Mutual Aid in Omaha: Black & Pink Pen Pal Program

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Hannah Michelle Bussa
NEWS EDITOR

Black & Pink’s pen pal program includes a holiday card campaign, working to send cards to 19,000 incarcerated pen pals. This year’s official card was designed by Tiana Conyers. Photo courtesy of Black & Pink via Instagram.

Omaha has various mutual aid organizations across the city working on different projects and issues. This is an ongoing column featuring some of these organizations and the work they do.

Black & Pink is a prison abolitionist organization based in Omaha, focused on liberating LGBTQIA2S+ people and people living with HIV/AIDS affected by the criminal punishment system. They coordinate a nationwide pen pal program that matches incarcerated members with pen pals.

Andrea Kszystyniak, Members Support Coordinator for Black & Pink, became a pen pal a few years ago, after a friend shared their experience.

“I have always really loved sending and receiving mail and initially, that was the extent of my involvement,” they said. “Through my relationships with those inside, I was quickly pulled into a deeper understanding of incarceration, the criminal punishment system and the abolition movement and began to see pen palling as a vital way to build movements that stretch beyond prison walls.”

Kszystyniak said Black & Pink’s pen pal program began in 2005 in Boston.

“The program was founded by Jason Lydon and was at the time, an explicitly anarchist project,” they said. “Jason had come home from time inside and began writing letters to his former roommate. Word rapidly spread that if you wrote a letter to Jason, he would write back. So, Jason began receiving tons of letters from those inside, far more than he could ever personally reply to. He soon began spreading these letters out to his friends. That was the informal start of a program that now includes roughly 20,000 inside members looking for outside pen pals to write to.”

Kszystyniak said the pen pal program is a mutual aid program. They define mutual aid as being built on an understanding that the existing systems and individuals in power will never give people what they need to survive and thrive because those systems are invested in holding power, privilege and capital.

“Mutual aid efforts are established with the understanding that we must collaboratively work together to meet our needs,” they said. “The primary function of prison is to take an individual, isolate them, strip them of all of their power and agency and then gradually break them down. Prison is designed to eliminate hope. Pen paling helps to restore hope and community and to remind folks inside that there are people outside who care for them, even if they have been abandoned by friends, family, communities. For Black & Pink’s inside pen pals, many are at increased risk of violence inside because of their identities as LGBTQIA2S+ people, people living with HIV/AIDS, etc. Letter writing helps to protect them from harm by showing prison staff and other folks inside that someone outside is watching and caring for them.”

They said abolition movements are also guided by the needs of those inside. Without the guidance from those experiencing the harms of prison, abolition movements are unable to work to dismantle the prison industrial complex.

“Mutual aid is the only way I feel able to impact my surroundings and build solidarity with those in my community,” Kszystyniak said. “Mutual aid work is my hope.”

They said mutual aid is important because systems of power intentionally create deficits to exploit those with less access to privilege, power and capital.

“We are then isolated and siloed by these same systems of power and forced to compete for what little resources exist,” they said. “Mutual aid breaks through that isolation and shows that when we collaborate, we have all we need and also, we have the power to take back what we deserve from those with power. A lot of my understanding of mutual aid comes from abolitionists such as Dean Spade and Mariame Kaba and both have written extensively about the topic and its role in prison abolition and many other movements.”

Champ Champenstein got involved with the pen pal program after a friend of theirs talked about it a lot.

“They talked about how much it meant to them, and how it changed their life,” they said. “I had been wanting to get involved in something to make a change but wasn’t sure how to do that. After hearing more about Black & Pink being a pen pal seemed like the best choice for me. I reached out to my friend for help, and they connected me with my pen pal.”

Champenstein said being a pen pal has completely changed their life.

“Talking to someone on the inside changes how you view the world around you,” they said. “I try to appreciate and take in every moment, knowing that later my pen pal will want to hear about it. Sometimes I will comment that something I’ve said is boring and my pen pal reminds me that he is deprived even those little boring moments we all take for granted. It has made me seek out and understand abolition, and what that can mean for the world around us. How hard it would be to break that system, but how beneficial it could be for every single person. It has also made me painfully aware of the dangers that LGBTQ+ people face within the prison industrial complex, being told that my pen pal is being put into AdSeg (solitary) for their own safety, even though solitary has been proven to be harmful for an individual’s mental state. Or just the constant fights and harassment that he goes through that I hear about. I wish more people were willing to listen to those who were on the inside, because they would learn a lot.”

Champenstein’s pen pal is Cho’ZeN1. He shared a bit about his story and the pen pal program in a video call with Champenstein.

Cho’ZeN1 said he learned about the pen pal program about six years ago, when he was still “on the low.” A friend of his told him about it and encouraged him to write to Black & Pink. After about two years, he did.

“Once I did, I’ve actually been glad ever since,” he said. “Actually, I’ve been open ever since too.”

Cho’ZeN1 said the pen pal program has meant “everything” to him. During his incarceration, he didn’t come out on his own, someone outed him.

“I was hurt, and I was down, but my pen pal came through,” he said.

He said his first pen pal came in at the perfect time. He said the pen pal program is important for those outside of prison as well.

He said there are a lot of people in prison who are afraid to open up, so people outside should find ways to get involved with those who are incarcerated.

“Also, for those who are outside, there’s more than just writing people,” he said.

He said to look into the areas where people are as well. For example, he said the prison he is in is not necessarily homophobic, but it is not gay-friendly.

“A lot of things have been going on inside the system that we try to have a voice about, but we have no one to voice it to,” he said. “So if you really are for us and with us, then help us.”

He said to listen, and if you can’t help, put it out there for other people to hear.

Cho’ZeN1 said the pen pal program letters can make his day.

“It brings a smile to my face — not only when I hear my name being called, but when I hear my brothers’ and/or sisters’ names being called,” he said.

He said when one of his friends got his first letter, he was ecstatic, he was so happy for him.

“It means a lot,” he said. “Trust me, it means a lot to an inmate who is incarcerated.”

He said some of the people he knows inside have family, but some don’t. Being able to have conversations with people, especially people who understand how to refer to them using the correct pronouns and are on their level, can mean a lot. It can also help him remember what it is like to be on the outside and help him want to get home.

“Being Muslim and being gay is so hard in the prison system, so sometimes I feel alone,” he said. “But being able to look at pictures, reread letters — it reminds me that you have friends and or family out there to get home to. “

Cho’ZeN1 said Black & Pink has definitely changed his life.

Susannah Vee is another person involved with the pen pal program.  She said several things drew her to become a pen pal through Black & Pink.

“The biggest impetus was my work in mental health advocacy the last several years,” she said. “I’m a survivor of childhood abuse and sexual assault, and peer-based support groups have been fundamental to my recovery from the mental health issues such trauma inevitably causes. As I gained insight and strength, I sought to give back as a peer leader and advocate — and that eventually led me to reaching out to people currently incarcerated.”

Before her involvement in the pen pal program, she said she felt she could have ended up in the criminal justice system as a result of her complex PTSD and related issues, if it weren’t for certain advantages she’d had along the way.

“Other people didn’t necessarily have access to the same privileges that saved me and that’s profoundly unfair,” she said.

When she retired as a teacher a few years ago, she had the time to reach out to people in prison. She said many, if not all, people in prison also experienced abuse, violence and other forms of trauma in their lives, which directly or indirectly led them on a path that ended with incarceration.

“I find it unacceptable that as a society we label these people as monsters or worthless, lock them up and happily forget about them — especially considering a disproportionate amount are people of color,” she said.

Vee said it can feel overwhelming to try to change the whole U.S. criminal justice system, but the pen pal program she knew was one thing she could do to make a small difference, even if it was just to brighten someone’s day.

“What I didn’t realize when I started was how much the program would benefit me,” she said.

After retiring from teaching, she said she felt lost at times. Writing regularly to her pen pals, occasionally helping them with education or paperwork, gave her purpose in her life again.

Vee now lives in a remote area of Germany. She said she has felt homesick for the United States, and at times, lonely — especially during the pandemic. However, the regular letters and emails from pen pals back home have helped her fight that feeling of isolation.

“I’ve also definitely struggled less with my own mental health issues since starting the program, and my penpals and I often exchange messages of support when one or the other of us is feeling low,” she said. “I look to each of them as role models of perseverance and determination, to not only survive the daily horrors of prison life with dignity intact, but to rise above all the trauma in their lives and use the opportunity to change, grow, get ahead.”

She said actually getting to know people with a history of even violent crime has helped her become a more forgiving person in her own life as a survivor of violence and crime, after hearing their stories and seeing how they have struggled and changed.

“It is a great gift to be released from much of the anger and fear I carried with me so long,” she said.

One of her pen pals, Joanna Nixon, is an older transgender woman artist in the California prison system. Vee met her through ABO Comics, a partner of Black & Pink that publishes artwork made by incarcerated people.

Of the pen pal program, Nixon said: “What is the point of breathing without this person outside looking in giving compassionate companionship?”

Another pen pal of Vee’s, who goes by T, said, “the program has been a blessing, especially in a time in my life when I needed it the most.”

Vee said this program is important.

“There are many, many people out there in prison who would benefit greatly from someone taking the time to get to know them,” she said.

Black & Pink is currently working on their holiday card campaign to ensure that every inside member of Black & Pink gets a message of love each holiday season. Kszystyniak said the holidays can be an isolating time for everyone, but most especially for those inside. Black & Pink is tasking the community with writing cards to their 20,000 inside members to remind them that they are loved, cared for and thought about each day.

“Community members can sign up to send holiday cards or for a year-round pen pal at blackandpinkpenpals.org,” Kszystyniak said. “Profiles of roughly 20,000 individuals are available for perusal there.”

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