Prison can be an alienating experience for lesbian and bisexual women. Cecilia tells g3 about the Bent Bars Project prison penpal network.
“The Bent Bars Project has been a great source of help and info … Having a penpal allows gay women in prison that all important link to the free LGBT world. It also provides an essential place of solidarity for gay people in an often homophobic environment!” – Sophie, inside penpal involved with the 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 letters from hundreds of prisoners; 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!
Every letter brings something new – inspiration, sadness and 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 quite simply letter writing, but this has many benefits for all involved. There still continues to be a disproportionate number 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 LGBTQI communities outside prison and those inside prison walls. For those inside it can be about reducing the isolation, harassment and violence and the increased impacts of homophobia and transphobia. For all of us it can be about a process of exchange: two way support and inspiration. When it comes to issues around coming out, relationships, staying safe, negotiating around family and social expectations as well as 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 safety, well-being and confidentiality is 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