They won’t be home for Christmas

Between one-third and one-half of women in prison self-identify as lesbian or bisexual.

Despite Omicron and Delta variants converging in a perfect storm of surging COVID-19 cases, the nation is still bustling with holiday cheer. Malls are packed with last-minute shoppers still hoping for bargains that have been elusive as retailers try to recoup from last year’s lockdowns. A spate of gorgeous and unseasonably warm climate-change weather has made outdoor spaces, such as the Christmas Village at Love Park, a focal point for shoppers and browsers who want the enjoyment of holiday shopping without the fear of indoor malls among the maskless and anti-vaxxers. 

More than two million Americans are flying each day, heading to holiday get-togethers with family. But for America’s 2.19 million incarcerated people, the holidays are the grimmest time of year. Separated from partners, family and children, incarcerated people often spiral into depression, with suicides in prison most frequent during the holidays.

For weeks I have been researching and reporting on LGBTQ people in America’s prisons. While about 10 percent of men in prison self-identify as gay, I have focused on why there are so many lesbian, bi and trans women in prison and the stunning rise of incarceration among women in recent years. Between one-third and one-half of women in prison self-identify as lesbian or bisexual, suggesting that women are being imprisoned because they are queer.

Evie Litwok, founder and Executive Director of Witness to Mass Incarceration (WMI), thinks there will be more and more women in prison–particularly if Roe v. Wade is overturned.

Litwok told PGN that while she’s “in no way a conspiracy theorist,” she is succinct: “I think men are using prison to get rid of women.”

She points to the latest law in Texas — which the U.S. Supreme Court has refused to stay on several occasions — which offers a $10,000 bounty on women who have abortions. I wrote about that law here in September.

Litwok says, “They are going to criminalize miscarriages,” and in fact, former Vice President Mike Pence did just that as governor of Indiana, as I detailed a few years ago.

Even abortion pills are being made illegal in many states. And, Litwok points out, political prisoners who are women get more jail time and less media attention than their male counterparts. Consider the number of celebrities who have championed Julian Assange versus Reality Winner or even Chelsea Manning.

For most women, it’s not politics but lack of access that puts them behind bars. Many women in correctional facilities enter with histories of poverty, unemployment, drug abuse, and physical abuse or violence, which all contribute to high rates of trauma and physical and mental health issues. Histories with homophobia and transphobia are also contributing factors.

My own experiences with the criminal justice system began when I was arrested for the first time at 13 and continued over a period of three years. Those arrests were directly tied to my being gay, and I while I could have ended up in prison for an extended period, I didn’t.

Instead I worked in prisons and halfway houses as a literacy instructor during and after college. According to Begin to Read, “More than 60 percent of all prison inmates are functionally illiterate. Penal institution records show that inmates have a 16% chance of returning to prison if they receive literacy help, as opposed to 70% who receive no help.”

We are putting illiterate people in prison instead of teaching them.

Also, 85 percent of all juveniles who interface with the juvenile court system are functionally illiterate. Between 20 and 40 percent of juveniles in the criminal justice system self-identify as LGBTQ, with the highest numbers being lesbian and trans kids.

As Nadia Martinez and Pat Ryan both told me for this series, it’s hard to learn when you are in and out of the criminal justice system. Ryan, who, like me, was first arrested in a gay bar raid at 13th and Locust as a teenager, told me she didn’t get her GED until she was in her late 30s. Ryan said she didn’t have a “real” job that gave her a legitimate paycheck until she was 40. 

Martinez told me that when she was in prison, she was one of the few women who could read and write with any facility. She was often paid by other inmates to write letters for them. The holidays were particularly hard for other women, she said, and she was often tasked with writing Christmas letters to the children of fellow inmates.

Reporting this series has not been easy, nor has it been without emotional impact. Too much of what some of these women told me resonated as my own early experience, making it more stark for me as a journalist about how I barely missed their fate. Like several of the women I interviewed, I was homeless briefly at different points in my teens and 20s due to being gay and estranged from my family of origin. 

As a 15-year-old chronic truant and runaway, I was adjudicated “incorrigible,” and narrowly escaped being sentenced to an extended period in the Youth Study Center. Instead, I was sentenced to enforced psychiatric treatment and put on a “watch” at my high school, escorted from class to class by the assistant principal who stood outside the bathroom stall if I had to use the restroom. 

It was years before I realized how punitive and dehumanizing that experience was or thought about how I was targeted for being gay.

Still, I escaped prison. And while I was eventually expelled at 16 from my high school for being a lesbian and spent time in a local mental hospital for conversion therapy, I survived and went on to college and to a career as a journalist and writer.

Yet my own experiences at the fringes of the criminal justice system made me acutely aware of how fortunate I was to escape — and how many other young butch dykes like me were not.

As Christmas looms, I am thinking about all the queer teens who are in detention right now and all the women who committed a property crime or did survival sex who are incarcerated.

PGN is doing a public service in running this series. Despite the summer of 2020 putting criminal justice in a glaring spotlight, LGBTQ people in prison never was raised as an issue.

We are raising it. I would urge you to read my series and listen to the voices of these queer, bi and trans women as they explain how they landed in prison. And do what you can do to help keep others from the same fate.

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Victoria A. Brownworth is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, DAME, The Advocate, Bay Area Reporter and Curve among other publications. She was among the OUT 100 and is the author and editor of more than 20 books, including the Lambda Award-winning Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic and Ordinary Mayhem: A Novel, and the award-winning From Where They Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth and Too Queer: Essays from a Radical Life.