Featured ReportingLatest NewsPrison ProtestSeries: The Abolition Movement

For Black & Pink Organizers, Decarceration Must Grapple With Constant Violence Against LGBTQ+ People

For many people dissenting from the carceral state, namely the policing and prison systems, the act of existing outside of these modes is about the value they place on their life and the lives around them. They say the state fails to give said value and care to much of the country’s population from urban communities of color to poor, white rural pockets of the midwest. And if you’re queer or transgender, it’s tenfold.

“When you’re Black or trans and formerly or currently incarcerated, our culture says you’re disposable,” said Dominique Morgan (they/them). “We’re comfortable engaging in throwing them away because we’ve made it seem like ‘Oh, they chose to not be amongst us. So this is their consequence.’ It’s a false narrative we’ve been sold to dispose of us.”

Morgan is a queer organizer and executive director of Black & Pink, an open family of LGBTQ+ prisoners and free world allies who support each other. They’re a national abolitionist organization dedicated to dismantling the carceral system and the harms caused to LGBTQ+ people and people living with HIV/AIDS. They are building a world without dependence on prisons and policing.

For a national organization with 13 chapters and more than 20,000 members, Morgan’s rise to leadership was far from the norm in the non-profit industrial complex. A decade before Morgan’s ascension, they spent a year and a half in solitary confinement at the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution.

Solitary confinement, isolation within an institution already existing to isolate, is often used as retribution for the most minuscule of things—a tool used to break down incarcerated people.

According to the last data released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2011-12, there are more than 80,000 people in solitary confinement in prisons, jails, and detention centers across the United States.

In 2015, Black & Pink conducted a survey taken by 1,118 incarcerated LGBTQ+ people across the country. They found that 85 percent of respondents had been in solitary confinement at some point during their sentence totaling more than 5,110 years combined.

Beyond the harmful psychological effects of long-term solitary confinement, solitary confinement poses an insidious public safety and community health threat once folks are released.

Much like the hundreds of thousands of formerly incarcerated people re-entering “society” annually, those subjected to the atrocities of solitary confinement are not given the tools to succeed once they’re released. And even when traditional success is afforded to them, there are lingering effects around respectability.

“I’ve been out for 11 years,” added Morgan. “But it took me doing all the right structural things, going to Georgetown and becoming a director, for the world to say ‘okay, you have value again.’ That’s not how this world is supposed to work.”

“It’s about loving each other”

As a result, under Morgan Black & Pink works to center those who have been what they call “system impacted,” and to create an environment where they’re given the value their lives deserve.

System impacted people are those seemingly shoveled into a prison system that inherently perpetuates queer violence by a policing system that disproportionately ends queer lives. This is especially true for Black and Brown LGBTQ+ people, according to Morgan.

“When we see folks who are system impacted, especially young folks, who are looking for safe housing or in need of direct aid, these babies are drowning in all of their needs,” declared Morgan.

“They’re suffocating from the amount of trauma and struggles they’re holding.”

Their 2015 report found that only 52 percent of the survey respondents were living in a home of their own before being incarcerated. In the same vein, their unemployment rate was seven times higher than the national average, nearly two-thirds of respondents’ first arrest occurred before their 18th birthday and less than one-third of respondents completed high school outside of prison.

Following their 2015 national survey, the organization created a report meant to be a tool for organizers, both inside and outside of prisons, to build national and grassroots level campaigns to alleviate the immediate suffering of incarcerated folks and abolish the carceral system while centering the needs of LGBTQ+ prisoners. The tool packet has helped to inform their own work as well.

Black & Pink has various working groups on everything from immigration to decriminalizing sex work. Their Transitions program works to facilitate safe housing for people who are system impacted. The organization also runs a Youth Leadership Institute, not to mention the three programs they are most known for REAP, their pen pal letter-writing group, and Black & Pink News.

REAP stands for “Restore, Embolden, Amplify, Power, and focuses on addressing issues that queer and transgender formerly incarcerated people face when they reenter the community, including increasing access to mental health services, job training, and housing.

The letter-writing group is a life-affirming practice between incarcerated people and folks existing outside of the prison walls. It “reminds people of their inherent value” in a system that can be especially dehumanizing. It also serves as harm reduction inside prisons because it shows that there are people paying attention to an incarcerated person’s wellbeing and reaffirms their feelings of being accepted regardless of their gender and sexuality.

Black & Pink News, which is sent to thousands of incarcerated folks for free, is the only source of outside news for roughly half of the people who receive it inside of prisons. As of lately, they’ve been gathering self-care tips to send to the incarcerated readers through the newspaper.

“It’s about loving each other in spite of all the harm that has been inflicted upon us,” suggested Morgan. “We have to see each other and respect and appreciate the diversity amongst us. Because otherwise, we’re not going to get collective liberation.”

“Abolition and the world-building outside of the carceral system is the only answer”

With the globally catalyzing murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and Tony McDade underscoring thousands of other murders at the hands of U.S. police officers per year, abolition has entered the mainstream consciousness. However, those who have been personally addressing harm in their communities without police and fighting for a world where police aren’t needed, have made it clear to separate the historical call for abolitionist world-making from current calls to defund police.

“Black communities don’t often call the police,” said Morgan. “Those are the remnants of abolition that Black people have always had. That’s something that has been ours and should be our legacy. Even as it has been co-opted and stolen, making it harder for us to navigate our communities and communities around us.”

It’s no surprise that communities that exist outside the confinements of respectability and what is acceptable, like Black Queer and/or transgender communities alike, are forced to work outside of policing for their safety.

Not only does carcerality function as a gendering apparatus, meaning it dictates and enforces sexual and gender conformity under the gender binary, it also creates the conditions where sexual and gender violence thrives. Nearly 50 percent of LGBTQ+ victims of violence report police misconduct and one-in-two Black trans people have been to prison, often as punishment for crimes of survival.

To alleviate LGBTQ+ people’s interactions with police, Black & Pink recommends goals on the short-term, intermediate, and long-term levels. In the short-term, they suggest ending “Quality of Life” policing practices, in which LGBTQ+ people who are disproportionately unhoused, involved in sex trading, and live with mental illness, are criminalized for doing what they need to do to survive.

This means redistributing the billions of dollars spent in local municipalities on policing and prisons, including a hundred billion in funding from the federal government, into safe housing, food sovereignty, and access to green spaces among a plethora of other life-affirming practices, according to Morgan.

To help in this process of mutual aid and wealth redistribution, Black & Pink organizes aid funds and donation zaps like their “Give Out Day.” The money is directly injected into Black and Brown trans communities.

Intermediately they suggest creating addiction treatment‐on‐demand programs, as well as public physical and mental health treatment programs in non‐carceral settings. They understand that the acts of policing and isolation exist outside of traditional carceral modes and that many mental health facilities, public health workers, and social workers use carceral techniques as well.

“People aren’t randomly positioned to be impacted by the carceral state and these carceral systems,” stated Morgan. “There were years of harm positioning them to experience the carceral violence that was enacted against them. And that’s why abolition and the world-building outside of the carceral system is the only answer because otherwise, we’re always going to be chasing our tails.”

“We’re talking about a system and world that wasn’t created for them.”

By eradicating interactions with police, the traumas of prisons and detention centers would cease to exist as well. However,  organizations are needed on both ends of the carceral system to ensure a freer world for LGBTQ+ people, according to Morgan. One organization working on the detention side of the system is the LGBTQ+ Freedom Fund.

Those organizing for LGBTQ+ liberation understand the daunting hold carcerality has on LGBTQ+ bodies and acting outside of carcerality is a key way for them to live with the love and freedom they deserve. LGBTQ+ people are some of the most ‘system impacted’ in the country, so it’s vitally important that the struggle is against the carceral disposition of LGBTQ+ bodies, according to Tremaine Jones, the project director for the LGBTQ+ Freedom Fund.

“It’s very important that we look at ways of making sure that we’re getting LGBTQ+ folks out of jail and immigration detention centers,” declared Jones. “But we must always constantly make sure that we’re building a critical mass insurrection against the incarceration of LGBTQ+ folks.”

The fund is working to build the insurrection, or revolution, against LGBTQ+ incarceration. The fund pays bails to free LGBTQ+ folks from jails and detention centers while raising awareness of the “twin epidemics” LGBTQ+ people are facing, carcerality, and HIV/AIDS.

In Black & Pink’s survey, they found nearly three-quarters of respondents were held in jail before their conviction, more than half of those were detained for a year or more before being convicted of any crime.

Pretrial detainees have a suicide attempt rate that is about 7.5 times higher than the general population. While those with the financial means are released from confinement, those in poverty face only maleficent choices: accept deportation or a guilty plea to get out of jail—often to crimes they didn’t commit.

“The bail system is not a system that is set up for equity,” stated Jones. “It’s a system that perpetuates poverty and, unfortunately, without it people are taking horrible routes just to get out of prison and jail conditions.”

In addition to bailing detainees, they connect people to legal, social, and medical support systems as well as doing on-site HIV rapid testing and counseling, pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) linkage, and condom distribution.

Freedom Fund staffer Gabby Mahabeer (they/them) believes on-site connections are the best part of the job, it’s about creating a world where LGBTQ+ are affirmed rather than punished, especially where the organization is based in Florida. Of the more than 75 reported murders of transgender or gender non-conforming people since 2018, about one in seven were in Florida.

“When we’re talking about LGBTQ+ people, especially LGBTQ+ folks of color, we’re talking about a system and world that wasn’t created for them,” contended Mahabeer. “It’s a world that is set up to have them fail and cycle through a system of terror.”

As Mahabeer described, the Freedom Fund builds a “path towards recently incarcerated lives being valued” through their different programs, but most importantly by building relationships.  And at its core, that is what abolition is; It’s about building a new, free world for everyone just as much as it’s about ridding the world of carceral violence.

“So many people just don’t get the support they need. All they want is relief,” concluded Jones. “There’s a level of violence that the state enforces against people and just by doing something as simple as building relationships we’re combatting that.”

Adam Mahoney

Adam Mahoney

Adam Mahoney has reported from Chicago, Palestine, Uganda, and Vietnam on all things that affect Black and Brown lives. You can follow him on Twitter @AdamLMahoney.