Prisoner Activism That Works


I was recently asked how incarcerated people in Washington state managed to get access to gender affirming clothing. Well, the answer to that is a little bigger than the one issue, but I figured I should answer it as completely as possible.
We didn’t just try and fight each issue as an individual thing, instead, we focused on building an network of support both in and out of the prison to support us in advocating for our various needs. Also, we used what I call a venn-diagram philosophy to the issues we raised. If you draw two overlapping circles, the one on the left can represent the issues of incarcerated cis people, and the one on the right the issues of incarcerated trans people. A vast majority of the issues trans people face in prison are shared in some way with cis people and go in the middle part where the two circles overlap. Cis people may deal with them to a lesser degree, and the details may be different, but there is much overlap. We fight for all the trans issues, just keeping in mind, cis people also need to (for example) safely shower with dignity.

First up was getting our own house in order. We created “LGBTQ study and discussion groups” in multiple prisons throughout the state, which we used to get educated, focused, and organized. There are a lot of Toastmasters clubs in Washington prisons. They have an excellent leadership training program which taught us the skills of how to create such groups, with a board who is accountable to the membership, committee chairs, project managers, an achievable list of goals and activities and all that good stuff. I highly recommend signing up for Toastmasters. The monthly dues are well worth it. It’s a lot of fun and public speaking skills always come in handy.

We reached out to Disability Rights Washington, who is a watchdog organization whose job is to come into the prison and make sure incarcerated people with disabilities are getting their needs met. By framing many of our issues as being a part of medical treatment for Gender Dysphoria, we were able to have their support (and the leverage that comes with). We also reached out to queer anarchists in the state and they set up a local chapter of Black and Pink. Never underestimate the power of having some crazy awesome protester friends who are happy to do a phone zap when prison officials are misbehaving. These groups, along with the prison’s education department, have been an excellent source of sponsors for our study and discussion group. A huge part is a few select individuals on the outside who have really carried (and continue to carry) a lions share of the outside work and helped keep everyone’s efforts organized and focused.

Once we had this foundation in place, we were able to have letter writing events through our LGBTQ study group which was coordinated with our outside allies calling and writing letters. We’d write the governor, members of the state legislature, and other interest groups. We invited these people to our study and discussion groups to educate them on our issues. We also reached out to administration and the prison guards union and invited them to come to the meetings as well, though with much less success.

Our biggest arguments were straight out of the WPATH standards, and we used examples of other states who’ve already created trans friendly policies. We’d get their policies and use them as a jump off point for our proposals to the WA DOC.
This holistic approach, utilizing both radical and assimilationist strategies, continues to serve us well as we push to get our needs met.


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