The [prison] regime breaks some, physically exterminates others. An uncounted many…awaken a new and incorrigible political fantasy, which continuously haunts civil society and its resident nonimprisoned activists and intellectuals.
Dylan Rodríguez, 2006
Everyday I speak with a friend, loved one, or political acquaintance who is imprisoned. Mostly organizers I’m collaborating with on projects. Some days more than once. Some days I speak with multiple people locked up. People I sincerely and truly care about.
Whether by phone or letter or email, I do it on principle. Everyday contact is made with someone. I’ve been doing this for the past year with increasing consistency. I’m not paid to do this. It is part of my praxis & a process of what can only inadequately be called solidarity.
I’m trying to think about the language used to describe the presence in my life of co-organizers and friends more generally who are locked up, during the moments when we are not communicating.
When the phone hangs up, when the jPay or ConnectNet emails take days to process, in the moments when I am incapacitated or unable to reach people due to the tedious, mundane, and often boring activities of “making a living” on the outs.
Their presence remains, in my mind, in my body-memory and lifeworld. Ever-present. In the spaces between contact and communication. In the ebb, pause, and break. They never fully leave me, and what I’m realizing is neither I them.
There is transformation—both personal and communal—in the unfolding of such relationships that makes this sociality something more significant to interrogate than considering it mere “correspondence.” There is a transformative element to it. That’s what I’m working through.
More significant to acknowledge may be the processes of transformation that occur in the void between the structurally-fleeting instances of momentary connection which define correspondence across prison walls.
Avery Gordon writes in her study of haunting as material social phenomena: “Transformation means something distinct from resistance…It is the precarious but motivated transition from being troubled, often inexplicably or by repetitively stuck explanations, to doing something else.”
Thinking about “haunting” as a concept gets me closer to thinking about this situation. The circumstances and the affective register of it all.
The longer I do this work, the more I have come to realize that it is an apparitional encounter—with the absent-presence of some of my best friends and accomplices held in bondage by the United States—that motivates and compels me to continue to fight as often as this encounter, quite always actually, serves to reinscribe the isolation, the trauma, the pain, and the deprivation that defines state captivity, bodily disintegration, and community disorganization.
Although I still am not satisfied with it, “haunting” as a concept nevertheless gets me closer to describing the structure of feeling (or something more?) at play here, despite its negative connotation in the public imaginary and characteristic, symptomatic fear.
I experience the world from a position of social life, of relative bodily freedom and mobility as non-imprisoned and outwardly cis-gendered and white, while my imprisoned comrades [live] in systematically enforced civil/social death. Literal not just figurative/metaphorical social death.
In the intensely present absence of imprisoned comrades, in the moments when conditions of disappearance become most stark and real, how does this sociality and feeling of collectivity remain potent or in tact for the non-imprisoned?
Albeit mostly invisible, albeit asymmetrically experienced, what does this look like on both ends of the relation that is in lay terms described through the dichotomy of “inside/outside”? The question of absent presence can also be posed inversely regarding the captive-imprisoned.
As a structure of feeling, how can meditating on the apparitional presence of the absent imprisoned activist (in what are often distended moments disappearance from the field of social visibility) and its living effects, give rationale and imperative, new affective drives and psychic registers, or create the possibility and circumstances for its own undoing?
How do such encounters force us to reckon with or in the best case participate in the precarious but motivated transition from being troubled, often inexplicably or by repetitively stuck explanations, to doing something else?
To be clear I’m not trying to normalize the carceral regime that keeps us torn apart; but rather, in the midst of organizing, fighting, and daily waging counter-warfare against criminalization and imprisonment, what are the forms of sociality—and in my case as maybe yours: radical political community—that we (differences in positionality considered) are the collective authors and producers of across prison walls?
I’m being careful to parse out the operative aspects here for many reasons. But whatever it may be, such encounters with the present absence of my incarcerated loved ones’ and its lingering effectivity is what compels and paradoxically nourishes me. It is such encounters that drive my madness (the violent fluctuation and instability of my lived mental health, my sorrow and grief and range of anxieties) yet simultaneously orient me towards a horizon of struggle not yet fully articulated.
As much as a haunting that pains me to no end it is the very stuff the moves me to change things. One of the many sources of my compulsive commitments to abolitionist praxis. I wonder for how many others this sentiment resonates.
In their absence, during lapses in communication,
in the midst of aspirational longing for connectivity,
how do I encounter the presence that always remains of an imprisoned loved-one
how do i do this in ways that rupture open historical processes and create new avenues for social movement?
In ways that galvanize the drive towards decolonization, abolition, and communization as opposed to cement me in
relegate the practice of correspondence to an act of charity, voluntaristic social work social-work-style support