LGBTQ+ people face an incarceration crisis. Social Justice warrior Damita Bishop wants to end it.

Damita Bishop
Damita Bishop Photo: Screenshot

In honor of Women’s History Month, we’re highlighting some of the many incredible LGBTQ+ women and allies of both the past and present, women who overcame unimaginable obstacles to change the world.

On March 1st, 2024, as the sun spent the day hiding and rain washed over the city of Atlanta, a quiet but important moment took place at Liberty Plaza outside the Capitol Building. Despite the horrendous wet and cold, the air was charged with a heady trifecta of anticipation, passion, and determination as activists, advocates, and supporters gathered for a rally and march.

Among them all stood a woman commonly described as both a “rallying point” and a “catalyst.” Damita Bishop, a formidable force in the fight for criminal, social, and economic justice reform, is now poised to make her political mark on Georgia and the United States.

No stranger to adversity, Bishop is a fairly well-known organizer, community educator, and advocate in the Atlanta area. She has dedicated herself to exposing the injustices of the criminal, legal, and prison systems, with a keen focus on the underpinned social and economic justice issues at the corroded heart of the system. A Black woman with a gay son, she has tussled against poverty and social issues in her communities for years. With numerous loved ones behind bars, Bishop understands the importance of intersectionality in the struggle for justice.

“I believe in the power of unity and solidarity,” Bishop told LGBTQ Nation. “We cannot address systemic injustice without recognizing the interconnectedness of oppression for all people.”

The U.S. criminal legal system has a lengthy history of disproportionate representation of LGBTQ+ folks on its court dockets and within its jails and prisons. The numbers skew even higher when focused specifically on the incarceration of LGBTQ+ people of color.

The Sentencing Project states that LGBTQ+ adults are incarcerated at a rate of three times the general population. Their data suggests that 1 in 6 trans people report having experienced incarceration at some point in their lives. Approximately half of those are Black trans people.

Additionally, the National Inmate Survey reports that 1,882 per 100,000 lesbian, gay, and bisexual people are incarcerated. In stark contrast, only 612 per 100,000 non-LGBTQ+ U.S. residents aged 18 and older are incarcerated. In simple math, if you’re LGBTQ+ in the “land of the free,” you’re twice as likely as your non-LGBTQ neighbors to wind up behind bars.

On March 1st, amidst the chants and banners, Bishop made an important announcement, one that brought more than 100 people out into the freezing rain: She will be running as an underdog write-in candidate for the United States House of Representatives. She explained to the crowd how her decision is fueled by a deep-seated commitment to reforming the broken system from within.

“If elected, I will work tirelessly to hold the current system accountable,” Bishop declared before those in attendance. “We cannot afford to turn a blind eye to the injustices that plague our communities. I cannot promise that I will single-handedly, unilaterally change the system – that is an impossible feat. But I can promise to network and inspire others who think like you and I do, in order to have more candidates like myself running to represent the true interests of our communities. From that position, there is great power to enact real, positive change.”

I, myself, was supposed to be one of many speakers at the rally. I had planned to wax both poetic and philosophical, drawing on my own years of experience as a writer, organizer and advocate. However, due to the overwhelming number of people who wanted to speak on behalf of Bishop, I relinquished my spot in favor of a mother from Mississippi.

She conveyed through tears what Bishop had done for her family in the aftermath of her son’s death at the hands of the prison system. For more than 20 minutes, she recounted how Bishop suffered alongside her, became like her family, and buried herself in countless hours of emails, calls, and other advocacy work in attempt to get a straight answer from prison officials about how and why her son was brutally murdered in his prison cell.

Bishop’s candidacy is not without its challenges. She doesn’t have big political dogs backing her, and the money to finance her run is based solely on her own savings and donations. Bishop says other challenges include police harassment at her events and rallies, attempted sabotage of her events through supposed “bomb threats” and claims of concerns of “gang violence” by Capitol and police officials, and the fact that she is somewhat unknown outside of the local advocacy community.

Despite these obstacles, Bishop remains undeterred in her mission to bring about meaningful change.

She has spent more than 20 years working as a human rights advocate and says that about 5 or 6 years ago she realized that incarcerated people and those impacted by the criminal legal system needed to be a part of that conversation.

What drew her attention to the calamity of gross human rights violations within the prison industrial complex was the Georgia Department of Corrections (GDC).

The GDC has long been plagued by allegations of misconduct, including ever-increasing reports of assault and murder within its facilities. Staff misconduct and illegal activity are also at an all-time high; the situation within the state’s prison system is so terrible that in recent years, it prompted a second human and civil rights investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Earlier this year, for example, the Biden Administration filed a statement supporting a trans woman incarcerated in a men’s prison in the state who has accused the GDC of denying her access to gender-affirming care. The woman’s complaint states the lack of access to this care has led her to “suffer catastrophic gender dysphoria symptoms.”

“We cannot allow injustice to go unchecked,” Bishop emphasized to LGBTQ Nation.

“It is incumbent upon us to stand up and demand accountability. And so we do, today and every day; we demand accountability and transparency from the Georgia Department of Corrections, from this state’s county jails and detention centers, like Rice Street, and from the prisons, jails, and detention centers of each state within this nation. We demand accountability, transparency, and action from our state and federal lawmakers. And if they can’t give us that, then it is up to us to put ourselves in their chairs and give it to our communities ourselves.”

For Bishop and those who stand alongside her, the journey towards justice is both historic and heroic. Their courage and determination serve as a beacon of hope for marginalized communities across Georgia and beyond.

As the rally draws to a close and the march begins, the spirit of solidarity fills the air. With Bishop leading the way, you can see written on the faces of many that the path toward a more just and equitable future is a bit clearer, perhaps even a bit more achievable. In addition to Bishop’s speech, the stories of struggle, loss, frustration, and a desire for something new that actually helps rather than hurts seem to have renewed the strength and conviction of the people present.

As the rain continued to fall over Liberty Plaza, the echoes of Bishop’s words lingered in the air, a reminder of the power of resilience and determination in the face of injustice. “In the end,” she declared, “it is only through our collective voice that we will be propelled forward.”

Follow C. Dreams at @UncagedCritique for more.

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