My name is Xy, though Vanessa refers to me as simply “X”. I’m a collective member of Austin ABC, and one of Vanessa’s long-term supporters. She is housed at the Alfred Hughes Unit, in Gatesville – about an hour and a half from Austin. Though we exchange letters frequently, I like to visit her about once a month for that added level of support and connection that letters can’t offer.
On visitation days I generally wake up and feel a lot of excitement to see Vanessa, with a small mixture of anxiety because – well, prisons are fucked up and scary. For clarification, it’s not scary because it’s filled with inmates. As Vanessa put it, “Once you walk into this building you think to yourself ‘wow, there’s a possibility I could never walk out. I could be forced to spend the rest of my life here'” She is housed in ad-sed (that’s short of administrative segregation, which is sort of like solitary confinement – though whereas solitary is used as a form of punishment, ad-seg is a housing unit where she stays in her cell upwards of 23 hours a day.) Due to her status, we’re not allowed to have a contact visit. Once I pass all the security, check points, passive aggressive and misogynist guards, bolted doors, hand my ID over several times, I end up in the visitation area. It’s an open room filled with picnic tables and families spending cherished time with their loved ones, surrounded by prison guards – I can only describe it as surreal. I pass all the families around a few corners, and end up in the ad-seg visitation booths. These are small concrete rooms sectioned off by numbers, with bullet proof class, a phone, and a sign hanging ominously below a light fixture for dramatic effect that reads “all communication subject to video and audio recording.”
10 or 15 minutes go by before Vanessa is escorted into the room by 2 guards. She kneels on the ground to push her handcuffed hands through a tiny slot in the door. Once her hands are free, and the guards leave, we’re granted 2 hours of visitation. Every time she walks up to the glass, my eyes wander to her wrists and I feel a pang of sadness because the cuffs leave deep, swollen and red imprints. It’s all very routine up until our actual visit – once we start talking and catching up, the anxiety melts away and we try to momentarily forget the horrific circumstances that have lead to us communicating through class. Prison is nightmarish hellscape, but it’s not powerful enough to break the bond of friendship.
This past Sunday, 8/7/2016, I visited Vanessa along with my friend Anna, who has also been helping with Vanessa’s advocacy and other ABC projects. This visit seemed much more relaxed than others, and Vanessa seemed in good spirits as usual. Her optimism can be a little infectious at times. The circumstances she’s in would drive most people into an insufferable depression, but Vanessa’s trick is to keep busy and maintain connections to the outside through letter writing and listening to her radio. Prisoners can purchase a radio through commissary, though they are quite expensive, making them relatively inaccessible. Vanessa hustles artwork to make money to help other trans women on her unit buy radios to “keep them from going stir crazy”, as well as purchase other necessities like extra soup packets, a fan, blankets, shower shoes, etc. We’ve discussed coming up with a program that would make radios more accessible to trans inmates in seg.
After we caught up on the happenings on the outside world, we just talked about our personal lives and whatever else came up, and there were plenty of good laughs because Vanessa is a bit of a jokester. Toward the end of visitation hours, I also met with Vanessa’s friend Angel, a new pen-pal of mine, who is a trans woman on her cell block. We discussed personal matters and I ended the visit by tapping on the glass three times, Vanessa’s sign between them for “I love you.” Angel understood and laughed.
Visiting Vanessa is a very personal experience, so I avoid going into great detail when I talk about it. However, she has requested that I give general updates, and has given me full permission to publish anything she writes to me in a letter. I wanted to give y’all a brief and general overview of what visits are like. Please let me know if you have any specific questions, and I’ll be happy to answer to the best of my knowledge and comfort level.
Vanessa has asked me to relay this message to you all: Thank you. Thank you for supporting her, whether it is through following this blog, writing to her personally, or having a conversation with a friend about how we can imagine a world without cages.
I assume that anyone following this blog has a basic understanding of prison abolition, or maybe has a loved one of their own in prison, jail, detention centers, etc. I’m working on compiling a list of resources for those curious about what a world without bars would look like. For someone new to this concept, it can seem overwhelming, if not impossible. Some people simply never think about it because it’s not something that directly impacts their daily lives. But for millions of people such as Vanessa, a substantial part of their lives are robbed by the state to make profits and cause irreversible harm to them and their loved ones. Though she is eligible for parole in 2021, this will continue to impact her for the rest of her life. Vanessa is devoting her life to making change for trans inmates – and indeed reform is very important within an abolitionist framework. As we chip away at these systems that treat humans like damaged throw-aways, we see the long term goal, but put just as much heart into making short term changes that could literally save a life, or make life within those confines slightly more bearable.
Solidarity and love to all of our friends on the inside.