“Every time I go to the post office, it’s almost like Christmas morning,” Casper Cendre tells me, describing a mountain of envelopes decorated with beautiful drawings sent to him from prisons all over the U.S.
Cendre is the director and co-founder of ABO Comix, a publisher and collective whose mission is to amplify the voices of LGBTQ prisoners through art. Since 2017, the Oakland-based group has collected and published comic art in anthologies that they distribute in and outside of prisons. Sales of these anthologies help to pay the contributors, who receive donations in their commissary funds. Copies of ABO’s books are distributed to prison libraries for free.
Now in their fourth year, Cendre and the four other volunteers who currently comprise ABO correspond with more than 200 incarcerated artists. Cendre describes all of these creators as their very large, extended family. It’s palpable throughout our conversation how much love he feels for the people in their network.
“That feeling of mutual respect between two people on opposite sides of prison walls is something that so many people are lacking in their lives,” Cendre says.
ABO’s website features a page of anonymous testimonials from prisoners’ letters which reinforce Cendre’s observation.
One person writes, “Thanks so much for the birthday card you sent me! Appreciated! It was the only one I received.”
Another writes, “I’ve been up almost an hour and now I’m sippin’ on a hot cup of coffee & eating a honey bun because you guys at ABO Comix made it possible for me to do so!”
Several call ABO their family.
This year, as the U.S. struggles to curb the spread of Covid-19, life inside prisons has become more challenging than usual. While the general public felt stifled by shelter-in-place orders, ABO Comix sent a mass mailer to everyone on their list asking for submissions describing how the pandemic is impacting them behind bars.
“I just thought it was a really important project to have this historical documentation directly from the people who were experiencing it,” says Cendre, who received almost 50 contributions in a month.
In June, ABO released Confined Before Covid-19: A Pandemic Anthology by LGBTQ Prisoners.
Cendre says, “They don’t have access to anything that they would normally have, which is in general very limited at the best of times.”
Cendre explains that every time a new case of Covid-19 is confirmed, most prisons go on lockdown for 14 days, quarantining everyone. That said, between prisoners living together in small cells and corrections officers going in and out of the facilities, cases of infection continue to occur, often leading to indefinite lockdowns.
An artist named Kinoko writes in the anthology, “Prison Industries at Lovelock switched over to make masks for staff and first responders.”
Ironically, Cendre says that he has heard a lot of reports of prisons that aren’t taking the risk seriously, where people aren’t wearing masks or washing their hands regularly.
During lockdown, commissaries aren’t available and prisoners are sometimes given just one cold sack meal a day. Visitors aren’t permitted. Some prisoners reported to ABO they were given free five-minute calling cards to stay in touch with loved ones, but phones themselves are few. Programs that bring outside instructors into prisons are canceled. Even prison libraries are closed.
“We got a couple reports from Texas prisons that over 30 of their guards in a lot of units had just up and quit,” says Cendre.
ABO received letters from several prisoners who are older and immunocompromised.
Cendre says, “They’re really scared because the prison has an outbreak and they’re terrified that they’re not going to come home, that this is going to become a death sentence for them.”
I talked with Cendre for a little over an hour, our conversation oscillating between heart-wrenching and exuberant as we shifted from talking about prisoners’ hardships to their art and the project’s impact.
“We updated our mascots from our logo, which are really adorable little monsters who are wreaking havoc on a prison,” Cendre says, describing the cover of Confined Before Covid-19. “We put one of them in a hazmat suit and gave one of them a mask and another a bottle of hand sanitizer.”
ABO sent free copies of the new collection to all contributors and put $50 in each of their commissary funds. They also added around $20 to the commissary funds of all non-contributors on their mailing list.
To date, ABO has been able to donate $31,535 to LGBTQ prisioners since 2017. Funding comes from several avenues, including Patreon support, direct sales of merchandise, fundraiser parties (before Covid-19) and grants.
“I really love our Bay Area community for always having our backs and supporting us through these times,” Cendre says.
Oakland, which is home to several prison abolitionist organizations, has been instrumental in ABO’s organization-building, philosophy and mission.
Cendre, who has lived in Oakland for six years, says he couldn’t imagine a better place. He describes Oakland’s queer community as selfless, compassionate and filled with people who are ready to put time and effort into projects that align with their politics.
ABO is fiscally sponsored by the Queer Cultural Center of San Francisco, who assists them in writing grants. In 2019, ABO was granted about $25,000.
“A lot of that money was spent developing a comics curriculum to implement inside prisons,” Cendre says. “At some uncertain future date,” he adds, sighing.
When ABO first launched, it was planned as a one-off anthology. Io and Woof, the other two co-founders, are experienced comic artists and provided editorial feedback and mentorship to prisoners sending their work. Providing feedback to help artists hone their skills became a vital part of ABO’s work. Cendre says that, beyond being something healthy and productive to focus on, it also provides people with a portfolio and job experience.
“We write a lot of recommendations for parole boards,” Cendre says. “We help people with resumes and reentry support and all sorts of stuff.”
Io and Woof eventually stepped away from the collective. Cendre, who has been doing prison advocacy work since high school, wound up quitting two jobs in order to make ABO his full-time work.
He invested in an office space at Classic Cars West. The project is sustained through the immense dedication of its volunteers—not even Cendre currently takes a paycheck. Still, he sounds confident about the future of ABO and his ambition inspires confidence in those around him. There are a lot of exciting developments in the works for the collective.
“Very soon we’re going to start doing YouTube videos or a podcast,” he says. “Quite a few of our longtime contributors that we’ve been writing with for over four years are being released because of Covid. So they’re coming home and we want to do some interviews with them.”
Cendre is also planning phone interviews with artists who are still on the inside.
Readers on either side of prison walls can look forward to a host of new books, as well. ABO will soon begin releasing graphic novels and omnibuses of individual artists’ work in addition to their annual anthologies.
For most prisoners, 2020 has been a devastatingly hard year, but ABO is providing hundreds with books that reflect their creativity and resilience.
One prisoner writes, “The content [of the anthology] is flawless. It shows A) our community is so brave and strongly unified that we support each other’s heart without judgment and B) our members are survivors. We are fuckin’ human, we cry and we cower but we fight.”