On Thursday, May 30th, the Santa Barbara Democratic Socialists of America (SBDSA) and UCSB Young Democratic Socialists of America hosted a Prison Solidarity Night at Merton Co-op to raise awareness and stand in solidarity with LGBTQ+ inmates.
The event centered on writing personalized letters to currently incarcerated queer inmates, with the goal of informing prisoners that they have not been forgotten, still matter, and have allies and supporters outside of prison.
“Incarceration is a way of completely isolating someone and making them be a forgotten person,” said Zach Blumenstein in an interview with The Bottom Line. Blumenstein was Vice Chair of the SBDSA during the 2018-2019 school year, and is a UCSB graduate.
“What we are trying to do here tonight is to begin to reverse that process,” Blumenstein stated, referring to how prisoners are made invisible in the eyes of society and are cast out if it through incarceration.
The event was carried out in coordination with Black and Pink, an organization whose mission is to abolish the “criminal punishment system” and “liberate” LGBTQ+ individuals currently incarcerated.
As part of its mission to end incarceration, Black and Pink coordinates a nationwide pen pals program, matching inmates with pen pals to help build relationships that will give inmates affirmation and reduce their risk of self-harm.
“I think this work is very important, making sure queer prisoners have the ability to communicate with people on the outside and know that there are people out there supporting them,” said Harri Ashby, who was a fourh-year environmental studies major at the time of this article’s writing.
Black and Pink states on its website that for LGBTQ+ inmates, having a pen pal can be helpful for their mental wellbeing, and provides them with a support network outside of prison
“Queer inmates are the absolutely worse off on average,” Blumenstein said of the queer inmate experience. “Often trans folk are housed according to their gender of birth rather than gender of choice[and]queer people in general are subject to abuse.”
According to a 2014 survey of 1,118 inmates conducted by Black and Pink, LGBTQ+ inmates were six times more likely to be sexually assaulted than the general prison population.
On the impact letter writing can have on inmates, Blumenstein notes that there is research that shows that it reduces recidivism.
WriteAPrisoner.com, a website dedicated to creating pen pal relationships between inmates and individuals outside of prison, cites research that shows that inmates who maintain communication with friends and family while in prison are less likely to commit more crimes and more likely to pursue educational and work opportunities.
With the current prison population sitting at 2.3 million people, there have been increased calls for criminal justice reform. There have also been calls to end mass incarceration, which refers to the rapid growth of the prison population in the United States over the past few decades.
Blumenstein expressed some reservations about recent reforms to the criminal justice system, such as the CA 2018 bail reform that eliminated cash bail. He critiqued the reform for giving judges a lot of discretion in determining if a defendant can be free while awaiting their trial.
Despite these misgivings Blumenstein is hopeful that the movement to reform the criminal justice system will continue to grow. He cited the 2018 U.S Prison strike, where inmates protested inhumane conditions in U.S prisons, as evidence that there is desire for reform.
Blumenstein believes UCSB students should care about prison solidarity because prisons are treated as “sinkholes” for poor and disempowered members of society.
“We need to get together and say that that is not an acceptable solution,” Blumenstein said. “And that the solution should be that everyone deserves to get an education and have a roof over their head.”
The next letter-writing session will be Oct. 6 at 3 pm, To get involved, you can visit http://bit.ly/ydsa-prison-solidarity.