"Y'all better quiet down!" -- a rallying cry not uncommon to anyone working within the prison systems of the United States -- and as often as prisoners are asked to quiet themselves and stifle any semblance of individuality, it's important for everyone else to be rowdy. Queer and trans communities are tired, and since the trans community, who is most often targeted by anti-LGBT laws and legislation, only makes up 0.6 percent of the U.S. population, queer prisoners need help from voices who have not been silenced. Organizations like A.B.O. Comix, a non-profit collective of creators and activists using art to amplify the voices of queer prisoners, not only offers the space for incarcerated queer folks to not quiet down, it offers the space for people on the outside to insure that the silenced can be heard.
UNMASKING: Art Therapy in Prison
Only four years after the Stonewall Riots, Gay Liberation Front co-founder, Sylvia Rivera, grabbed the mic at Christopher Street Liberation Day to deliver her historic speech, a speech that has come to define the inequities inside the gay liberation movement itself, reminding queer prison abolition activists of the challenges of speaking up for their community when no one else is fighting for them. Even listening to the recording, you can hear the fatigue in her voice: the moment feels tragic and familiar, another trans person standing up to confront her supposed LGBTQIA+ allies while knowing that her plea for compassion will once again fall on unhearing ears. As Rivera so succinctly put, “I’ve been trying to get up here all day for your gay brothers and your gay sisters in jail that write me every motherfucking week and ask for your help, and you all don't do a goddamn thing for them.” After the speech, Rivera went home and tried to commit suicide.
What can the loud do to prevent these outcomes? The answer is, with the help of A.B.O., write some comics. It’s possible to improve the situation of queer individuals currently incarcerated through art therapy and comics. The American Art Therapy Association states that if we can “create an attentional diversion of suicidal thoughts and impulses,” then we can help clients “cope with intense emotional states” (2017). Although A.B.O. Comix isn’t born of the art therapy world, it fits nicely in it and is a great addition, as it offers real evidence of people healing through creating comic art together. It also offers queer prisoners a way to communicate with people outside prison, and to let them know about the deplorable conditions inside prison, as well as a way to bond with other contributors inside prison who have shared experiences, something that I learned in the interview has even stopped some people from suicide.
David Gussak, Ph.D., ATR-BC, Project Coordinator for Florida State University’s Department of Corrections Art Therapy in Prisons Program, regularly writes about the value of using art therapy in prison to aid the reentry goals of currently incarcerated individuals. Art therapy enriches lives “through active art-making, creative process, applied psychological theory, and human experience within a psychotherapeutic relationship,” according to the American Art Therapy Association. Not only does Gussak argue that art therapy should be used in prison, he states that the very act of promoting access to art and art therapy is social justice.
Many queer inmates enter prison already wearing a mask, and are then dehumanized even further as part of the punishment. LGBTQ inmates are some of the most vulnerable and disenfranchised members of our society: their identity is stripped from them when assigned a number and uniform as a method of purposefully cementing a loss of individuality and disempowering inmates in the name of safety and security. But for queer inmates, it’s also about something more, forcing us to shed our unholy differences through the only way that society has figured out is tortious enough to break people, prison. Although these commonplace rituals are used to reinforce prisoner separation from society and a sense of punishment for wrongdoing, they make reintegration more difficult, especially for queer inmates who may have already struggled with fitting into their larger community.
Once a queer inmate is behind bars, the unhealthy coping mechanisms that landed them in jail in the first place are even more easily engrained, and that's because true transformation does not come from hiding a person from society until they conform, but from revealing and celebrating that person’s true identity – something that can happen through art, a medium that allows others to see inside the prison walls and recognize that inmates are a mirror of the society from which they emerged. Bringing any form of art therapy, including making comics, inside the prison walls is an act of social justice that offers a way for inmates to develop a better sense of self and reestablish their identity beyond that of being an inmate.
By giving queer inmates a voice, a new label, and a sense of self through art, those in prison can rise above the predicament they have found themselves. Everyone can make art, making it an accessible option for therapists and activists who want a method of humanizing individuals previously dehumanized. Art can breach walls, offering prisoners the opportunity to communicate with those outside the prison walls in a manner acceptable to both the culture inside prison and outside, providing a path for the disenfranchised to reenter society successfully.
In Conversation: Casper Cendre & Supporting Queer Prisoners
In a phone interview, Casper Cendre, the co-founder of A.B.O. Comix, discussed how art helps inmates cope with the severe and traumatic conditions inside prison and the emotional support they receive through working on an anthology with other incarcerated contributors.
Kaplan: How does working on the comix anthologies help queer inmates cope with the conditions inside prison?
Cendre: I've always sort of viewed art as a therapeutic thing, a way to channel any emotions, whether that be negative or positive. In my view, some of the greatest art ever created in history has come from tragedy and trauma. To think about [art] to channel things we need to process, you know, traumatic events or pain or anything like that into art is an incredible resource for people.
I had a vague understanding of that when [A.B.O.] started. Still, I had no idea how big of an impact it really would be for incarcerated people, who generally have very few artistic or creative outlets to begin with, or other healthy outlets in general, especially since COVID happened. A lot of prisons have been on indefinite lockdown and don't even have rec time, so there is no release of pent-up energy or pent-up feelings or anything. People are just stuck in a lockdown nearly 24 hours a day in a very small cell with no sort of visual stimulation and mental stimulation. There are very few outlets to even interact with other people, so many people have channeled their energy on creating art with the massive amounts of time they have been into this whole lockdown scenario.
We've gotten just hundreds and hundreds of letters over the years, saying that this project has given [our creators] a kind of lifeline. It's given them something to work on, think about, and look forward to, as well as a sense of community outside the prison walls. When everybody gets published into an anthology together, and then they all get to see that anthology and realize, hey, we might be separated by different prison units and different sets of bricks and barbed wire. Still, we're all in this together, and we're all here for each other, giving people ways to connect... and have a conversation with each other through their artwork, which is exciting for many people.
We've received some letters saying that it's given people a different option other than the severe and devastating ones they had been considering, like even taking their own lives, especially during Pride month where so many people on the outside are celebrating; there are rainbows everywhere, especially here in California, you look outside, and then it's like ten different rainbow stickers all over the streets. Still, inside prison, people are experiencing brick and gray walls and the same old same old, and it's not much of a celebration for them. So being able to create art is kind of how people can celebrate.
Kaplan: A queer inmate’s sense of self is only further taken away during this process, especially for trans women stuck in a men's prison. What are the challenges of reentry for queer offenders?
Cendre: I think this vast disconnect where if a person has power and authority over somebody else, it gets easy to stop seeing them as a fellow human being who's equal to you and who's also a person. I think something that I learned through this work is the power of talking to a person as if they're on equal footing with you, which is what we should all be doing. I feel like there's so much of this holier than thou. I'm better than you because of my politics, college education, or whatever, and looking down on people who disagree with you or have different viewpoints.
As far as people in prison go and those dynamics, [it's important to] have conversations with people and get to know them on the level of getting to know their needs and just treating them with respect. Because in prison, that's discouraged. Guards are wholly discouraged from getting to know prisoners on a personal level. They see it as a threat to security or a threat to their job. But then, they stop seeing people as human beings, and it gets much easier to mistreat them and much easier to make excuses, like, oh, this person did this, and they've made this mistake, so why would I ever want them to thrive or succeed, like they need to be punished.
I think through A.B.O. my main realization has been that everybody has value. Even if we disagree, even a fundamental disagreement about worldview or ideology, a person is worthy of love and compassion. Not being held to whatever mistakes they've made in their past, but given real room to learn and grow and be seen as somebody with the capacity to change and do better and be valuable members of our community.
My rainbow hippie wishes for Pride are that people are just nicer to each other and hold each other with more compassion and understanding because nobody got to where they're at in a vacuum. People didn't just become prison guards overnight; [they didn’t grow up hating] people in prison and wanting to destroy their lives. It happened over years and years and years, and multiple decisions, so unpacking that with people is essential. And holding as much space for people you dislike, like cops or prison guards, and seeing their humanity, trying to understand their circumstances and where their queerness intersects and stuff like that, I think is just as important as having empathy and compassion for people in prison.
Kaplan: Does that mean you'll help your artists with other problems?
Cendre: We try to help as many people as we possibly can with situations. And we do a lot of advocacy work for our contributors (and pretty much in general): we help file grievances; we help try and navigate the prison bureaucracy; and we help people get doctor's appointments, because a lot of times people will put it in medical requests to see a doctor, and then they just won't ever hear back. Like a friend of mine broke her arm in prison and couldn't get a doctor's appointment, and she just had a broken arm for 6 months, until finally we had been calling and writing and being like, she needs to see a freakin’ doctor, because it hadn't healed right and she could barely use her arm. It took us like 6 months to finally even get her a doctor's visit and by that time there was almost nothing they could do for it other than really break the bone and reset it, and she didn't want to do that.
We also try to help out with writing parole letters or assisting with re-entry support; for example, we did a ton of fundraising for a lot of our friends who are coming home from prison and didn't have any sort of money to get back on their feet, you know, with like the $200 that they get. So, we’ve been able to raise some money. Especially under this administration, there's this big push to release a lot of people from prison, but what has been really scary for me is that it seems like lip service. They're intentionally choosing to release people who do not have family or friends who support them, who do not have anywhere to go, who do not have any financial resources, and have no real stability on the outside. They are releasing them with nothing, like zero opportunities, and there's nothing they can really do other than “commit another crime,” and then re-arresting them immediately and putting them back into prison.
Then, our [policymakers use these failures] as an example, like, “Look, we released these people, and then they committed another crime. So why would we ever try to release anybody?” Crime statistics are going up so much, but they're intentionally only releasing people who have nowhere to go - and no resources and no game plan - and that’s really shifty and shady. A lot of my friends who have been in prison for a very long time, and who came up for parole, who have family support, financial resources, a job lined up, somewhere to go, are being denied parole, over and over and over again. They're only releasing the people who do not have any of that, which is really fucked up and scary.
Kaplan: How do inmates celebrate a holiday like Pride while incarcerated?
Cendre: As far as celebrating stuff goes, I am in favor of anybody who wants to celebrate their queer identity to be able to regardless of whatever else is in their life. I completely understand people not wanting cops in uniform at Pride, or not wanting people in uniform at Pride. That's fine by me. But for me, I think anybody who wants to be supportive of the community or help celebrate in their queer identity, like I'm on board. I think we should all get together, cherish one another, love each other, find solutions, keep the dialogue and conversation open, and hold space for one another. I think existing under any queer identity, many of us have grown up with insecurity, trauma, and fear. I want to see, especially during Pride and stuff, where we have less fear of each other.
We make more room for each other and talk things out because if you're just like constantly gatekeeping and being like you're not good enough, you're not queer enough you're, you're not radical enough. It's like doing the opposite for me of what I think is essential in the queer community, having a community where nobody's perfect. Nobody is 100% making every correct decision. For everybody else, we've all got shit in our past. We've all done stuff that, like, maybe it's not great, or perhaps we're ashamed of or something. I don't like to see this kind of gatekeeping mentality of like, oh I don't like you, or I don't like your job, or I don't like the way you look, or I don't like your skin color, I don't like your sexuality, so you're not welcome here.
Kaplan: Do you have a problem with getting A.B.O.’s comix anthologies to the people that create them?
Cendre: Each prison has its own rules and regulations. It differs by state and by prison what they will and will not allow in. We technically qualify as a small press, making it easier to send stuff than any person who might be interested in sending comics. So, we include an invoice and send the comic off under our business address. Most prisons allow them just fine, but some prisons only allow books from Amazon or other massive book distributors or big bookstores.
We have gotten some of our comics rejected before: they look at the cover and see that it says LGBT, and it's rejected based on being sexually explicit just because it is a queer publication. We try to push back on that a little bit. I have been on the phone with multiple different mailrooms trying to get that sorted out. If it's rejected on the basis that we are not a registered bookstore, that's a lot easier to prove and be like, “No, we are a small press; this is a publishing company, and here's our address.” Usually, we'll fix it. However, if it's rejected based on it being sexually explicit – or sometimes they give us the explanation that this is harmful to the institution in some way – that's a lot harder to fight because it comes down to the subjective reasoning of the individual in the mailroom who's rejecting it. They have more authority over that [than us]. Then, that turns into this long legal thing around free speech, and prisons don't give a shit about that at all. So that makes it a whole lot harder to fight.
(Author’s Note I followed this question up by asking if A.B.O. had fewer books rejected since Donald Trump left office and Biden took over. Honestly, his response shook me because my mistaken assumption was that things had gotten better regarding prison censorship.
Cendre: It got worse. Yeah. I think it's gotten worse under this administration. We've been doing this for five years now. Towards the beginning, we didn't get very many rejections. Maybe it was because we were a smaller press, and people didn't know us yet. Over the years, prisons are starting to recognize our publications more and scrutinize [the correspondence] a bit more. So that could play into it. But I feel like the censorship level has gone up quite a bit in the last year or two.
The crazy thing to me is that many prisons reject anything vaguely sexual, even if that's just like a cartoon character with some nipples exposed. They deem it somehow dangerous, too, like, the institution and the people in prison to view cartoon boobs. But prisons are an inherently dangerous situation. I can't for the life of me get them even to investigate allegations of sexual abuse, assaults, or anything. They can't even take the time to, you know like, help a person experiencing intense violence or trauma. Still, they'll censor some cartoon boobs because it's too dangerous for the people in prison to see them, and it's just it's maddening.
Kaplan: Is there anything else that you would like to add?
Cendre: We have a ton of new publications out. We just put out a few solo publications, like our friend Gabriella “Coco” Wyatt, who is incarcerated at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, La, and is one of the folks who goes to the Angola Rodeo every year. We just published a book of hers called Any Way But Straight. She's one of the most incredible and prolific artists I've ever seen in my entire life. Any Way But Straight is the first five to 10 pages of a bunch of her comic series that she's been working on for decades: they're beautiful and incredible, and she's a wonderful storyteller.
We also put out Dark Matters and Prophesy: Secrets of the Ouija Board by our friend Jeferson Borba De Souza. He was incarcerated for multiple decades under a false alias that the United States government assigned him when he was incarcerated because he had done paranormal and extraterrestrial research with the government, and what he knew was deemed too dangerous for him to be allowed to exist out in the public and share that knowledge with the world... so he was thrown into prison, because he knew too much about government research. While he was in prison (incarcerated under an alias), he wrote tons of books and manuscripts, about all the research he had done, and all the secrets he knew, and nobody took them seriously. It seems like a story that is just too out there to possibly be true, but we kept writing for years, and I kept investigating his claims, doing research, and everything just checked out, like literally everything. It’s so profoundly interesting, and he's so intelligent and incredible. And so we just published that book for him and it's going to be the first of many about his research on extraterrestrial activity.
Unfortunately, a critical aspect of A.B.O.’s endeavor is regularly compromised, getting the comic anthologies to the prisoners who contributed to them. Most prisons restrict reading materials, contributing to an environment of distrust between inmates and correctional officers, and hampering rehabilitative goals. In many states, the Department of Corrections maintains strict guidelines about acceptable content in publications. However, the content rules are often broadly worded, inconsistently implemented, and promote sweeping book bans under the guise of risk management – for example, bans on sexual content are often incredibly broad. And frequently, sexual content categorizations are used to reject materials like National Geographic magazines, photography books, drawing instruction manuals, and comics (including Batman: Eye of the Beholder, How to Draw Comic Book Heroes and Villains, Bitch Planet, and Dungeons & Dragons).
Don’t know what to do?
In addition to supporting A.B.O. Comix, you can learn more about how to support queer prisoners, and for official public policy guidance on this issue check out the National Institute of Corrections website.