Rikers Island hadn’t changed all that much, the Young Adult building was still dirty; the COs were still disgruntled, and the bullpens still smelled of old bologna, stale cigarettes, and urine. But one thing had changed: the queer youth were more visible. Given the date being so close to New York City’s Pride parade, I assumed there had been a sweep down in the Village.
In the bullpen, the openly queer youth had all huddled up in an effort to forge an early alliance, one which their very survival would come to depend on.
I was fresh from “up top,” but being openly queer meant I got sandwiched in a bullpen with my much younger peers. Let that bit of irony settle in your mind.
These queer youth were not seen as young and vulnerable by the law, yet they’re disproportionately subjected to the penal system through their identity as Black, Brown, and queer. Essentially, it was deemed appropriate for these youth to be placed in a bullpen with me, an adult state prisoner.
For some Black and Brown queer youth, messages of rejection are everywhere. There are the transgender bans in sports, the return of bathroom bans, along with “walking while trans” and “don’t say gay” laws. Yet in jails and prisons, queer bonds are formed by borrowing from the traditions of Black and Brown families.
Black and Brown queer people have created familial bonds after becoming estranged from our natal families. Our lived experiences are reproduced in a systematic way, borrowing from the hegemonic family funneling into our friendships and found families. This creates a chosen familial structure in which we find love and respect. Black and Brown families have had to be fluid in how we raise each other, for historical reasons (slavery) structural reasons (hyper-incarceration) and other factors. Because I am separated from my natal family, I crave and carve out space to be in community with those who remind me of my born relatives.
There’s an intuitive familiarity to these struggles, which, for me, strikes a cord. My craving for kinship also fuels my desire to see others in my carceral struggle succeed in creating care, love, and memories.
Hours ticked on for the time it takes to be processed through intake. This process drags on regardless of the fact that the intake officers have complete access to my upstate correction facility’s file.
I, like these queer youth, had to submit to a urinalysis, which was done in a communal effort, after the person least likely to use drugs was selected. We’re also subject to an HIV screening, which is said to be elective, but whose absence is often called out. By the time the youths and myself had seen the psychologist/triage nurse/all-clear-to-be-placed-in-a-housing-area-person, we had somewhat bonded.
Youth’s anger and rage is rarely interpreted or contextualized as a real response to fear, trauma, and betrayed hopes. After fielding their top questions mostly related to “rape, gangs, and fights,” they genuinely wanted to know what would they need to do to “stay safe and get home quicker.” I myself was still grappling with these questions after serving 10 years in the system. I did not know what to tell them, because each day brought new challenges for incarcerated queer people.
I posed a question and a comment, which instantly caused me to feel my own age. “At your age,” I asked, :why aren’t you all out living your best lives? There’s so much you all could be doing.”
It solicited some eye-rolling, but then each of the three youths took turns answering.
Jalen, from the Bronx, reflected that “being on Rikers Island is bad, but what was worst is having my mother’s boyfriend beat on me because I’m gay.” He continued, “at least in here, I can get a break from him hurting me and her allowing it.”
‘Bricks’, aptly named because he is from Newark, NJ (commonly known as “Bricktown”) told me that “everybody who loves me is in here, I don’t know a lot of people in NYC, and I sleep in the park when I’m not on Rikers. But when I’m back in Jersey I’m turning tricks for my foster mom’s drug habit.”
Nina, the more flamboyant one, shared, “I made a mistake… it was foolish of me, but when you get attacked on the streets for just being who you are, it will cause you to ‘strike first’ when you feel threatened. It was a grown-ass man who came after me, ain’t nobody till this day asked me am I alright.”
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“I wanted something for us, where we could build our community for Black and Brown queer people who don’t have spaces and opportunities to network together outside of a party”
So I did, I asked Nina: was she alright? Her eyes welled up and she shook her head in the affirmative. I commented again, and my new young friends indulged my question with thoughtfulness, before again rolling their eyes again at my apparent naiveté.
I asked, “What if I could find alternatives to prison, and look for solutions so that people like us can find better pathways, community, and access to education?” I told them that I may never see them again, but that I would still do it, and think about each of them and let what they shared with me guide my work.
With 850,000 juvenile arrests a year, we must have the foresight to see how chucking our queer YAs in human kennels serves very little societal benefit. This conversation does not however solve the problem for youth living in poverty, which is in large part why youths are subject to harsher scrutiny for their “risky” behaviors.
Dr. Laurence Steinberg, a developmental psychologist at Temple University, says the United States legal system criminalizes normal adolescent behaviors. He also claims the prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain that controls self-control and anticipation of future consequences and decision-making—is less developed in young adults from the ages of 19-26.
Most queer people in prison live in a sort of Jim Crow society. They’re excluded from many job programs; limited to certain housing areas; and mostly shut out of participation in coveted spots that help with socialization. It might not be officially sanctioned, but it is no less real and happening. Those who are brave enough to live “out and proud” are often the target of violence, sex, and extortion.
Years later, I bumped into Nina, and learned she had gotten a new charge. To this very day — Nina would never admit it — she was made into a “gun-mule,” a jail term used to describe someone who holds another’s weapon. After we reconnected, Nina became my daughter, and I don’t love her any less because she did not biologically come from me. She came through me, and my love for her is unconditional. As with natal families, kinship is often more than being connected by blood.♦
E. Paris Whitfield is the co-founder of Prisoners’ Brain Trust, an Empowerment Avenue writer, Study & Struggle radical book reviewer, and resident poet for “What’s the Tea.” In 2023 Paris graduated from Bard College with a BA in sociology. Find Paris on IG/Linktree @freeericwhitfield.