QUEER VOICES
12/21/2014 09:06 am ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

'Words Of Hope' Campaign Provides Support For LGBT Survivors Of Prison Rape Through Letter Writing

"Words of Hope" is a campaign spearheaded by Just Detention International that aims to remind survivors of prison rape that they are not alone or forgotten.

Contributing to "Words of Hope" is easy -- and completely virtual.

The Huffington Post chatted with Just Detention International Communication Director Jesse Lerner-Kinglake about "Words of Hope" this week about why this project is so crucial during the holiday season.

The Huffington Post: Why is this campaign important?
Jesse Lerner-Kinglake: "Words of Hope" brings comfort to some of the most marginalized people in the U.S. -- survivors of rape in prison. Since the campaign began in 2010, many survivors have told Just Detention International that the holiday messages have been transformative, showing them that people on the outside really do care.

I know that writing a holiday card may seem like small gesture, but the impact is huge for incarcerated survivors -- who are often completely cut off from friends and family, who may be forced to see their perpetrator every single day and who may not have received any mail for months -- or even years. It’s hard for those of us on the outside to imagine it, but this is the reality for survivors of rape in prison.

What is the reality of life in prison for many LGBT people?
In many prisons, homophobia is deeply entrenched among staff and inmates alike. These toxic attitudes allow sexual abuse and harassment towards LGBT people to flourish. The numbers are simply staggering: one recent Bureau of Justice Statistics report found that roughly 39 percent of gay male inmates reported being assaulted by other prisoners. Simply put, stopping prisoner rape is a gay rights issue.

What makes this campaign as relevant as ever during the holidays?
For survivors, the holidays can be a time when the loneliness of being locked up, away from loved ones, is especially acute. The Words of Hope messages help cut through that isolation. One measure of the campaign’s impact is how survivors consistently ask us during the year whether we’re going to do the campaign again. The answer, of course, is always yes!

To give you a bit of an idea of what the campaign means, here’s what one survivor, Sarah Jo, told JDI: “This was my fifth consecutive Christmas in solitary confinement, and with the help of people who care I was able to feel at ease. I made a little tree out of a high-end fashion magazine and set up my cards around it to remind me that I am not forgotten.”

What do you hope this campaign evolves into in the future?
We think that the campaign is already having a major impact -- we just want it to grow even bigger! My sense is that there are lots of people who are looking for simple ways to help, without giving a dime. We sent over 10,000 cards last year -- but imagine if we doubled or tripled that number? It’d be phenomenal if everyone who believes, as JDI does, that rape is never okay dedicated a few minutes of their day to send a card to a survivor. And it would mean everything to survivors behind bars.

Interested in contributing to "Words of Hope"? Head here.

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