Dr. Jillian T. Weiss

Comment of the Week: Yasmin Nair on Finding Freedom In Prison

Filed By Dr. Jillian T. Weiss | May 22, 2011 7:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, Site News
Tags: prison-industrial complex, prisoner correspondence project, Steve Mason, Yasmin Nair

On guest blogger Steve Mason's post Finding Freedom In Prison (No I Don't Mean Jesus), discussing his time as a young incarcerated queer man, his experience of anti-gay violence there, closeting, and the freedom he experienced after coming out in prison. A number of Projectors posted supportive comments, but others criticized his brief mention of the fact that he received no helpful response to his requests for resources directed at some major LGBT orgs, and others wondered openly about why Mason is in prison and his trustworthiness.

Yasmin Nair left several comments on these topics, the most salient of which was this:

I find it curious that he's being painted here as some kind of scheming liar or at least as someone with a "grudge," and below, in others' comments, as someone who wanted to be a "spokesperson" - which is a blatant lie; he was merely asking for resources. What, exactly, does a man who is out as queer in jail, probably the worst kind of category to be in, have to gain by lying about all this?

For anyone interested, Regina Kunzel's book, "Criminal Intimacy: Prison and the Uneven History of Modern American Sexuality," provides a fascinating history of how the LGBTQ community has, since the 1970s onwards, gradually turned its back on queer prisoners. What's really fascinating is that queer prison correspondence projects once proliferated as Gay Liberationists took it up on themselves to establish solidarity with their brethren in jail. Today, apparently, even the ACLU can't be bothered to have even the *names* of prisoner support programs?

Lastly, and here I'm referencing comments below, not the one above - perhaps our time is better spent considering the immense brutality of what Steve describes about prison conditions rather than whether or not his crime is good enough for us to reclaim him as one of us. It's the prison conditions we're talking about here, not an attempt to reconvict him.

What say you, Projectors? What should we think about Steve Mason's discussion of his experience of freedom in coming out while in prison in the face of homophobic violence -- is it relevant to discuss his negative experience with LGBT orgs, and is knowing his crime relevant to his discussion about queer prison life? Are we turning our backs on a young man who has faced homophobia and violence and survived while being out in a prison environment, and deserves our compassion? Yasmin Nair's full comment after the jump.

Yasmin Nair's full comment:

But what Steve writes is: "I wrote to Equality California, Marriage Equality, GLAAD, and the ACLU requesting addresses for groups I could write to for moral support and for information on how I could help. The responses I got from them were about the same. They offered no help, no referrals, and basically wanted nothing to do with me." His point is exactly that they did NOT "suggest other places the correspondent can find assistance?" And what are the benefits for Steve for not noting that a "higher level staffer that was full of sympathy[...]told him that they had no idea how to help."

I find it curious that he's being painted here as some kind of scheming liar or at least as someone with a "grudge," and below, in others' comments, as someone who wanted to be a "spokesperson" - which is a blatant lie; he was merely asking for resources. What, exactly, does a man who is out as queer in jail, probably the worst kind of category to be in, have to gain by lying about all this?

Which organization was this? And why, given the numbers of queers in jail and that we are still targeted in parks and bars, does any queer organization feel free to claim that it has "no idea how to help"? Frankly, that statement there is quite damning in itself.
Why did the ACLU, Marriage Equality, Equality California and GLAAD *not* even have a list of resources for queer prisoners? I think that's the bigger question here. I mean, seriously, the ACLU, of all places, couldn't even send him a list of resources? And does Equality only mean marriage and its attendant benefits? Do queers not end up in jail?

For anyone interested, Regina Kunzel's book, "Criminal Intimacy: Prison and the Uneven History of Modern American Sexuality," provides a fascinating history of how the LGBTQ community has, since the 1970s onwards, gradually turned its back on queer prisoners. What's really fascinating is that queer prison correspondence projects once proliferated as Gay Liberationists took it up on themselves to establish solidarity with their brethren in jail. Today, apparently, even the ACLU can't be bothered to have even the *names* of prisoner support programs?

Lastly, and here I'm referencing comments below, not the one above - perhaps our time is better spent considering the immense brutality of what Steve describes about prison conditions rather than whether or not his crime is good enough for us to reclaim him as one of us. It's the prison conditions we're talking about here, not an attempt to reconvict him. And, by the way, this is an issue that ranges across the board, as is evident from this extremely bold statement and position taken by Heartland Alliance's National Immigrant Justice Center:

http://www.windycitymediagroup.com/gay/lesbian/news/ARTICLE.php?AID=31423

I've been around prison work and immigrants rights work a lot - trust me when I tell you that it's a huge, huge deal and indicative of the widespread nature of a larger, systemic problem when a relatively mainstream group (and, I should add, an extremely important and helpful one) takes such a strong position with the government.

Chew on all that, folks, and let's remember what the real problems are. The orgs named will survive. Our people inside are, meanwhile, being deprived of their basic rights and humanity.

I note that Ms. Nair is a regular contributor to Bilerico, and well known for her work in the areas of prison rights, among other things. She has an essay in the forthcoming Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex, edited by Eric Stanley and Nat Smith.


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I think that we don't need to know the man's crime in order to appreciate his experience and learn something from it. Regardless of what he did to find himself in prison, the interesting part - and the only thing really relevant to learning how LGBT people are treated while in prison - are those details about what happened inside.

Adam, I think some people assume that anyone who committed a crime is therefore automatically a liar.

Without knowing anything about the individual or why he/she is in prison, it is prudent to exercise caution in dealing with them. I still disagree with Yasmin because her approach strikes me as being incredibly naive and dangerous. Now, if you know the individual and why they are in prison that may be different. The same goes if you take sufficient precautions with those you don't know. Pretending otherwise and ignoring the proverbial elephant in the room is unwise to put it mildly.

The article was co-written without disclosure. It raises questions about whose agenda was being served.

Co-written? I'm not sure what you mean. Can you explain?

"steve and i spent the last six months working on this piece together and his brief comment about gay inc. is more important to some of you than all the other aspects he details about dealing with the brutal realities of life in prison for queer and trans people? ugggg, depressing...."

Oh, yes, I saw that. I didn't take it as a statement of co-authorship, but as editing. But whether or no, it seems to me to be completely irrelevant and suggests nothing about a hidden agenda.

the piece was NOT co-authored, it was written entirely by Steve. i acted as Steve's intermediary and editor as he does not have access to a computer while in prison. It was not some big secret as you are suggesting. Steve even references me in his article and in the comments I talk about the process of working on the piece with him.

this comment is again another distraction from actually dealing with steve's words and experience.

Queer men, butch women and very specifically trans women in the prison system are far too often cast aside by our advocates. There can be no moving forward in society by our various communities if criminal and penal justice issues are ignored. But it's amazing how hard it is to get any coverage of these issues by queer groups and blogs.

A few years ago I attempted try and publicize some of the issues surrounding the Nastaran Kolestani case in Idaho (an Iranian trans woman immigrant who was sentenced to 15-18 years in prison for shooting her cheating boyfriend and supposedly admitted her crime to the police even though she didn't speak English and there was no interpreter). None of the organizations I contacted wanted any part of it. GLAAD claimed they were working to get the horrifically biased coverage of the case by Idaho media changed but other than one form letter they sent to a newspaper, I saw little evidence of it. The only organization which really cared about the case was the Idaho chapter of the ACLU.

GLAAD is more than ready to use its resources when, for instance, trans women are murdered and misgendered by media, but not willing to lift a finger when a trans woman is accused of a crime and similarly misgendered (as in a recent case in Portland, OR). I guess if it doesn't look good for fund-raising, it's a no-go. :(

Gina, I'm sorry to hear about your experience with the Kolestani case. I hadn't heard about it, so I looked it up. It appears that Kolestani pled guilty to first degree murder, through an interpreter in court. If that's true, I can understand why organizations wouldn't be enthusiastic about getting involved. GLAAD, of course, is an organization devoted only to media and its relationship to the LGBT community, and does not provide criminal representation services. Thus, I wouldn't blame GLAAD unduly, although, as you noted, their effort sounded a bit pro forma. But I do agree with you that there are many LGBT incarcerees, many of whom are treated poorly in prison, and there hasn't been much effort organizationally to assist them or help them reintegrate into society. My research on the net doesn't show any viable resources. Zero.

Jill, she had initially made a "confession" without an interpreter and it was entirely unclear whether she understood her rights. The coverage of her trial and many of the judge's prior statements should have resulted in his recusal or in a change of location. She had incompetant legal representation and there's a serious case to be made that her case was botched. The interpreter was brought in from Utah only when she made a plea bargain and she was still pretty much suicidal when she made it.

The crime was a crime of passion... she tried to kill herself immediately afterwards but failed. I don't in the least excuse what she did but I do expect LGBT groups would have at least tried to make certain that an isolated immigrant would have gotten a fair trial in a very hostile community. Also, the media coverage of the trial was some of the most obviously biased and misgendered and, at the very least, GLAAD should have put more effort into combating that. And just to remind people, Matthew Shepard was heavily into drugs and Brandon Teena had a criminal record at the time of both of their murders... has their legacy been discarded because of that?

There is one California resource: The TGI Justice Project (Miss Major is one of the people behind that). http://www.tgijp.org/

They were also involved with the documentary 'Cruel and Unusual' a powerful film about trans women in the prison system.

I also want to point out this incredible publication put out by the TGI Justice Project... it's advice for surviving prison by two trans women who are ex-prisoners themselves: http://tgijp.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/Survival-Guide-Printable.pdf

So moved by Yasmin's line: "...whether or not his crime is good enough for us to reclaim him as one of us."

It was a turning, so exquisite, of the lens onto myself. What of those ones-of-me who condemn the vulnerable prisoner-of-myself? Does this prisoner not deserve some compassion and aid for the courage it takes to live one's truth, no matter the crime committed? I'll tell you, it's hard to look at those condemners within. Thanks, Yasmin, as always.

I say, FUCK YEAH, Ms. Nair! I'm appalled at the seeming ignorance of the queer community's historical experience with the criminal injustice system as well as the current movements to change that same system.

We do NOT have to know anything about the crime for which this young man was convicted. To insist that we do demonstrates a faith in the fairness in the system that is completely unjustified by the facts. To those who respond that I don't take into account the rights of the victims or that we dismiss the seriousness of some crimes, I say I am probably more acquainted with the system than most readers of this blog. I've had many family members in and out of prison for years. I also have a family member who was raped and murdered and whose killer, to this day, has not been found. This isn't just a subject I read about on a blog and wanted to comment on.

There was a time when you could be sent to prison in this country for sex with another adult. Sodomy laws were only abolished in 2003. There was a time when you could be sent to prison for dressing in drag. There are countless people in prison today for "resisting arrest" and otherwise defying the police in their exercising their theoretically guaranteed right to free speech. Cities around the country are responding to the social upheavals caused by the financial crisis by criminalizing the homeless and other victims of Bush/Obama's economic policies. No serious social justice activist can begin with the presumption that all is fair and just in the US criminal injustice system. Just a couple years ago, six white kids could hang a noose in front of a school in Jena, Louisiana, and one black kid would end up in jail for it.

In Illinois alone, more than 20 death row prisoners have been exonerated (found not guilty of the crimes for which they were sentenced) since 1977, the year in which the death penalty was reinstated. This led then-governor George Ryan to impose a moratorium. The abolition of the death penalty in Illinois was many years in the making. Between 1977, when the death penalty was reinstated in Illinois, and 1999, 12 people were executed in Illinois--13 people were exonerated in that same time span.

That error rate was shocking to then-Gov. George Ryan, who imposed a moratorium on the death penalty in 2000. In 2003, Ryan cleared death row by commuting the death sentences of every death row prisoner--he also pardoned four men who had been tortured onto death row by Chicago police officers under the command of Jon Burge.

The queer community needs to drop the fake moralism. We should be bringing our experience as an oppressed group into our understandings of how this system works and how we can change it, not simply regurgitating the "common sense" of a system that today, 5/22/11, says we are legally inferior.

Good points, Lonnie. I think the criminal justice system is frightening to many people, particularly to people who are already dealing with major stigma from an LGBT identity, and it's uncomfortable to confront on a number of levels: the prejudice that someone who commits a crime is dangerous, mentally ill, or a liar, the fact that some LGBT people have committed crimes, the fact that the criminal justice system is sometimes inhumane, the fear of being tainted by involvement with a prisoner, and the simple point that it's depressing and a downer. It is surprising that I haven't heard much here about queer consciousness of the criminal justice system.

Bil's initial point stands: the dude was writing to orgs that focus on marriage equality, legal assistance, and the media.

Man, I am annoyed with self-proclaimed radicals finding every reason on earth to criticize the mainstream GLBT orgs. There are plenty of GOOD reasons to be critical of these orgs, why make up new ones?

I have to say I'm coming to like what Yasmin has to say. For a while there I thought she might be a bit eccentric and my apologies to her for thinking that.The ACLU is pretty closely tied to the whole equality thing. I know in Iowa the head of Equality Iowa is on the Iowa ACLU board.I also know they have an imbedded equality trans school project in the ACLU( not in Iowa). I see a lot of questionable things going on with several groups that I think are maybe a little to cozy with each other and aren't really delivering the goods when it comes to true measurable equality especially from within the LGBT and for those who are sucked into it for less than honest reasons.With all these questionable ethics flying around could it be out of fear that jail is contagious they ignored Steve Mason?

I am really curious about the way people who are asked to comment here are referred to as "Projectors" . From Wikipedia:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychological_projection

"According to Sigmund Freud, projection is a psychological defense mechanism whereby one "projects" one's own undesirable thoughts, motivations, desires, and feelings onto someone else. 'Emotions or excitations which the ego tries to ward off are "spit out" and then felt as being outside the ego...perceived in another person'.[4] It is a common process.[5]"

The comments attached to Steve Mason's post referred to in your post, Dr. Weiss', seemed to be full of "projection", although, that might not exactly describe all the assumptions and scenarios constructed from imagination by many of the people who were writing in.

I don't know any trans people in prison. The whole issue of personal expression, sexuality transsexualism and intersex is, however, very ripe for conflation and exploitation. It is difficult to form an opinion on another's observations without knowing precisely what they are. If someone is closeted for various reasons one is in a prison to begin with. Being in prison is and always has been my greatest fear. I have known many who have been there, however, including people who were born in other countries. What I find is that the surest way to turn a person into a conservative is to send them to prison.

From what I understand, I am willing to give Steve the benefit of the doubt up to a point. Kathryn Powers' story about how she got involved in the criminal act she was charged with has been circulating on PBS t v stations recently. I am also aware of the story of Jack Abbot and Norman Mailer. Justice is about balance. Lately, in the U S, it has been very unbalanced in spite of the need of every society for law, order and crime prevention. Sometimes it is too dangerous to give someone the benefit of the doubt. At other times it could be an unjust thing not to do, at other times, as in the case of someone who was young and naive the question of understanding and forgiveness is very difficult.

I could tell very personal stories about what I have seen. I have relatives who have been involved in the prison system as the ones who oversee as well as ones who are the overseen. The ones who have been overseen are closer relatives than the ones who oversee. To call the justice system in this country dysfunctional would be to use terminology that I think is representative of the approach that has made it the oppressively efficient moloch that it is.

Yes there is a ladder of oppression relative to existing social realities. There are no equations available to sort out in a very ordered way just how atrociously punishment is meted out in cruel and unusual ways for power and profit. In a men's prison I would say gay prisoners; transgender prisoners; pre-op, pre hormone transsexual people suffer in ways worse than most. How does an asexual intersex person suffer? And, of course, how would a post transsexual person suffer if one were placed in a prison according to assignment at birth?

My little thought experiment for Yamin would be to have her consider whether it is possible for her to comprehend the kind of nightmare she would have to deal with if a rumor circulated that she was a post op transsexual woman and she could not convincingly prove she was an assigned at birth woman. When writing about "trans" people how does she see people she refers to as "trans"? Does she feel that the entire spectrum of what she seems to classify as trans-feminine would include all women. One suspects that by the use of the suffix trans she does not. The question I just posed is "pre-discursive", isn't it? Why? How reliable will her observations about people she refers to as "trans" be? How much does she have at stake? How much does that which is at stake for the ones she refers to as "trans" vary from person to person?

It is a very sad fact but, obviously, prisons are necessary. Some people should be kept there for life. All one has to do, however, is take a cursory look at the statistics to come to the conclusion that the system of justice in this country is just not working. Without knowing more about Steve, I would have to give him the benefit of the doubt. Considering Yasmin's upcoming essay, the topic of Steve's post has raised questions about things that go beyond Steve's particular situation. All the questions raised directly or inferentially are worthy of discussion. I am not off topic in my response, here, even if I have to say so defensively. Very thought provoking questions once again, Dr. Weiss.

I'm sorry for the misspelling - The Power I was referring to is Katherine Ann Power. Also, sorry for the typo regarding your name, Yasmin, in the eighth paragraph.

Very thought provoking comments of your own, Edith, as usual. I laughed when I read your analysis of "Projectors." It does seem to be the case often.

I particularly like this point you made:

- "To call the justice system in this country dysfunctional would be to use terminology that I think is representative of the approach that has made it the oppressively efficient moloch that it is."

I take your point that using the language of "functionality" would suggest that the process has a single primary valid function in society. To my view, it long ago lost any function when it gave up the goal of rehabilitation and became a warehouse and a measurement for the damaged goods that our society produces. The fact that we have over 2.5 million incarcerees, a higher percentage than any other country, is a demonstration of a machine that has an unacceptably high defect rate and a mark of shame. We have allowed many of our prisons to become a place to play out the dark fantasies of a cadre of authoritarian sadists who are doing it "for your own good," when in fact, it is acknowledged that we have abandoned the good, in favor of a purely retributive rationale. Also, did you know that Molech was the ancient god for which the young were slowly tortured to death by fire in order to protect the adults? Alan Ginsburg's Howl says it well. I'm not saying that there should be no criminal law system, just that ours demonstrably does not work.

I have read Howl more than a few times. I'm a long time fan of Ginsburg, Walt Whitman, too. Hart Crane is interesting. I'm not an avid reader of poetry but I do like it and try to take the time to appreciate it when I have the opportunity.

I woke up thinking about what I had written last night. Beside coming to the realization that some of the sentences don't make sense and remembering the disjointed way I presented my thoughts in a stream of conscious manner I awoke with overwhelming feelings about this subject as it relates to me personally.

I don't know where to begin. I have seen this crime and punishment problem from so many different angles. It's a very dangerous problem to approach. Some of the commenters who replied to Steve's post lacked any kind of understanding of the problem. I find this particular subject very, very disturbing. The gay/trans angle makes it even more complicated and troubling. The trans word does not roll easily of my keyboard but I am very aware of the realities it encompasses.

I know and have known people who work with those on the inside. Not always are they the kind of people who have insight. Prison is a dangerous place to go near for those who do, in my opinion. Anyway, if I don't stop this reply and the thoughts turning in my head right now, I'll never stop typing.

These organizations are the same ones against which co-author Ryan Conrad spews venom every chance he gets. One can ask how someone behind bars who claims to lack all information of the outside gay community would know about all these groups, especially given his age upon incarceration.

I agree with the comments that the glbtq community should be concerned with the welfare of all glbtq individuals behind bars. However, a previous commenter on the original post brought up the fact that other persons at this same prison include Sirhan Sirhan and the Menendez brothers, the spoiled brats who murdered their parents thinking that they could get their billions while still in their early twenties. This is worth mentioning, because it indicates that the writer of the post is very likely in for something extremely serious. My own experience in grad school working with prisoners involved learning the extremely off the chart proportion of prisoners who are sociopathic, pathological liers, and very often psychopathic. This of course does not mean that the writer automatically has such disorders. It does make one have the antenna on "high alert" and have healthy skepticism about the entire story until proven otherwise. Non-profit organizations that are normally running on their own limited budgets, often with volunteers, and which have mission statements that do not include prisoner work can not be blamed for declining to become involved.
Again, not saying that the writer is guilty of such matters, but haven't we all seen in the press time and again, the scams by which prison pen pals eventually persuade lonely hearts to send their life savings to them, or to others outside the prison who are in on the scam also?

I also agree that from his position working in the prison library, he may attempt to have resources for persons such as himself obtained for the prison library.

The original post by Steve raises several interesting points, and certainly is far different from the regular Bilerico post. However, let's not blame commenters who need more information prior to making him the glbtq prisoner poster boy.

John Gagon | May 23, 2011 12:07 PM

A couple points to be made here reading all the comments and the one highlighted here and the replies to it.

The information about what he is charged with may be relevant but it's personal and therefore speculation serves little purpose and even if it's relevant, it's not significant enough for the discussion of the failures of organizations to handle certain often needed requests or the conditions of LGBT prisoners.

While no organization is perfect and that's totally understandable, and the author may have not used the best approach or had realistic expectations, the points are still valid. Improvement is one valid aim of discussion.

The comment highlighted seems to have this understanding and while there can be criticism, the counter to it was well made. Why castigate someone who has probably already paid, and more than likely *overpaid* for their crimes, sins, etc. How many people out there do not get caught and are equally as guilty and are out there throwing stones? I am not implying that any commenter is guilty of such but I know there were some who had a lot of vehemence that I frankly do not understand.

I agree with the comment made by Yasmin and look forward to more commenting like this.

Most people have been brain washed into believing that anyone convicted of a crime is most certainly guilty(no mention of whether the punishment fits the crime)or they wouldn't be there, so to hell with them, they think. What I find even more appalling is how many woman,transgendered and gay people who think prison rape is good and proper. (all most everyone straight or gay seems to think this,in my circle anyway) Yes I'm looking for a new circle. Good Luck to you Steve,I truly hope that you can re-enter society when you get out

Here is a link to a story while not totally related to the post will hopefully be a start to helping alleviate bad prison conditions at least in California.
http://www.latimes.com/news/local/sc-dc-0524-court-prisons-web-20110523,0,2337401.story

What bothers me, more than anything else, is that Yasmin had to write that comment.

And I'm fairly certain she had to -- the level of harm contained in what she was responding to was rather great.

There is an ideal that holds that people who are in prison are paying their debt to soceity as a whole, and that once they are free, they should be able to live lives free of the onus of such.

And yet, that's not the case. Which is shameful, but there it is.

All too often I have seen LGBT people -- straight trans people, gay trans people, cis gay men, and so forth -- be convicted of charges which are often given greater impact and harsher treatment that is motivated by the animus against them on the basis of their sexual orientation.

And that does happen -- as Mercedes has pointed out in the past, as Yasmin notes, as is described in other ways, LGBT people tend to somehow be convicted of what is generally considered a grievous crime -- sex crimes -- often just for doing things like trying to get some money to pay their rent, or perhaps having sex in some place other than their bedrooms. Meanwhile, heterosexual senior citizens caught whooping it up behind bushes becomes an open secret and something of a joke.

The things that lead people into situations like that are often because there are other factors, and yes, one could say they should rise above their past abuse, but that's very easy to say and not always easy to do.

Sometimes they need help -- when you are down and pushed on, you tend to set your sights lower when they needn't be -- help to show them a way "up" can often make a difference.

But the commentary shows that more likely than not, what will happen is these people will get out of prison, and be abandoned by the very communities to which they belong, perpetuating the very cycle of social abuse that people purportedly are trying to end.

It is, in simple terms, hypocrisy.

And that makes it shameful beyond expression.