For incarcerated members of the LGBTTQ community, Toronto’s Prisoner Correspondence Program sends messages of freedom.
Pink-cheeked and breathless from the cold, at least two of the 10 people who trickled into a room on the third floor of the 519 Community Centre last Sunday asked, “Is this the prison letter-writing thing?” Indeed, it was the first Toronto meeting of the Prison Correspondence Program—an organization charged with connecting marginalized LGBTTQ inmates with LGBTTQ supports on the outside…by mail.
After a brief go-round of introductions by collective member Swathi Sekhar, the 10 attendees were free to begin looking for potential matches, sifting through piles of letters—some scrawled in pencil, some typed—sorted by inmates’ pen pal preferences (“seeking trans woman,” “seeking bi or gay male,” and “general”). Most bore two stamps, suggesting they had travelled a lengthy distance in hopes of a reply.
It wasn’t long before a somewhat obvious concern was presented: What to say? Sekhar advised one young man, a bit wide-eyed, to “say who you are and why you chose them; set out boundaries and expectations, like, ‘I can only write twice a month, tops’; write as much or as little as you want.” She chose her own pen pal for his sense of humour, their similar interests, and his handwriting. His expected date of release is 2030, though she knows there’s a possibility that he won’t get out at all.
As the other participants pored over the stacks of missives, their expressions alternately amused and inquisitive, one of the collective’s members sat alone, jotting notes in her own journal.
Just seven months ago, 28-year-old Leah Henderson was released from Vanier Centre for Women—a medium- and maximum-security facility just south of the 401 in Milton—after completing a 10-month sentence. An anarchist, Henderson plead guilty in November 2011 to counselling others to commit mischief during the G20 summit the previous summer. During her prison term, she, too, received letters from the outside.
“Prison in itself is like living in a small town, so having someone to vent to that’s outside of it about the day-to-day dynamics that are bugging you, or a person that’s really annoying that you have to eat lunch with every day…having that safe place to vent is really important,” says Henderson. “You might talk about people’s kids, or the pets that they miss, or what their dreams are outside of the cage they’re currently in,” she explained. “You can talk about capital ‘P’ politics and also just…your life.”
Henderson still keeps in touch with the pen pals who wrote her letters during her incarceration, the same ones who told her how things would be once she was released. Some of them are out; some are back on the inside.
“Prison is designed to put people away; to isolate people,” says Henderson. “You’re put in a cage and cut off from your friends, family, and community, from the things that nourish you. This program is really about building the idea of support and real relationships.”
Around 4 p.m., many of those who came had selected their letter, and were packing up their stationery to leave. Sekhar told them it could take as long as one to two months to hear back. Even then, there’s the possibility that their envelope could return unopened, bearing the letters “NH,” signifying that their new friend had been transferred to another prison or, better yet, released.