In the wake of the 2020 Black Live Matter protests, many people are learning for the very first time about the concept of prison abolition and advocacy for incarcerated people. But many communities and activists have been doing the work for decades. This work has involved connecting with incarcerated people, giving them a voice, and striving to end the systems that keep our fellow citizens in such inhumane conditions. Casper Cendre, one of the founders of A.B.O. Comix, has dedicated years of his life to advocacy. His incredible work highlights the voices of incarcerated LGBTQ+ people through artistic expression.
Founded in 2017, A.B.O. Comix is a queer-organized collective that supports queer incarcerated people. The group creates gorgeous anthologies of work from people living in prison. They compile and publishing these submissions, with all the funds going back to the contributors and their families. What began as a conversation between three friends—Cendre, Io, and Woof—has turned into a full-time publisher, with multiple releases and a huge network of queer creators and incarcerated people working together to imagine a fairer and more radical world. “We were talking about prisoner advocacy and comics,” Cendre told Nerdist. “I brought up some of my artist friends in prison, and we just thought it’d be kind of a cool idea to see if they would want to contribute to a comic anthology.”
After putting an advert in the Black and Pink newspaper, the crew was inundated with responses from people in prison. “The response was incredibly overwhelming. We got hundreds of letters in response and so many comics submissions in a really short timeline. So we put together that first anthology that year and just thought we’d see where the project went from there, and here we are four years later!” Cendre laughed. In that time, A.B.O. Comix has grown exponentially. And, as the co-founder shared, it hasn’t always been an easy ride. Cendre said, “It’s been kind of a rollercoaster, honestly.”
In the early days as the founders moved, worked, and lived their own lives while running the ever-growing organization, Cendre spent a lot of time just trying to stay in touch with the prison community. “I was just keeping in contact with everybody on the inside the best I could. It was kind of me floundering not really knowing what I was doing. But the letters I would receive from everybody on the inside were so beautiful, uplifting, and motivating. They were like, ‘Don’t give up on this. It’s something special and you have our support 100 percent. Anything we can do, we’ll do.’ It just grew into a family and a community of people who have just been the best part of my life the last four years. And something that I look forward to doing. I’m so excited that it’s my full time job now.”
It’s not just Cendre who has found a calling in A.B.O Comix. The group’s impact and aspirations are much bigger. “People are getting out of prison and wanting to come be a part of it, to grow this into something huge,” Cendre said. “So when people get out of prison, they can come be a part of the community, they can hopefully have a job. We’re working on getting national grant funding. It’s really exciting to see it grow. I can’t believe it went from like one little comic that we were like, ‘Okay, well this will be a fun project for us to work on for a couple months,’ to now being mine and a lot of people’s whole life. This is their gig now that they’re putting their all into.”
Looking forward, there’s a lot to be excited about. “Everything is kind of evolving right now,” Cendre explained. “The last four-and-a-half years…were really kind of our stumbling blocks. We managed to put out a ton of publications and do a bunch of events. Now it’s sort of like feeling out what we have the capacity to maintain longterm.” Part of that planning includes a switch to a new newsletter format. This will enable Casper and co. to stay in touch with those on the inside and publish their work without the long wait that comes from individually responding to the hundreds of letters that they get each month.
As well as the newsletter and numerous new books, A.B.O. Comix is starting a podcast, which Cendre is clearly excited about. “We’ll be doing individual interviews with our contributors. They’ll be long-format, so we’ll just get people on the phone and hit record and just start talking. People can share whatever they want to about their life or their story or anything they might need. And then we’ll be publishing those podcast interviews. So we’re starting that up right now, and that’s probably the most exciting thing on the horizon.”
If people want to get involved in advocacy for incarcerated queer folks, Cendre has some solid advice. “The best introduction into prison stuff is really talking to the people who are impacted by it. There are so many people on the inside who have no one else, they’ve been abandoned by their family and friends. And they have almost zero contact with the outside world, with the exception of organizations who are so overwhelmed already because there’s hundreds of thousands more people in prison than there are people who are doing any sort of prisoner advocacy stuff. So getting in contact with people on the inside and just writing a letter and getting to know people and hearing their stories firsthand, I think it’s the best possible way you could do it.”
Cendre has some great recommendations for organizations that help people in prison connect with the outside world. Just some of the many orgs doing this work include Abolition Apostles, Friends Beyond the Wall, and Black and Pink.
Cendre continued, “So much of what the general public knows about prison life is very secondhand. It’s TV shows or movies or media; it’s not their stories from them. And I see this overwhelming movement towards abolition, towards learning, and all of that stuff and people not really knowing where to start. I really think the best place to start is actually forming relationships and friendships with the people on the inside. So much of advocacy is trying to do stuff on other people’s behalf, what you think is going to be best for somebody else’s well being. And I think the best thing that I’ve learned is never try to do something on the behalf of somebody else without asking them first.”
Featured Image: A.B.O. Comix