years and don’t go on medication when they need to, so that nobody will know they have HIV. First the staff knows, and then it cascades. It’s supposed to be confidential. But certain staff and inmates were like, “Damn, why are you in the pill line? You got the hot shit?” I’d lie, “No, I’m a diabetic.”
There are some hateful people who feel that you should just be silent and let whatever happens happen to you. I encourage everyone to find out your senator’s address – yes, you might get their secretary writing you back, but it’s going to come back as legal mail. When you get legal mail, you’re called to the front desk to sign a list. And they’ll say, “This one knows how to read and write.” Because I’m sorry to say, the stigma attached to a lot of people of color and of the LGBT community who are incarcerated is that we’re dumb. So I’d encourage, even as a front – keep a book in your hand.
Prayer and meditation help, staying aware of your surroundings, and also reaching out to the outside world. You have to network. At Hearts on a Wire, we’re not case managers, but we steer people in the right direction. You’re going to know about resources like food banks. It helps to know of AIDS service organizations, so if you do have the virus, you can get care when you get out. If you’re transgender, we know which doctor is best, so you don’t have to go out and prostitute to buy hormones or be looked at like a freak, and the doctor’s like, “I can’t write you a script for that.” So when you get a letter from Hearts on a Wire, I encourage people of the LGBT community, and even those who are not, to write back. Because you’re going to hear back from us.
We would encourage people in other states to get started with just the basics. Get some construction paper and crayons, and start writing to people who are incarcerated from the LGBT community. It doesn’t take much. One or two people can do a lot of things. It could be small – it could be in somebody’s basement. Mail is very, very, very important. It makes you feel wanted when you get a letter.
You can say you’ve been adopted by the activist community. I’ve learned that there’s hope. There’s people who care. There’s power in voices.
If you feel touched by the article you just read, please send a generous contribution to
Hearts on a Wire
P.O. Box 36831
Philadelphia, PA 19107
Keep an eye out for “Glitter is not Allowed: Experiences of Trans and Gender Variant People in Pennsylvania’s Prison Systems,” Hearts on a Wire’s report presenting the results of their survey with LGBT people in Pennsylvania prisons. It will be released this summer.