Eight years have passed since the nation’s first LGBTQ and gender studies program began at San Quentin.
At the time there were concerns about bringing the course inside a men’s prison, but leaders believed it a critical need as San Quentin prepared to be a “hub” for transgender prisoners and a Non-Designated Programming Facility (NDPF).
Two LGBTQ residents at San Quentin approached Billie Mizell about the concept. “LGBTQ incarcerated persons and their allies brought to our attention the potential problems that could arise … as well as a potential solution. So, like most prison programs, this one began with directly impacted persons identifying an important need, which we then took to the administration for approval to begin program development,” said Mizell, an outside volunteer who sponsors the SQ program.
“Once a new program gains approval, we usually convene a group of interested inside leaders to serve in a pilot group … For this much-needed program, we could fortunately convene a group who collectively had hundreds of hours of training in Restorative Justice, program facilitation, and academics.
“Acting with Compassion & Truth” (ACT) was the resulting pilot. ACT would be open to all, transgender and cisgender, straight, gay, and bisexual.”
Prisons are not generally on the leading edge of integrating communities, “so we spent a long, long time building a safe container before the group opened its doors to new participants,” said Carlos Meza, a pilot-group member and facilitator.
“We had a dual goal of creating a safe space where women and LGBTQ persons in prison could find self-understanding and trauma-healing, as well as learn about the community’s history, while at the same time educating and building empathy among the majority population.
“Most of the restorative groups here will bring in survivors of violence at the end of the program, but here we had to plan on having persons in the group who had survived anti-LGBTQ and gender violence and also persons who had caused such violence.”
BY THE NUMBERS:
A nationwide survey of over 1,100 LGBTQ+ prisoners in 2015 revealed that:
Mizell added, “The needs of the LGBTQ+ community and the majority community differ … It took a long time to develop one program to align the needs of the two different communities. To maintain the safer container, we work hard to ensure that the directly impacted folks are not constantly expected to carry the emotional labor of the program.”
ACT facilitators ensure that women and LGBTQ persons remain respected and that no one needs to re-live their trauma.
“Early on, we noticed that a number of the persons joining the program were first-time programmers … Eventually, we understood that it was because we built an intentionally inclusive program, so people … felt drawn to this program,” said ACT facilitator Michael Adams.
ALIGHT Justice was established to broaden opportunities for other historically marginalized communities and for those who were reluctant to join restorative and transformative rehabilitative groups, according to Illustration by Andrew Hardy
“As we have sought out to expand into more communities, we wanted to honor ACT as the beginning of this journey, while also acknowledging and lifting up the many other meaningful projects we have seen born from ACT … We also wanted a name that reflects who we are … as well as the work that brings us together. We settled on ALIGHT, a word with multiple definitions, all of which speak so clearly to who we are and the work we do …
“All of our work strives to create safe spaces … so that we may find healing solutions that will make the weight of trauma less heavy … Through education, dialogue, analysis, exercises, and creative/artistic processes, we work to transform trauma into purpose … We hope to shine brightly into the darkest corners of our systems and, through what Bryan Stevenson coined ‘the power of proximity,’ we hope to illuminate paths of communication, understanding, community, healing, and service …”
Most ACT graduates who have gained release continue to serve the community, including Meza, who upon his release developed a program for courts to address hate crimes.