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What is the Sylvia Rivera Law Project’s Prisoner Advisory Committee?

The Sylvia Rivera Law Project’s Prisoner Advisory Committee (PAC) is a committee of incarcerated trans, gender non-conforming, and intersex (TGNCI) individuals who seek to share their voices with those on the outside about the injustices they have faced both in and out of prison.

PAC began from a proposal by former SRLP staff member Gabriel Arkles in 2007, and today, has grown to include nearly 110 members nationwide, with 90 in New York state, all of whom correspond with SRLP at least every 6 months. A core group of members even corresponds every few weeks, allowing us to center their voices and visions for the prisoner justice work we do at SRLP.

PAC currently exists as part of the Prisoner Justice Project (PJP), which seeks to address the needs of incarcerated members and connect them with opportunities to engage in collective work. Through this project, we are able to offer a variety of legal services, including name changes for TGNCI folks on the inside; assistance with accessing gender-affirming clothing and healthcare, advocacy, and support around sexual and physical violence; and more.

How Do PAC Members Engage in Social Justice Work?

The central guiding principle of PAC is that our members know their struggles best, especially those who have been isolated from society. PAC offers members an opportunity to be exposed to leadership and growth opportunities, as well as to hold themselves accountable to folks on the inside.

In order to become a member, we typically seek current or former legal clients or their friends and allies (upon recommendation from a current PAC member). We sometimes consider other folks on a case-by-case basis, and all applicants are asked to sign a written agreement upon joining stating their intention to correspond with SRLP for at least a year. While PAC membership does not necessarily mean membership in SRLP’s Core Collective (our network of community members who lead our work), PAC members are invaluable to our work on prison abolition and prisoners’ rights.

PAC members’ main role is to provide guidance and insight on the advocacy and policy work done by SRLP. We strive to center the voices of those most marginalized, as they know their needs best. We highly value the input of PAC members in order to inform what strategies and issues we should prioritize. Some projects worked on by PAC members include:

  • Edits on literature to educate lawyers on working with trans clients
  • Proposing changes for the NYPD Patrol Guide
  • Edits on an appendix in the Jailhouse Lawyer’s Handbook discussing issues facing trans people
  • Testimony in a lawsuit about unlawful strip searches of trans people
  • Developing language for funding on these projects
  • And much more!

Similarly, PAC members have also contributed to SRLP’s national position statement on gender-affirming healthcare in correctional settings, as well as comments on the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA). PAC members have also been critical in the relaunch of SRLP’s 2007 study on the injustice faced by trans prisoners, “It’s War in Here.”

How Do PAC Members Correspond with SRLP?

In 2007, PAC was co-launched alongside the Prisoner Pen Pal Project, which matched TGNCI folks on the inside with pen pals on the outside. Unfortunately, due to a lack of capacity, the Prisoner Pen Pal Project was discontinued; however, it was reworked as the Prisoner Postcard Project, which promoted the art and creative works of PAC members, while volunteers were still encouraged to keep in touch with members.

The current incarnation of the Prisoner Postcard Project sees PAC members receiving postcards up to six times a year with updates on SRLP’s legal work, introductions to new members and staff, messages of solidarity, etc.

PAC members also receive a yearly newsletter, titled In Solidarity, which includes updates on legal and community organizing projects at SRLP, as well as art, poetry, and writing by other PAC members. This newsletter was originally conceived by PAC members themselves as a way to foster a sense of community and communication. In Solidarity also features profiles on SRLP Core Collective members, as well as messages of support and solidarity.

What are the Next Steps for PAC?

Besides the various projects that PAC members work on, including the relaunch of “It’s War in Here,” we are constantly seeking to expand capacity for the committee. We always welcome volunteers on our monthly Legal Mail Nights, as well as other correspondence-writing events.

A new self-care guide has recently been created to be included in the resources that we provide PAC members, which is typically comprised of various legal resources, national hotlines, etc. We’re always seeking new ways to support our members and provide them with new opportunities to engage in our work.

We believe that storytelling is a revolutionary act, and we hope to use this space to center the voices of those who are most silenced. One member once shared how “prison is not supposed to be a place where we survive.” With that in mind, our hope is that, as we work towards a world without mass incarceration, we can support our TGNCI friends on the inside in their survival and resiliency, and stand with them in solidarity.

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