Trans Artist Jamie Diaz Spent Nearly 30 Years Incarcerated in Men’s Prison. How Her Story Inspired New Doc

Gabriel Joffee received hundreds of letters from LGBTQ prisoners across the U

Published Time: 16.06.2024 - 19:31:14 Modified Time: 16.06.2024 - 19:31:14

Gabriel Joffee received hundreds of letters from LGBTQ prisoners across the U.S while volunteering at an advocacy organization in 2013. But it was a letter featuring illustrations from Jamie Diaz, a self-taught trans artist incarcerated in a men's prison in Texas, that stood out.

“I just thought it was incredible that an artist created this little masterpiece and just sent it in the mail not knowing if it'd be discarded or picked up,” Joffee, 33, tells PEOPLE. “I wrote a personal response. I just wanted to return that love back to Jamie and I responded, and that's how it started.”

From there, a friendship developed between Diaz, 66, and Joffee, both trans – and that connection is the subject of a short film documentary, Love, Jamie, directed by Karla Murthy. Its recent premiere on PBS’ American Masters also coincided with Diaz’s recent release after serving a life sentence in prison for aggravated robbery.

“I was really just blown away by the quality of her art and the colors and the detail,” says Murthy.  “It was amazing to see what she was producing under the circumstances, and her art was just so joyful. You wouldn't necessarily know that this was someone who was incarcerated."

"She just was so honest and compassionate and the way she spoke about her art and her process," Murthy adds. "I just really thought, 'Oh, maybe, yeah, this could be a short film.' " 

Over time, the pair’s friendship blossomed through letters and phone conversations - and the documentary includes Diaz’s written words as well as audio recordings of her voice.

“That was really important I think for us to include in the film,” says Murthy, “that Gabriel and Jamie's relationship wasn't a one-sided relationship...It was very reciprocal, and we really wanted to show that in the film that there was this give-and-take between both of them."

Joffee created a website to display Diaz’s works, which is how New York City art gallery owner Daniel Cooney first came across them. Cooney later displayed Diaz’s art at an exhibition in 2022.

“I look at a lot of artwork and I talk to a lot of different artists,” says Cooney. "My question are often, 'How authentic is this? How true is this to the person? How honest is it about the person that it's coming from?' When I saw Jamie's work, it was all of those things, really...you can really feel who Jamie is by looking at her work.”

“I feel like Jamie is the truest artist I know,” Cooney adds, “Because if she can sit on the floor in her cell and make her -

work every day, what else is an artist? That alone is so impressive to me and miraculous.”

Diaz was eligible for parole after 30 years in prison, In January of this year, Diaz had a stroke that affected her ability to communicate and move; she was eventually granted parole due to several health factors. When Diaz was released on May 31, she met up with Joffee and one of the first things they did was go to a salon to have Diaz’s makeup and hair done. Then they later attended a Pride celebration in Dallas that was Diaz’s first one ever. 

“My freedom feels amazing. I’m ready to start more art…oil painting,” Diaz said in a statement. “For Pride, I want young trans people to feel encouraged, that things are going to get better.“

According to Joffee, Diaz is living in a group home setting adhering to the requirements of her parole. As her health improves, Diaz is hoping to get her parole transferred to Colorado, where Joffee resides, and hopes to resume painting, as well.

“This is a time of adjustment,” Joffee says. “I think each day has its highs and lows. But she's free. It's beautiful.”

Meanwhile, Love, Jamie, which was previously screened at film festivals in the last year, can now be seen on the American Masters’ website. “This film to me is about dignity,” says Murthy, “that yearning for connection and for understanding it, to have someone that you can talk to. I think everyone can relate to that feeling of wanting acceptance and love. And so at the end of the day, I think I want people to see this beautiful relationship too. As Jamie says in the film herself, she wants people to know that ‘we're good people’ and that's what I want people to be left with.”

In getting to know Diaz as he was mounting the 2022 gallery exhibition, Cooney was impressed by her resiliency.

“She was writing me letters from solitary confinement...talking communally about the LGBTQ community," Cooney says. "It's like her spirit has never been beaten, even though she was in a circumstance for 29 years."

"She is now she's released, and she is a delightful, joyful person. She has so much to share with people," Cooney adds.

To Joffee, their friendship with Diaz has changed their life.

“She's family to me,” they say. “I'm lucky to have supportive adult figures in my life, and it's so beautiful to have a trans adult figure in my life. That's very rare... I've learned so much from her.”

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