JAC recently spoke with Casper Cendre, co-founder and director of A.B.O. Comix. A.B.O. is a collective of creators and activists who work to amplify the voices of LGBTQ prisoners through art. By working closely with prison abolitionist and queer advocacy organizations, they aim to keep queer prisoners connected to outside community and help them in the fight toward liberation. The profits A.B.O generate go back to incarcerated artists, especially those with little to no resources. Using the DIY ideology of “punk-zine” culture, A.B.O. was formed with the philosophy of mutual support, community and friendship.
A.B.O. believes our interpersonal and societal issues can be solved without locking people in cages. Their mission is to combat the culture that treats humans as disposable and disproportionately criminalizes the most marginalized amongst us. “Through artistic activism, we hope to proliferate the idea that a better world means redefining our concepts of justice.”
JAC: How did you become involved in this work? What was your path to where you are today? Have your views changed since then?
CC: As a teenager, I had a difficult time connecting with my peers and making friends. Coming to terms with my queer and trans identity in high school often left me feeling alienated, misunderstood and at times, even inhuman. I found an outlet through pen-palling as it seemed easier for me to write out my thoughts than it was to speak with people in person, and in my last year of high school, I found a website you could pen-pal with folks in prison. At the time, there was only one person on the website that openly identified as LGBTQ, so I sent her a letter not knowing that to this day, she would be one of my closest and dearest friends.
Writing with her became therapeutic for the both of us – we explored our intersections of feeling alienated and inhuman together, and both ended up transitioning around the same time. I learned about what life was like for queer and transgender people in prison, and all too often the degradation, abuse, sexual assault and severe neglect that they endure. She introduced me to her friends and soon I was writing with quite a few people in different prisons. Many were artists, and I quickly had a large collection of beautiful drawings, paintings and crafts that my pen-pals had sent me.
I was enamored with the beauty and creativity that manifested in spite of the bleakness of prison life, and I felt compelled to help share this art and their stories with the world. My ever-growing family behind bars helped me start to see the beauty in this world, especially in times that seem the darkest. They have helped me realize that despite the mistakes we make in this life, each one of us (with a little help and encouragement) can blossom into the best versions of ourselves and find our paths to redemption.
JAC: In considering the work of your own organization, what is unique about the programs you have been creating?
CC: In 2017, A.B.O. Comix was started with no road map, no long-term goals or aspirations, and no general understanding of how to become the organization that we are now. Two of my friends and I set out to publish a book with our incarcerated pen-pals and get a little bit of money into their commissary account. We hadn’t seen any comic projects like this before, and had no idea how much of a positive impact it would have.
We started this project with the change in our wallets but soon had fundraised enough to open a P.O. box and buy a used perfect binding machine to painstakingly hand press our books, one copy at a time. Our hand-drawn Call for Submissions ad in the Black and Pink newspaper had our P.O. box flooded with comic storyboards and requests for information the first week. A couple months later, we were throwing our anthology release party at Classic Cars West in Oakland, with hot glue burns on our fingers and a table of hand-screened custom t-shirts with smudged ink.
After our first anthology was published featuring the comics of our incarcerated LGBTQ friends, the trajectory of A.B.O. split into different directions. One of the co-founders no longer had the capacity to continue with the project, and our other eventually moved across the country. For several years though, I’ve found my permanent home as Director of A.B.O. Comix and couldn’t imagine a better thing to dedicate my life to.
Our one-off anthology of queer prisoner’s comics has since become a project I’ve done every year. The list of 20 queer and transgender artists we write with has since become over 250. Our modest fundraising to buy some holiday gifts for people in prison became almost $40,000 donated directly to the commissary accounts of our contributors so they can afford food, art supplies, medical co-pays, gender-affirming items, phone time and legal counsel. Hundreds of letters are written a month, multiple books, anthologies and zines have been published, and I get to dedicate my work on the daily to advocating for our all our contributors for everything from internal grievances to accessing medical care to parole letters to creating artist portfolios.
This last year we created a graphic-novel making curriculum for LGBTQ prisoners, secured our own office space and art gallery, linked up hundreds of free-world people with new pen-pals in prison, helped with re-entry support for our friends getting out of prison, formed relationships with dozens of organizations to better assist our contributors, had our publications featured in college textbooks and course curriculums, and helped introduce the world to the amazing creativity of so many of our incarcerated community members.
Our incarcerated community has helped me aspire to so much more for this coming year: to grow this into an organization that can hire on our formerly incarcerated contributors when they come home; to expand to a retail storefront where we can publicly display all of the art and publications we have collaborated on; to start up our own podcast featuring interviews with our contributors; to become a national collective that eliminates gate-keeping from the publishing industry; and help create thousands of published artists inside prison with vast more opportunities and credentials.
JAC: Have your experiences with creating in prison influenced environments influenced the way you approach your own art and projects?
CC: Although we collaborate exclusively through mail and phone-calls with our contributors in prison and I’ve met very few of our contributors in person, I’ve re-learned the power that small acts of kindness and encouragement can have on a person’s growth and mental, spiritual and psychological well-being. While many of the people we correspond with were already accomplished artists, many more had never attempted a comic before and didn’t consider themselves artists at all.
In encouraging others to try a new craft, no matter what came out of the other side of their pen, it has motivated me to try new mediums myself. Previously, I considered myself only capable of writing creatively, but I now have more faith in myself to try other things just for the fun of it. I have learned how much art can be therapy, and that it is equally about self-expression and manifesting your emotions into reality as it is about creating something lasting and visually appealing.
Our contributors encourage and motivate me every day, and I can only work as hard as humanly possible to repay the kindness.
JAC: How do you think your program affects participants? Have you felt that art influences a person’s self-image or worth, while they are incarcerated? What other impacts do you hope your organization have had on individuals, both incarcerated and not?
CC: Our contributors have become the siblings I never had, and we get each other through the hardest days and uplift & celebrate with each other on the best ones. Some of our artists have been through the darkest moments imaginable, and struggled with self-harm, mental illness, and suicidal thoughts/attempts. But now they have, maybe for the first time, a community to rely on. I have seen many people grow and gain a new sense of accomplishment.
Art is a vehicle for our contributors to express what they may not be able to in words, and becoming published artists with credentials, awards, and their work for sale in art shows has given them something they’ve never had before.
The voices and artwork of our family in prison has reached so many people on the outside, through newspapers, podcasts, college courses and libraries. We have helped introduce the concept of prison reform and even abolition to countless people around the world, and inspired many to bridge connections and strengthen our communities. I am immensely proud of the openness and vulnerability that our friends in prison have shared with us through their stories, and hope that their work will encourage and help so many others.
JAC: What has been the most rewarding part of your experience working with incarcerated artists and actors?
CC: The most rewarding part of my experience working with incarcerated artists has been the friendships I have gained. I have gotten the unique opportunity to get to talk with people from all different backgrounds, places of origin, ethnicities, sexualities, gender identities and ideologies. Everyone has something to teach, and everyone has something to offer, and I am humbled and honored to get to learn what they have to share.
I have learned the life stories – the mistakes and the triumphs – of mothers and fathers, military veterans, business owners, entrepreneurs, engineers, occultists, scientists, and conspiracy theorists. I have gotten the chance to befriend believers and skeptics, Democrats and Republicans (and a healthy dose of Anarchists), immigrants and those who have family lineages here as far back as they can trace…all people our justice system has written off and discarded but who have some of the most valuable life lessons every person should know.
I have gotten the opportunity to get to know these incredible people who are often so open and happy to share their stories, and found the chance to help share that knowledge with others. My friends in prison have taught me that when we know better, we can do better, and for that I hope they never stop allowing me to learn from them.
JAC: The Justice Arts Coalition, as it grows, will continue to seek out and implement a vision of how to better support teaching artists. In your view, what does a supportive network need to include? Are there any current obstacles you are trying to overcome as an organization?
CC: I was introduced to the Justice Arts Coalition at the Connecting Art & Law for Liberation festival at UCLA in 2019, when Wendy and I had the chance to sit down over drinks and talk about the passion we had for our work. Getting to see JAC grow these past few years has been so inspiring to me and an incredibly valuable resource for many of our community members that I give out probably to too many people. My partner jokes that I want to see everyone else buried under the same mountain of letters that I am. *laughs manically* I really look forward to being able to collaborate more to better support all our artists on the inside, and being a support network for each other.
Some of our greatest challenges and obstacles are keeping up with the workload. For many people in prison, there are very few resources and people they can turn to, and most organizations that do exist are overextended, beyond capacity and swamped with the amount of work that needs to be done. A.B.O. receives thousands of letters a year and we are an incredibly small team – it sometimes takes us months to get a response out to each individual. Retaining volunteers, especially during COVID, has been difficult and the workload falls disproportionately on just a few people.
I would love to see our organizations with similar goals come together to distribute the workload and create the most amount of positive change for all involved. A supportive network of organizations we could communicate & collaborate with, each playing to our own strengths, would be instrumental in supporting our artists.
JAC: JAC is focused on ways in which art can connect those in the prison system with those on the outside. Has this relationship been jeopardized by COVID-19? How have you been keeping connections active during this time?
CC: This year has been a rough one for all of us, but especially those on the inside who have lived with the fear of never returning to their friends and loved ones, or never getting to say goodbye to those they lost. We wanted to create a project that would allow our contributors to channel their fears, anxieties and pain into something productive and beautiful, so we published a second anthology this year called Confined Before COVID-19, featuring comics, artwork, poetry and short essays about how the pandemic was affecting people in prison. We asked them to share their thoughts and experiences while COVID spread like wildfire throughout the prison system, and received dozens of submissions that we compiled into an extraordinary collection that serves as a time capsule for this difficult year.
We’ve been working extra hard to make sure we maintain correspondence and connection with all our contributors so that they know they are not alone and not given up on. We started taking calls from prisoners this year, and trained a bunch of new volunteers on letter-writing so that we’re able to chip away at our mail mountain bit by bit. I think our relationships with those on the inside has only gotten stronger this year, and our incarcerated family has more than doubled in size in 2020.
JAC: As our art networks look to the future, how do you hope the pandemic, as well as this period of protest, will alter the public’s understanding of the justice system?
CC: Although this year has collectively been one of the most difficult of our lifetimes, it has given us an opportunity to re-evaluate what is important and what is worth fighting for. The relationships we form with our families and friends are the most critical lifeline we have, and this pandemic has given us time to pause and sort out our priorities. Here in Oakland, the street our office is on was turned into a 2 mile long gallery of protest art (which we captured in our publication, Protest Art – Broadway in Oakland: June 20 2020), bringing our community together through the power of art to have conversations about police brutality and our justice/prison systems.
These conversations are now widespread, with many people discussing these issues for the first time. Our society is learning and engaging more now than I’ve ever seen, and it’s given me a renewed sense of optimism in the power of community. I hope that the art created during this time will encourage us to be kinder to each other, uplift one another, and work towards better days for all of us.
Visit A.B.O. Comix online to learn more about their organization and their artists. Shop for books, zines, prints, apparel, and more! The profits generated go back to incarcerated artists, especially those with little to no resources.