A Philadelphia group that unites transgender and gender-variant people living both inside and outside of prison walls got a vote of confidence — and a financial boost — from a local social-justice agency.Bread & Roses Community Fund awarded Hearts on a Wire Collective a $2,000 grant as part of its Phoebus Criminal Justice Initiative, a donor-advised fund launched in 2000 that also awarded grants to 11 other area groups working on criminal-justice causes.
Hearts on a Wire was founded in 2007, when a group of trans and gender-variant people came together to send Valentine’s Day cards to T/GV people who were in prisons. From that initial gathering, a conversation was sparked about the issues facing T/GV populations both during and after incarceration.
“We started having a discussion about how prison work needs to include trans and gender-variant people, and how the people and organizations working on trans and gender-variant issues also need to be thinking about the people in prisons,” said Collective member Adrian Lowe. “We wanted to start bridging that gap.”
In the past few years, the Collective’s ranks have swollen to include a diverse group of T/GV people whose lives have in some way been affected by the prison system.
Lowe said the group is ultimately striving to have fewer members of the community incarcerated for what the group calls survival crimes — such as prostitution or drug infractions. Until that time, however, the Collective is working to improve the prison conditions faced by the T/GV population.
“One of the main things is housing, because often trans and gender-variant people are placed according to what it says on their birth certificate, regardless of what they look like, what surgeries they may have had, how they live,” Lowe said. “So they’re often placed in an inappropriate prison and then the prison’s strategy for protecting them is to isolate them. Some people may want that because that’s how they feel safest, but many others do not. And those who are incarcerated have very little say about it.”
The challenges facing this population were outlined in a comprehensive report the Collective released last year, “This is a Prison, Glitter is Not Allowed.” The document includes a survey of nearly 60 T/GV people who were currently or formerly incarcerated in area facilities and explores the conditions they faced, from housing to healthcare and everything in between.
“The work they’re doing is amazing, and they’re the only ones doing it,” said Bread & Roses executive director Casey Cook. “As the prison industrial complex continues to grow, and because of profiling activities on the part of police, we’re seeing more and more transgender and gender-variant people being locked up.”
Cook called the group’s report “astounding” and said the way in which the group operates also caught the attention of the funders.
“They’re a collective so they have shared decision-making processes and really believe that true leadership comes from people who are most affected by the problem,” she said. “In that way, the kind of change they’re making is really the most sustainable.”
The Collective’s current campaign centers on making the items available on the prison commissary non-gender-segregated.
Lowe explained that certain undergarments and cosmetics are accessible in women’s prisons but not in men’s, where some female-identified prisoners may be housed.
“If it’s on the commissary list already, it’s not a weapon, so there’s no security reason that it wouldn’t be allowed,” Lowe said. “Right now women in men’s prisons are getting institutional infractions and sent to ‘the hole’ for wearing eye makeup if they’ve found a way to do so. Something like eye makeup may seem trivial, but it has to do with people’s abilities to express themselves, to feel real.”
Hearts on a Wire is an all-volunteer organization, and its members meet most of its expenses from their own pockets.
The group sends copies of last year’s report free of charge to any inmates who request one, but each individual mailing costs about $4.
Lowe said the Bread & Roses funding is an “enormous” gift, which the Collective will use to cover aspects such as postage and printing of its newsletter.
Cook said Hearts on a Wire and the other grantees are each working on a separate and important piece of the complex effort to reform the criminal-justice system.
“There’s a clear school-to-prison pipeline where young people don’t graduate from high school and don’t have job opportunities and end up in prison. That begins a vicious cycle,” she said. “And then there’s the way people are treated on the inside: We see it with health-care needs for people with HIV/AIDS and how trans and gender-variant people are treated. There is a lot of work that needs to be done and that’s exactly what this partnership between Phoebus Criminal Justice Initiative and Bread & Roses is trying to do.”
To access Hearts on a Wire’s petition regarding nondiscrimination in the commissary list, visit www.change.org/petitions/pennsylvania-department-of-corrections-allow-people-necessary-items-in-prison-regardless-of-their-sex-or-gender