I do not ever want to know this trip, completely. I want the exits to remain foreign, the buildings along the way to stay strange. I never want to recall that the first entrance to the parking lot doesn’t go anywhere, and so I’ll always be just about to pull into it, and then continue on to the actual entrance, the one that leads to the nearly vacant lot in front of a place full of cages, rules, dehumanization, sadness, and listless, wasted human love and energy. I do not want to know how the lockers work as I watch others fumble with them, how to load money onto the little card to buy food for my friend while newcomers comment that there was nothing on the website about needing a five dollar bill to buy one, that I can only bring five books and periodicals (combined) for someone with nearly limitless time but no access to any sort of education whatsoever where she is trapped for surviving an attack on her life and for whom even the best representation imaginable is swimming upstream against a system which detests, numbers, and ultimately forgets her for being young, femme, black, poor, and a sex worker. I hate that I recognize COs, other than in the way one simply recognizes enemies, and I hate that the visitation room is now familiar to the point where I can confidently comment that the selection of sugars, trans fats, and partially hydrogenated soybean oils I can fetch for someone whose normal daily intake is far worse is slightly more varied today, even though they are out of water, napkins, and sporks.
It’s a nice day, but we can’t use the patio, which seems to have been built and designed simply to give the illusion that people are ever allowed to be out of doors with their loved ones. Alisha tells us two people were caught having sex out there, and so the assistant warden had to order it closed. There are a lot of people here this Sunday to see family and friends, and one of the collective and I catch each other in the unavoidable station of emotional voyeurs as one inmate’s small children catch sight of her coming around the corner from the vending machines, screaming “mommy” and springing into her arms as only ones so motivated are capable. It is at once an undeniably affecting scene and the site of absolute revulsion at the reminder that we perpetuate a society which mandates it will occur again and again, wrenching people apart and allowing them a gasp of air for a few hours to be back together, a heart-rending recidivism which is a natural side effect of a completely unnatural institution.
Alisha is Alisha, which is to say: a fucking beacon of passion, curiosity, swagger, and hope in the greyest possible fog against which for such things to persist. She is freshly out of segregation (a despicably fitting term for the entire enterprise), due it seems in no small part to our repeated calling and advocacy as we had planned this trip far in advance. If there is a theme to our conversations today, it is something like psychological survival, as LeLe is a master at discovering exactly which buttons can be pushed and how hard, how to create a sense of power and authority of her own in the face of all the checks on her individuality and self-persistence which exist inside. LeLe has carved out her personality, one honed in part by too long at County and a stint at a much “looser” facility, which left more room for interpersonal conflict. She has a quick comeback for any situation (with another inmate, irritated by one of LeLe’s pranks: “You need a cape?” “What would I need a cape for?” “So you can be Super Mad!”) and looks out for her own. She inserts herself “all up in” the guards’ business as much as she is able, knowing which ones are not to be at all trusted and the one (singular) who may actually help her out in a bind, the most recent being the prison staff hiding her writing supplies while she was in seg so that she had absolutely nothing to pass the time. Her description of the initial descent into partial madness when put in isolation is frightening, but her ingenuity is almost more harrowing: she lets herself go off medications so that she withdraws and sleeps through the vast majority, even as they attempt to freeze her out with full blast air conditioning and no access to additional blankets. She threatens, and then carries out, wadding up wet toilet tissue and jamming the vent just to stem the flow. As we read stories of prisoners being burned alive in other states, this tactic is hardly surprising, simply a different twist on cruelty upon cruelty.
But what I am perhaps most struck by in the course of this visit is a different sense of a concept which in my experience often separates the best feminist/femme-centered activism from other activist spaces: radical care. I am not personally aware of the origin of this phrase, either academically or within social justice activism, but I have been in a position to think about it a great deal as the collective has had its successes and challenges, and I’ve been given entree to a new world of incarcerated survivors and sex workers, looking after one another, sometimes heroically, in the wake of backpage and rentboy raids. What I have come to observe is that radical care is not necessarily care which surpasses the kindness and generosity of which people of various means are capable. Saving someone from a burning building or accepting blows and harms on their behalf may be a wonderful act, but it is not automatically radical care. Neither do I see radical care as necessarily entailed in caring for one in radically awful circumstances, such as Alisha’s. Again, our own purposes may be motivated by radical politics in conjunction with loving this person we have come to know, but this still does not strike me as radical care per se. I believe, and my experience has come to suggest, that radical care is that given in spite of, in the face of, in excess of one’s own circumstances and person. When someone says to check your feelings in organizing, they miss the point altogether: feelings are what it is all about. It is feelings which govern my sense of injustice and transmute it into righteous anger, and it is feelings which allow me to even conceive of the peril and urgency of LeLe’s situation, or that of others who have survived and been punished, those whose day-to-day existence is seen as a threat which is to be avoided or extinguished. Radical care must stem from an at least situationally increased capacity for feeling. What I have in mind here is, for instance, Alisha’s blossoming relationship with a fellow inmate, one she sees as seminal in her life as it is based on trust rather than possession, freeing her in a way which is obvious in her affect even as she describes traumas recent and past. Radical care is endeavoring to love freely while not free, to feel beyond oneself, to be magnanimous in the truest sense. Love does not trump hate anymore than right de facto trumps wrong, but a community built on radical care has capacities far beyond those of its component parts. I am convinced LeLe will get through this time because she radically cares for her current flame, for her family, and for us. Another component of radical care is memory: memory institutional, organizational, familial, and personal. To choose one’s company is not a radical act unto itself, but to make them family often is, and Alisha describes the deep disconnection from her past which this time away has revealed, a thought at first chilling but ultimately just another fact which must be embraced, ignored, or succumbed to, and our friend seems to be progressing towards the first of these. There are no other friends, there is no other contact. There is immediate family and there is we three, nothing more, a clean break from 19 years of life which will not be renewed in the same form upon exit. So whither memory? I bring my darkest experiences into that place every time I shudder at the razor wire and the thick metal doors, buzzing as we enter one and then the next, each grimace I cast at the officers snickering at us from behind the inches of glass of which I wonder at the strength when faced with a heaved metal stool. I think of when I have been most afraid, when I have been persecuted, and of course the comparison largely pales, but it gives me something to work from. Alisha, on the other hand, must reach into a reservoir of care for herself, her lover, and those few of us on the outside fortunate enough to receive it when every sign, signal, and person around her shouts in her face that there is no care in this world, and you wouldn’t know what to do with it even if there were. Alisha’s care is radical care; the best we can do is reflect it and do our damnedest to maintain and ultimately return her to the outside world which truly needs her. We’ll knock this system over with wit, guile, and strength, but we are damn well going to need feelings as well.