The past year has revealed gaping holes in already failing systems around the country, with people in prisons and jails being especially neglected, hidden away by a system designed to dehumanize. Black And Pink NYC, a regional chapter under the national Black and Pink organization, is a volunteer-run abolitionist group working to liberate and support incarcerated LGBTQ+ folks and people with HIV/AIDS. Founded in 2014, the chapter now has about 125 inside members who are incarcerated throughout New York, with eight core organizers on the outside and a team of regular volunteers. They connect pen pals, provide coming home support, host holiday card campaigns, and redistribute money to commissary funds, among other projects.
I spoke with organizers Madelyn, Tanya N., and Jennifer Love about what the pandemic has revealed about the prison industrial complex, and what people can do to build collective solidarity.
Mai Tran: How has COVID affected your group’s work and ongoing projects?
Madelyn: Mail processing has been completely changed because we went virtual and had to create a new front-end interface that didn’t rely on organizers handing physical letters. We’re still working out the kinks in those systems, but one of the benefits is that a lot of people who were unable or could only semi-regularly attend mail-processing events prior to the pandemic now can because of the virtual option. We’ve opened up the chapter mail processing to a wider audience and created a lot of new systems with accessibility in mind, moving forward.
Tanya N.: With our more accessible virtual mail processing, we found a way to not do everything through JPay, which is the profiteering online prison mail system. We’ve also been seeing some other really inspiring organizing for mutual aid, like the Free Them All 2020 campaign and other abolitionist efforts. We have also had multiple members who were incarcerated and got released during the height of the pandemic, or a couple months before. We’ve been building out our coming home support, and it’s a whole different process trying to look for housing during a pandemic, fighting with the city’s Human Resources Administration for benefits, and making sure people can get food when they might be immunocompromised or can’t get around.
Jennifer Love: Pre-COVID, our inside members already had a fight on their hands. Now, it’s even worse. By the time we get a letter from someone reaching out to us, they could be on an incubator. So many of them have reached out for help with a couple of letters, because they aren’t being properly cared for during COVID. A lot of people didn’t even count incarcerated people as a factor. It felt like we were the only ones who were listening to them, and making calls for them and making sure their voices were heard and their needs were being respected. Officers and staff members don’t want to humanize them and acknowledge that they are vulnerable people, and they’re not the ones out here walking around without a mask on. If any incarcerated person gets COVID, they got it from staff and officers who brought it into the prison or jail.
Tanya N.: So much has changed in our programming and in the rise of inside members who’ve had it so hard. A couple of our inside members died, and it’s really awful to go to a person’s address change and see on the DOCCS (Department of Corrections and Community Supervision) website that their status is found deceased, and that’s how we find out. That’s when pen pals come together and give each other mutual aid and emotional support, but it’s just constant, the terrors of the prison-industrial complex.
Jennifer Love: As a formerly incarcerated person, when I received letters from loved ones, even if they weren’t a page long, it meant the world to me. It made me feel important. It made me feel thought of. And when I write back, and you write back again, that’s one of the only things that kept you feeling human.
Mai Tran: With COVID and the protests over the summer, I think a lot more people are now aware of mutual aid and prison abolition. Did that have any impact on the support your group has been receiving?
Tanya N.: We have gotten more followers and an influx of people emailing our inbox, saying “how can I help?” In March, we put on a virtual pen pal webinar to accommodate some of that. It was great to see the increased interest. We got a record amount of online donations in June, but then the next month, it was back down to normal levels. It’s great that people are giving money, but redistribution shouldn’t be something you do once out of white guilt and then not again. It’s an ongoing thing.
It’s also important to do the reading and politically educate yourself and the people around you, because abolition is now a more popularly known term and concept, but we can’t let it turn into a buzzword. Abolition isn’t just going to protests, which is a really important direct action, but also actively prefiguring the world we want and creating social relations to starve the institutions that otherwise cage and torture people. One way of doing that is a pen pal relationship, like Jennifer was talking about.
That’s the solidarity work that we need to function. We’re helping each other. It is a family of people. Recently, we had a connect to get free furniture from a place that gives furniture to nonprofits, because one of our organizers finally found a new home and was able to move in. I told them the organizer would be picking it up with a driver, and the person on the other end was like, “can we actually not have clients go to the appointment, because this is a customer-facing business?” But what is a client? This person, who was recently incarcerated, is a central organizer in what we do. So that dichotomy between clients and a service provider is totally against what our organizing is about. We’re not social workers or a charity, we’re in this together for collective purposes.
Madelyn: One of the reasons why I love doing mail processing is it’s a really wonderful way to enact a lot of the things that Tanya’s talking about immediately, and Jennifer also mentioned how impactful receiving letters in any capacity can be. It’s responding to a solidarity request. It’s community-based and breaks down a carceral concept of charity, because you’re working with people who were inside members and now are out, or outside members who are just learning about what it means to be an abolitionist.
Mai Tran: Do you have any projects you hope to expand in the future, or goals for the chapter?
Jennifer: We have the Jen Love Project, which provides welcome home packages for LGBTQ+ people coming home from prisons and jails. Currently, I only service New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts, with plans in the coming year to expand services to other locations.
Tanya N.: We are also fundraising for commissary funds. We’re halfway to our goal of $30,000. We’re always accepting contributions and two of our other organizers are launching that in the new year, to give $75 every quarter to each of our inside members. In the past, we didn’t have the budget to send money directly to people; we had done solidarity packages. But with the money we have, we can at least send $15 to everybody so that they can go to commissary and buy soap or food, because the cafeteria and everyone is in lockdown.