Prison can be a lonely, dangerous place. The dangers can be greatly magnified for an LGBT identified person — sexual assault and gay bashings are not uncommon occurrences. Help is often not forthcoming.
A person's spirit can be broken inside prison walls. Therefore, communication with the outside world can offer a glimmer of hope, a reminder that a better life can still be lived. Lee Young, a journalist from the Midwest, runs Gay Prisoners USA so as to help gay, bisexual and transgender prisoners connect with people on the outside. Young chats with SFGN about his website.
What inspired you to launch Gay Prisoners USA?
I guess it all started out many years back when I wrote a couple of Missouri inmates who had placed ads in the local alternative newspaper seeking pen pals. I was never seeking anything more than friendship. A few years passed and I felt I should do something more with my computer equipment and skills than just travel the Internet highway. That was more than ten years ago: I decided pen pals for gay inmates was almost nonexistent on the internet. What better way to be productive, develop web skills and at the same time serve, in some small capacity, my fellow man. Since then GPUSA has been a work in progress.
How do you make the initial contacts with the prisoners and the pen-pals?
In the beginning it involved stealing addresses on other pen pal sites of gay inmates. You have to start somewhere even if it involves a bit of larceny — that process ended years ago. There is the old saying that the best advertising is word of mouth and that certainly works for GPUSA. There is no better grapevine in the world than the one in prison. Every week there will be 15-20 requests for an application to join GPUSA. It is our policy not to get involved in the interaction concerning an inmate, who he is writing or if he has a problem with the prison mail-room staff. There would be no more slippery slope than for us to get involved in a menage-a-trois.
How are the prisoners and the pen pals matched up?
GPUSA does not have a process of matching inmates to compatible pen pals. A prospective pen pal finds someone on the site he might like and writes him a letter — that's how the "process" begins. We have no interaction in what happens from that point forward.
Are there any instances you can share where pen pals/prisoners might have become real life friends, or more, after the prisoner is released?
I'll direct you to the Thanks page on GPUSA. You will find positive comments from many of the site's former users, including from some who say they've formed close and/or loving friendships. Beyond what's on the page we don't get involved.
What challenges do gay-bi-trans prisoners face that are specific to their sexual/gender identity and what can be done to make things better?
It's no secret that being in jail or prisons can, but not always, pose a threat to life and limb. I suspect that it's more true when it comes to kids who are incarcerated as adults and those who are pretty boys. As I understand it, there are generally two paths for them to follow: ally yourself with a protector or opt for administrative segregation. Neither option is the better path. With a protector the inmate can become somewhat of a slave and be sold, traded or borrowed for sex. While in administrative segregation you don't have to worry about the sexual abuse, just the boredom and loneliness.
Other abuse may be suffered at the hands of prison staff who may look the other way or even participate in the sexual abuse.
This comes from what I've heard from inmates — I have no direct knowledge. Federal legislation in the past has curbed some of that abuse. But where there's a will, there's a way. I'm afraid abuse will never be fully eliminated from this country's prison system.
Is there a fee for your service?
It started out as a free service for both web visitors and prisoners. It wasn't too long before I realized that prison inmate scammers were descending on the site. After dumping the free option, we started charging $10 in stamps because U.S. postage stamps are real money in the prison system. That option lasted for a number of years until higher operating costs prevailed and we moved to accepting only money for a membership — $10 for regular membership and $25 for premiere membership. Details of the memberships can be found at the site. I felt that since the inmate is likely getting the most benefit that they should be the ones to pay the freight and not the web visitor.
Anything you'd like to add?
Never, ever under any circumstances approach inmates (or for that matter anyone at the gay bar) with the attitude that I'm going to find Mr. Right today. You will surely be disappointed.
Gay Prisoners site: www.GayPrisoners.net