Witness To Mass Incarceration: An Overview
Contact: Evie Litwok – firstname.lastname@example.org – www.witnesstomassincarceration.org
As a formerly incarcerated lesbian who served time in two federal prisons, I am committed to ending mass incarceration in the United States. My work has been heavily influenced by Steven Spielberg, who conducted interviews with Holocaust survivors and built an extraordinary digital library currently housed at The Shoah Institute at the University of Southern California. I envision Witness to Mass Incarceration as an on-going story telling and organizing archival project documenting the stories and experiences of formerly incarcerated women and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) people.
Witness to Mass Incarceration (“Witness”), through the power of visual media, will highlight the experiences of LGBTQ people who have been imprisoned and thereby raise specific issues of mass incarceration to majority’s attention.
Working under the fiscal sponsorship of Fractured Atlas, Witness has begun to do first-hand in-depth interviews with formerly incarcerated LGBTQ people. The interviews focus on life before, during and after incarceration. To date, we have captured 8 interviews, each six to nine hours in length. With the support of your foundation, Witness will build on this foundation and develop a digital archive of 100 narratives illustrating a diversity of LGBTQ experiences in prison.
Because of my experience as a formerly incarcerated lesbian, I am uniquely qualified to implement the proposed project. Within a week of my incarceration, I experienced discriminatory and abusive treatment by prison officials, simply because I was known to be a lesbian. From my own time in prison, I could see a disproportionate number of LGBTQ people inside prison compared to their numbers in the Free World. They did not “come out” as I did for fear of being transferred, put into solitary confinement or lose the few privileges they had. Research from the Bureau of Justice Statistics serves as evidence for high rates of sexual assault reported by LGBTQ people.
I left prison knowing I had to do something to help my LGBTQ community and the women I met inside, but I did not know that coming home would be just as hard as my time inside. I came out of prison homeless and jobless. I went to every non-profit agency offering services to formerly incarcerated people and realized they could not offer me the two things I needed most: housing and a job. I saw first-hand how few resources are available to formerly incarcerated people.
I soon became involved with advocacy groups working on health and mental health concerns, solitary confinement and aging in prison. I testified about conditions of confinement and spoke at universities about being Queer in prison. I became involved with the Federal LGBT/HIV Criminal Justice Policy Working Group. As I continued my work with advocacy groups, I realized that my own community, the LGBTQ community, did not know there are queer people in prison. They did not know that of the 80,000 in solitary confinement on a daily basis, we represented a significant percentage placed in solitary for “our own protection” and for discriminatory reasons.
Unless the American public has a visceral experience as to what it is like to be arrested, to be shamed during a trial, to feel the horror of being incarcerated and to have absolutely no support upon our return, nothing will change. Much of what has propelled the current conversation about police brutality, something communities of color, LGBTQ people, and the poor have experienced for decades, if not centuries, is the existence of cell phone and dash camera footage. These pictures are worth more than a thousand words and they have launched a movement.
I believe an interview is a thousand times more powerful than a legal brief. Hearing the voices of a transgender woman share her experience of brutal assault by prison guards or the story of a gay man locked up for thirty years for consensual sex because of his HIV status, are the stories that will cause policymakers, advocates, and the public to ask, “How did this happen in America? Why didn’t we know?” And I hope the next question will be, “How can we prevent this from happening to others and how can we get people out of prison?”
The targeted audiences include the LGBTQ community, progressive activists of all colors, millennials and college age students. I will achieve this through my partnership with both the Los Angeles LGBT Community Center and Manhattan Neighborhood Network.
I will bring the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) formerly incarcerated people together through Witness Interviews. I will develop a formatted panel combining in person LGBTQ formerly incarcerated people and taped testimony. The panel will be offered to several of the 182 LGBTQ community centers.
The staff of the Manhattan Neighborhood Network will help us to develop a one hour TV show which will replicate the format used in live panels. The one hour interview will be shown multiple times on the MNN channel which reaches large audiences. This effort represents the beginning of building and using the Witness library to educate and inspire others to advocate alongside formerly incarcerated LGBTQ people
A work sample is available on the attached link https://youtu.be/eH58fFqJExo