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Oct 26, 16

Event in Support of Luke O’Donovan asks the Question, “What Constitutes a Prison?”

From Where the River Frowns

“If a prison can take on so many variations in form (i.e. no walls, an executive chefuse of drugs and alcohol, family living with you, etc) then what constitutes a prison? If it is the nature of the relationship of being subject to the control of another, regardless of the form of that control, then certainly a prison is the only future the state has for you in any form.” 

There was a benefit held Sunday, October 16th to raise money and awareness for Luke O’Donovan and the nationwide prison strike that is in its fifth week. Luke O’Donovan is a queer anarchist prisoner who just finished a two year prison sentence for defending himself against a homophobic attack in Atlanta. The night was themed around points Luke had initiated in an interview on It’s Going Down Cast: his experience in prison, his banishment from Georgia as a term of probation, and his involvement in a network of communes.

The judge in Luke’s case tried to punish his openness to the world by expelling him out into it. As a condition of probation Luke is only allowed in one county in Georgia. It is a county where he has no friends or connection. This condition was determined by a whim of the judge in order to further marginalize Luke’s politics so that they would collapse without support. However Luke was receiving dozens of letters each week in prison, always had the highest allowable amount on his commissary, and had weekly visits from friends, family, and comrades. Luke attributes this to the interdependent lives that he and his friends and comrades have intentionally fostered for years. This life involves buying houses in the same neighborhood, opening a store together, committing to developing a rural land base, and no less marching in the streets together.

Luke’s imprisonment continues to be a social relationship that tries to deny him from being drawn into the intimacy and trust that generated the courage and indignation for him to defend himself. He was first captured by the state and kept confined within walls. This did not wither the rhizomatous interconnections of his life. Now, secondly, the state pursues an opposite approach of ripping him out by the roots and transplanting him into the lonely deficiencies of what most of us have come to know as the normalcy of everyday life. However, the resilience of what is a radical alternative to prison is that our social ecologies are polycultural and heterogeneous. “We are everywhere,” and everywhere is the front line of our war as we put this “everyday” of our lives in common.

Doors opened at PG at 6pm, allowing for about forty minutes for pondering the installments that people had applied to the space to give texture and context to the night. There were posters for the prison strike on the wall framing a shadowbox between them that read “Confined But Not Conforming” highlighting the will to self-expression of prisoners as they refuse a condition that controls the body as a means to break the will.


A solar panel hung on the wall attached to a TV that displayed an electric chair and a note in the corner of the panel read, “When we execute the first prisoner with solar energy, what in that moment will we have won?” Below that were pictures of “Green Prisons” each accompanied by a description of the millions of dollars spent in design and construction to make these prisons “sustainable.” A prompt read:

“Please pay attention to the assumed benefits of these design implementations and the amount of work and financial resources that went into making these prisons (over 500 million for a two hundred person prison). After all the hundreds of millions of dollars and environmental concerns, the studies and awards, these are still prisons. There is nothing fundamentally ‘good’ about a technology like solar, there is something ‘bad’ about the social relationship fundamental to prison. These solar panels are better used as unproductive props for this display than as ‘energy savings’ for the efficiency and future of the prison system.

Ask yourself how much the state invests into your future, and if the state’s future for you is a sort of prison. Is a prison really the best the government can do, as is suggested in this first panel (a New York prison won ‘best solar project of the year’). If a prison can take on so many variations in form (i.e. no walls, an executive chefuse of drugs and alcohol, family living with you, etc) then what constitutes a prison? If it is the nature of the relationship of being subject to the control of another, regardless of the form of that control, then certainly a prison is the only future the state has for you in any form.”

A small boat sat in the middle of the room with a screen in front of it. On the screen, a video of a serene Australian shore line with the tide softly lapping at it. A note read, “Britain colonized Australia with over 165,000 prisoners. Even an island paradise can be a prison.”

One of the two bathrooms had the door propped open and a cot placed inside. The room was 4 square feet smaller than an isolation cell which is 6×9 feet or 54 square feet. A note on the wall asked people who they would lock away in prison if they had the opportunity to decide.  Someone had written “indigenous people,” who have the highest rate of incarceration, and “Chelsea Manning” who is currently facing the rest of her life in an isolation cell. This was a provocation for people to consider why someone(s) had targeted these folks. It is an uncomfortable consideration, and a small and claustrophobic space to imagine anyone in for any length of time asking themselves “why me.” It seems “unnatural” for there to be an “ideal” prisoner, but this implies that prisons are by their nature less than ideal; which is why the ideal of communes might be a suitable weapon against them.

On the wall beside the bathroom there was a four foot honeycomb made of blackberry canes with pictures of incarcerated anarchist prisoners and their sentence and crime written out inside of each hexagon. Beside was written, “prison is not natural.” Below that sat a beehive box on a stack of chopped wood. Each frame had some shape made out of honey comb and corresponding data about the U.S. prison system and how that compares to Evansville.  The hive box and the firewood were loaned out for the occasion by a collective housing experiment in Evansville, whose residents were on hand helping to organize the night.

This led into the stage room where the performers played music, the presenters spoke, and zines and merchandise were on display and for sale. In the cavity of the garage door at the back of the building was framed a 6 x 9 “tiny house” with windows, a door, and a roof. This was an attempt at referencing intentional communities. One of the people arrested in Tennessee for September 9th solidarity actions parallels Luke not only in that they take to the streets with comrades but that they live on a queer commune. Decisions are made by consensus, the land is owned collectively, the infrastructure is built as a group and for shared means, and it is contiguous to other communes that they maintain relations with amounting to over a thousand acres. For Luke and this arrested comrade, a commune is not a closed border around a parcel of land, it is a way of engaging with the world in an intentional and collective manner. These principles undermine the underlying social dynamics that constitute a prison; top down governance, isolation, alienated labor, and emotional deprivation.

Luke O’Donovan spoke by Skype from California where he currently lives with his aunt. He said he is well, though being out of prison is odd because now he is allowed to go anywhere (with permission), except the place he wants to go–home to the commune he was building in downtown Atlanta with his friends and comrades. He said that he is supported where he is because before his incarceration he had met people there while helping to connect a network of anti-authoritarian communes. Luke said that this is what he considers the alternative to prison, this totally different “form of life.” He said that life outside of prison is much the same as in prison except that there is more space; “but you wake up, go to work, come home and watch TV, go to bed and do it all over again the next day. The product of your labor is determined by someone else and taken from you.” He asked that those attending the benefit fill out postcards that had been provided to request his judge rescind his banishment. Most in attendance did this for him.

Luke’s talk was bittersweet. The performance afterward by the punk band Heavy Period was just bitter. Luke’s case came about from gendered violence and this was also the subject of the first of two songs by the band. Echoing strings and dragging and slamming percussion fell out of a cavern of screams about sexual harassment and gendered violence.  Something wrong was happening. You wanted to look away but you felt like you needed to be a witness.Then a roundtable conversation facilitated by a representative of a housing project currently underway in Bloomington, Indiana. The speaker had faced charges and over a decade in prison that resulted in probation from the anti-I-69 direct actions here in Evansville in 2008. He spoke about the current development of “subversive infrastructures or sub-structures” as an alternative or negation of prisons. This involved a history of the urban development that built up and decayed across America in the last century and the intentional communities and intentional criminalities that have grown out of the rotted framing of those structures and continue to hurry its collapse by eating at it like termites. Currently they are developing a shared living arrangement on a single parcel in downtown Bloomington as well as a “village” in the same neighborhood. Both projects are possible due to these dynamics of decay opening up “exceptions” in governmental urban planning. Those gathered around couldn’t help but imagine the abundance of applicable “opened exceptions” here in Evansville.

The night was closed by a raging stampede driven by the sound of Boneclaw–a metal band from Evansville who always informs the people at their shows about the politics in their music and the passion they feel to be playing while near fifty prisons are on strike and revolting. After a night of hearing about prison, hearing about communities formed from trying to tear apart a world that is still trying to “sustain” prison development, Boneclaw’s angry and deafening disavowal of reforming this world made you ready to go out into the night to destroy it.

There was a lot of information and ideas at the benefit. Maybe too much. Then again it is going to take “too much” to abolish prisons. It is going to take living in common, but living in a way that refuses to be exiled to the commune or isolated from struggle. There seemed to be a common theme of sustaining a future. On one side there are attempts to sustain slavery and incarceration. On the other side there is sustaining a fight. It seemed like an oversight that the organizers didn’t draw attention to the example provided by the indigenous folks at Standing Rock.  This very minute in North Dakota they are in effort to cultivate a daily life that is by the force of its difference a fight against the indifference of the carcerale system, and by its most marginalized victims. But we can’t ever do enough to change how things are, and we can’t do everything. Just do anything other than prison, but be critical and make sure it actually is something else or we will replicate the tensions of prison everywhere and in any form.

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