Prison can be an alienating experience for lesbian and bisexual women. The Bent Bars Collective tells OutNews about the prison penpal network Bent Bars Project.
Bent Bars is a letter-writing project for lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, intersex and queer prisoners in Britain. In its first year, the project has received hundreds of letters; making it a challenging year for the small, independent, volunteer-run collective that started the project. The collective is made up entirely of LGBTQ people, most with previous experience working on both LGBTQI issues and prison issues – yet we just hadn’t realised what level of demand there would be!
“Having a penpal allows gay women in prison that all-important link to the free LGBT world,” admits Sophie, an inside penpal involved in the project. “It also provides an essential sense of solidarity for gay people in an often homophobic environment.”
Every letter brings something new – inspiration, sadness, anger, challenges and frustration, humour and creativity. Each letter makes us more determined to maintain and develop the project. In the first year, we have set up about 50 long-term pen-friendships between those inside and outside prison. This has led to some wonderfully positive and meaningful connections for those involved.
The main focus of the project is simply letter writing, but this has many benefits for all involved. There still continues to be a high proportion of queer, trans and gender non-conforming people in prison, particularly those from poor backgrounds and communities of colour, as a result of the wider picture of inequalities and social exclusion.
We want to develop stronger connections and build links between the LGBTQI communities outside prison and those inside prison walls. For those inside, letters reduce the isolation, harassment and violence and the enhanced impacts of homophobia and transphobia in a cloistered environment. For all of us it can be about a process of exchange: two-way support and inspiration. When it comes to issues such as coming out, relationships, staying safe, negotiating family and social expectations as well as the many other challenges we face in life, we all have a lot we can give each other.
We also work with prisoners to develop resources that can inform and empower. In the autumn, we put together our first newsletter on the subject of coming out in prison, with articles contributed by prisoners involved in the project.
If you are interested in becoming part of the Bent Bars Project we would love to hear from you. The idea of the project is not to match people up romantically, but to create friendships where those involved can support and learn from one another. Guidelines and advice are offered for all penpals to ensure that safety, well-being and confidentiality are all respected.
There are a variety of other ways to get involved: check out our website for ideas: www.co-re.org/joomla/index.php/bent-bars
Alternatively, you can contact us at Bent Bars Project, PO Box 66754, London, WC1A 9BF or firstname.lastname@example.org