Omaha-Based Nonprofit Encourages Community to Write to Those Behind Bars This Holiday Season
Black and Pink is an Omaha nonprofit supporting incarcerated members of the LBGTQ community and those living with HIV/AIDS, groups that can be especially vulnerable behind bars. With its yearly holiday cards campaign, the organization encourages those on the outside to remind folks in prison that they are not alone. Courtney Bierman spoke to Black and Pink members support coordinator Andrea Kszystyniak for more.
KIOS: The holiday letter campaign is not new this year. It's been going on for a long time. What makes this year different?
Andrea Kszystyniak: In the past, we've had kind of like nationwide gatherings where folks would get together, make cards, kind of celebrate and also send letters to folks who are in prison. This year we had to kind of change that up. So it's all online. Folks can go and select multiples of 15 people. They'll just be sending those cards out, either independently or after doing some kind of Zoom party, just to kind of make sure that everyone is is socially distancing and safe.
What makes a good letter?
There's a letter automatically kind of generated on the site from our executive director, Dominique Morgan, two coloring pages drawn by Ang Bennett, who is also in Omaha, then there's a small space for somebody to write like, just like a holiday greeting. Like, "Hey, thinking about you." Like, "Hope you're doing well." So these are pretty brief. The intent is always, "Hey, we're here we're thinking about you. You're not alone during the holidays." Because obviously prison is very isolating, and prison can be especially isolating during the holidays for LGBTQ, queer folks, because a lot of them have often been abandoned by their families, by their communities, and they really are alone in prison.
How do these people, these queer and trans folks who are incarcerated, how do they get connected with Black and Pink? And how do they get on this holiday letter list?
This holiday letter list just pulls from our overall pen pal program, which is about 20,000 folks who are in prisons. Typically, the way that people get in touch with us is via letter. That's how most people in prisons are able to communicate pretty regularly. Or through private email servers run by private corporations designed to profit off prisoners, but that's a different thing. So yeah, most folks will send us letters and they'll get added to our newsletter, which goes out to all of those folks every couple of months. They have a profile put on our website for pen pals. So somebody can go and sign up and agree to have a more long term relationship with them, and then also that puts them on the list for holiday cards.
So Black and Pink, of course, is specifically for LGBTQ+ people who are incarcerated. How does incarceration affect that population maybe differently than other populations?
Folks who are LGBTQ — or particularly trans individuals — aren't supported societally, which often leads to increased rates of incarceration. And then after incarceration, they're further marginalized within systems. Isolation is a big part of what our folks experience. Like I mentioned before, families will often, you know, cut ties, A. Because they're incarcerated and B. Because they're queer or LGBTQ. People who are trans or queer, there might not be anybody else in prison with them who is also. And that's actually pretty common, especially for folks who are trans. So we try to kind of give them that community through our pen pal program and through these holiday cards. So they might not be able to have a conversation with another LGBTQ person in prison, but we're there for them on the outside and waiting for them when they are finally free.
You have on the website that the pen pal initiative is a "harm reduction strategy." How so?
One thing that we mention a lot is guards, prison staff know who's getting mail and know who's not getting mail. Folks who are not getting mail or do not have outside support are more apt to be targeted for violence. Our folks are often put into solitary for protection. So that means that they're alone 24/7 for extended periods of time. So outside letters help to keep them sane, very truly. That's not easy to do. And so we're trying to keep them emotionally safe and give them something to look forward to.
Black and Pink was founded in Boston and has chapters all over the country. How did it end up being headquartered in Omaha?
Dominique Morgan took over Black and Pink in 2018. So when she began running the program, she was like, "You know what, I'm gonna take it Omaha. Omaha really needs this." It's really, really grown quite a bit under her leadership. Black and pink, I think, had less than a handful of staff at the beginning of this year, end of last year. And we have 12, I think, now, and that's growing. It's amazing to me to work for such a large cluster of queer people in Omaha. You know, I never thought that I would have that experience. But yeah, so we've been here since 2018.
So people who are interested in getting involved in this holiday letter campaign, or just the pen pal program in general, how can they get involved? Where can they go for more information?
Obviously our website, which is blackandpink.org. We just built a separate pen pal app. That's a separate website, it's blackandpinkpenpals.org. That's how you can sign up to send holiday cards and also sign up for a more longterm pen pal. So all of that information is there. There's tons and tons of information collected over a period of like 15 years about how to be a good pen pal, how to write a good letter, like how to assess if this is something you really want to do. I think a huge part of penpalling is internal work. So undoing societal ideas of what prisons are and who people in prisons are. So there's a lot of information about that too.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.