Universal Unitarian community minister Jason Lydon began his prison justice work as a teenager. At age 20, he served a six-month sentence at a county jail in Georgia and a federal prison in Massachusetts. During the time he was locked up, firsthand experiences with harassment and violence radicalized his attention to the violence of the prison industrial complex, especially as it pertains to LGBT and other marginalized people.
Between 2004-2005, Jason founded Black and Pink, a Boston-based organization that describes itself as “an open family of LGBTQ prisoners and ‘free world’ allies who support each other” in their work toward the abolition of the prison industrial complex. Black and Pink’s ongoing projects include a pen-pal project for LGBT prisoners, publishing and distributing a monthly newsletter of stories, poetry, and art by current and former incarcerated LGBT people, and direct advocacy and support for a few select individuals experiencing harassment, sexual violence, lack of access to healthcare, and other forms of mistreatment. Now serving as Director and Lead Organizer at Black and Pink, Jason spoke with The Media about his prison abolition work and the visibility that’s come with Black and Pink’s recent nomination to be the Grand Marshal at Boston Pride 2013. Voting is open until May 15.
Black and Pink works toward the abolition of the prison industrial complex (PIC). Can you give us a working definition of PIC for people who may not be familiar with the concept?
The PIC consists of prisons, jails, detention centers, things that lock up people's bodies, police, judges, court systems, private industry profiting off of incarceration, a culture that targets criminalizing people of color, gender non-conforming people, queer folks, and poor people, while holding up prisons as solutions to all of our social problems.
What led you to this work and founding Black and Pink?
I grew up in a traditional Unitarian worship where prison justice work was part of my teen years, writing to political prisoners and developing relationships with folks inside. I also come from a family of multiple men on my mom's side who’d been in and out of jail. When I was 20, I had a six-month sentence in a county jail in Georgia and a federal prison in Massachusetts. My time being locked up in a queer segregated cell radicalized my attention to the PIC. When I got out, I began organizing with people doing anti-prison work. I started Black and Pink between 2004-2005 to offer support to incarcerated LGBT people while having a larger framework that the PIC itself is the problem. It cannot be reformed; our work needs to abolish it.
You mentioned being in a queer segregated cell. What's the importance of prison abolition work to LGBT people specifically?
If you look at how policing and criminalization works, transgender women of color in particular experience high rates of policing and harassment. The criminalization of how we survive is a central part of how the court and prison systems fill themselves with queer people, gender non-conforming people, and people of color. Homeless youth are disproportionately LGBT. We have criminalization of homelessness and how people survive homelessness - whether that's sex work or other forms of survival economy like theft or selling drugs, that people do in order to survive. Queer folks have always been marginalized by the system.
I first learned about Black and Pink through the prison pen-pal project. Can you tell me about that project and its goals?
Black and Pink is an open family of LGBT prisoners and free world allies who support each other. The pen-pal project is an opportunity for people on the outside to correspond, build relationships with, and help take part in harm reduction practices with the 3,000 queer and trans folks who are part of our incarcerated family. The letters themselves function as a harm reduction tool. When people's names are read out from the mail room, prison guards and other prisoners can hear individuals’ names, so everyone else knows that this person has some element of support on the outside. If they were to harass them, sexually assault them, or abuse them by preventing them from getting their hormones or HIV medications, they know there’s going to be consequences and we will fight for these people.
My sense is that the general public isn't too concerned with prisoners' rights, and I think there are a lot of different socialized reasons for that. How do you invoke compassion and try to humanize the lives of prisoners?
If we recognize what's going on in Massachusetts, 1 in 24 people in our commonwealth are either incarcerated, on probation or on parole. The US is the world’s leading incarcerator: 1% of the nation's people are currently incarcerated in the US. Our primary focus is to build the leadership of individuals who are experiencing the violence of the PIC. So many folks know someone who's inside, or have been inside themselves, or have experienced harassment and violence. Our largest goal is to mobilize that power. Compassion from others is a key part of building allyship, but more important to us is growing as a community in our power and our capacity to fight for justice.
How has your work been received by LGBT-centric organizations?
It's been varied. In Massachusetts there hasn't been a lot of overlap between Black and Pink and other LGBT organizations. We’ve had the opportunity to train Boston Alliance of Gay Lesbian Bisexual and Transgender Youth, and work with the Network La Red to examine how the PIC intersects with domestic violence and partner abuse. We're incredibly excited about our partnership with Hispanic Black Gay Coalition – together we just held a summit of former incarcerated and policed LGBT people coming together to strategize. We haven’t had a lot of success connecting with larger statewide and national organizations.
Black and Pink has been nominated to be the Grand Marshal of Boston Pride alongside Mayor Menino and the BPD's liaison to the LGBT community, among others. If Black and Pink is chosen, what sort of impact might that have?
We are incredibly excited about the possibility. Boston Pride is now a parade, but it has a history of being a march for justice. The original Boston Pride was a Vietnam War protest in connection with gay and lesbian pride. Pride has unfortunately become dominated and controlled by corporate sponsorships and organizations like the Gay Officers Action League. Black and Pink has the opportunity to represent people in LGBT communities who are so often left out, hidden behind closed doors and locked away. I’m excited for the possibility of what is nearly a million people at Pride seeing us at the forefront. Understanding criminalized queers is central to queer liberation. We have a voice and are going to continue to grow in our efforts around organizing and community building.
What's your vision for what the world should look like in the vein of Black and Pink’s work?
I dream of a world of no police, no jails, no borders, where we stop criminalizing immigrants, where we celebrate contributions of all people in our communities, where sex work is decriminalized, where condoms are readily available to everyone who needs them, where health and education are part of our long term care for our communities, and where we have transformative justice practices in place. We need to recognize that harm does and will continue to happen and we need to address that authentically through a framework of justice. We need to use compassion as we build a new world full of collective liberation and transformation for all of us.