Walking into the lion’s den: visiting animal, land, and water defenders in prison

Fence by Shaun Slifer

The first time visiting a friend in prison was a deeply conflicting experience, and one not easy to put into words. The joy of being able to hug them, hold their hands (in a vice-like grip, as if someone was trying to tear us apart), and see their expressions instead of just hearing their voice on the phone – it was a priceless and humbling experience of celebrating human connection in an otherwise dehumanizing situation. But the gut wrenching, dagger-through-the-heart experience of witnessing their conditions of incarceration – even if only in the sanitized space of the visiting room – is unfortunately a feeling far too easy to summon. It’s a feeling that hits me like a sledgehammer any time I think of a comrade in prison.

The friend I was visiting was an earth liberation prisoner, and they ultimately spent 10 years incarcerated in the violent and traumatizing environments that exist inside prison and jail walls that are home to 2.3 million people each year in the U.S (1). But before having the opportunity to visit him, I had the experience of being denied access to visiting another earth liberation prisoner due to the difficulties of navigating international borders.

Art by Nicolas Lampert via JustSeeds

There’s some important background to this story. “Free” was sentenced in the early 2000’s to nearly 23 years in prison for an arson targeting a car dealership selling high-emission light trucks to government and corporate fleets. At the time, such vehicles were the largest cause of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. This was before Gore’s book “The Inconvenient Truth,” before climate change was a widely discussed issue, and during a time when there was a covert multi-agency operation to surveil and ultimately incarcerate environmental and animal liberation activists – later colloquially known as the Green Scare.

From across the Pacific Ocean in Australia, I formed a close friendship with Free through letters and international phone calls that cost him more than the average monthly salary of a working prisoner. While attempting to travel to Oregon to visit Free, I applied for and was denied U.S. tourist visas twice. Maybe I was denied because of my prior arrests for old growth forest defense, or because I didn’t have enough money in my bank account. I’ll never know. But by the time my third visa application was finally approved, Free had won his appeal and was out of prison. After spending 10 years in prison, Free is currently celebrating his tenth year of freedom from incarceration. We ended up getting married and are still living together in Oregon, but that’s another story.

Not being able to visit Free while he was in prison was extremely painful for us both. Yes, we had letters and phone calls, but the lack of physical connection can’t be underestimated in adding to a deep sense of loneliness. We both had really rough things happen in our lives during that time – loved ones dying, house fires, betrayals, injuries, and physical threats – and not being able to provide physical comfort to each other really compounded how hard everything felt. Not only were we separated by giant walls guarded with guns and razor wire, but we also had the injustices of national borders and political repression keeping us physically apart. The costs associated with even trying and failing to visit Free were massive. Now that I can visit friends in prison here in the U.S., I also know how expensive it can be to succeed in visiting people in the carceral system. People in federal detention can end up in prisons on the other side of the country from where their loved ones live. Transportation, accommodation, child care, food, and time off work can add up very quickly, and can make visiting a loved one in prison very difficult or potentially impossible.

The financial burden sits heavily on top of the emotional toll that visiting a friend in prison can take. One of Free’s friends and a core prison support team member, Otter, remembers the visitation process he undertook many times:

When my friend Free went down for what we fully expected to be a 23 year sentence, it was very clear how much it helped his spirits to have regular visitors come and see him. This can be a hard thing to do – as activists who regularly face law enforcement officers at protests and demonstrations. Visiting a correctional facility feels like walking into the lion’s den. You have to give them your real name and official identification, submit yourself to metal detectors and physical searches, and then walk through clanging gates and steel doors which lock you farther and farther away from the outside world.

However, when you see the face of your friend laughing at stories from before they went in and snickering at the latest gossip from your community, you always know your visit was worth every bit of trouble you had to take. The hardest part is walking back out through all those gates and leaving your friend behind—but not doing it at all is even worse.

In 2016, project FANG was launched to help family, friends, and comrades with the costs associated with visiting earth and animal liberation prisoners in the U.S. The fund was founded by long-term prisoner support and prison abolition activists to deal with a critical need: earth and animal liberation prisoners were missing out on visits from loved ones due to a lack of financial resources. Since its inception, project FANG has been able to fund visits to people incarcerated for actions taken against the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock, animal liberation activists who sabotaged fur industry targets and conspired to liberate caged animals, and earth liberation activists imprisoned after years of eluding the authorities, among others. It should be noted that all of the prisoners who are provided visitation support by project FANG take a principled stand against cooperating with authorities (i.e., not snitches).

Visits funded by project FANG have a big impact. One recipient of visitation funding shared:

I arrived home late last night from a transcontinental flight funded by project FANG. The visit with my dear old friend Justin, imprisoned for the last decade, was healing and wonderful. Thank you all for making this happen.

There are many other similar stories of joy, relief, and connection.

Unfortunately, there is a rising number of people being incarcerated for taking action in defense of the earth and other animals, especially with the deepening sense of urgency around climate change leading to regular massive actions and strikes, and resulting arrests. But if people who are considering taking a stand on these issues see that solidarity reaches through prison walls, we can build a more inclusive and supportive movement.

Project FANG currently has reliable funding of $5,000 per year to continue providing this important support to earth and animal liberation prisoners and their loved ones. But due to an increase in funding requests, there is a need to build upon the finances available to recipients. Project FANG is running a donation drive now through to December 3, 2019, with the aim of doubling the funding pool to $10,000 for both this year and 2020. If you can help project FANG reach this goal, even with a small donation, please head to their fundraiser page. Supporting project FANG not only helps incarcerated comrades and their loved ones maintain physical connections and overall well-being, but it sends a larger message that prison walls guarded with guns and razor wire cannot destroy our solidarity, and we will not allow those who stand up for the environment and other animals to be forgotten.

(1)  https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie2019.html

Lilia Letsch is the Project Coordinator for Agency. She works professionally in the fields of communications and ecological restoration. Over the last two decades she has been involved in direct action organizing, as well as communications and outreach work for a variety of environmental and wildlife conservation non-profits. Additionally, she has supported a range of grassroots projects, including ancient forest defense campaigns, political prisoner support projects, radical community centers, and DIY publications, including serving as an occasional editor for Black and Green Press.

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