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I used to watch Forensic Files every night without fail, and I know I wasn't the only one. It was an easy way to regulate my high-functioning anxiety, knowing that in 20 minutes, the most perplexing mysteries and heinous murders would be neatly solved while I sat safe inside my condo eating fruit snacks and drinking Cab Franc. 

Regardless of the whys behind our culture's consumption of true crime, its popularity can't be overstated. And neither can its harm. 

Shows like Making of a Murderer and The Mind of a Killer have found clever ways to make money off of incarceration. True crime shows make us feel as if we know the whole story behind what happened, using behind-the-scenes footage of criminal investigations or documentary-style interviews to bolster the sentiment. But the stories presented—no matter who does the telling—always justify the need for police, the need for prisons. 

Even fictional shows like Oz and Prisonbreak make us think we understand something about what it's like living on the inside. But were any of these shows written by or with the input of currently or formerly incarcerated folks? How would our conceptions of prison look different if that were so?? What if we realized that sentencing doesn't end harm, but rather creates entirely new sets of harm that we've never even imagined?

We don't need any more true crime shows or prison dramas. We need abolitionist media that takes these truths as its starting point. 

"I was an 18-year-old kid, but they gave me an 80-year sentence." — Taylor

"How—in the helping profession—do you tell someone you don't deserve help?" — Ashley

For a sensitive and complex look into the realities people face in prison, I recommend Teleway 411, the new podcast launched by A.B.O. Comix just this month. 

A.B.O. Comix is a collective of inside-outside artists and activists working towards queer and trans liberation through creative expression. Hosted with trust and tenderness by A.B.O. Comix director and co-founder Casper Cendre, the first season of Teleway 411 features longform heart-to-hearts with four currently and formerly incarcerated queer and trans individuals. 

Crime shows are only interested in psychoanalyzing "disturbed murderers" and "criminal deviants;" Teleway gives the mic to artists, witches, wives, homo thugs, and activists. Teleway 411 features conversations with people—beautiful, funny, resilient, impossibly complex people with troubles and wounds. The only difference between us is that they are forced to try to heal while continuously being dehumanized. We need the stories of Krysta, Taylor, and Sirbrian, told on the show—stories of queer and trans folks navigating love, identity, fear, mental illness, grief, and self-acceptance on the inside.

Sirbrian Spease is a formerly-incarcerated artist and author of The Boy of Hearts, the first of a three-part autobiography series from A.B.O. Comix publications.

After listening to the entire season, I came away realizing I didn't know shit about shit. Nothing about how mental health care is denied to many incarcerated people asking for counsel, or the complexities of living with personality disorders, or the stripsearch policies affecting trans women, or the surveillance of consensual intimacy. The content on Teleway 411 is realer than any episode of Orange is the New Black. It humbled me and stirred up the kind of unequivocal compassion that cements my belief in the need to abolish prisons.

Below are short excerpts from several of the interviews on the show. Next week, on June 29, visit the Teleway 411 website for the full interview with formerly incarcerated artist and A.B.O. Comix author Sirbrian Spease. Sirbrian details the abuse he endured as a child that resulted in his development of a personality disorder. Sirbrian's story of acceptance of his mental health challenges, his queer identity, and his alter-ego Devon, who identifies as a whole person, is heart-wrenching and eye-opening. Absolutely, a must-listen. 


Taylor on the traumas of trial

Taylor is a trans woman incarcerated in Texas who learned when she was a teenager that she would be spending the rest of her life in prison. She shares the story of her trial, her coming-out journey, and her mission to spread wisdom and positivity to the people on her unit.

Click to expand the audio transcript.

Casper: Do you want to talk a little bit about what your trial was like and what you experienced during that time?

Taylor: One word: terrible. I didn't know how to deal with it. It did not go how I expected. I had zero experience with anything like that. I can't even remember how long it was. 

Casper: Do you want to talk a little bit about what your trial was like and what you experienced during that time?

Taylor: One word: terrible. I didn't know how to deal with it. It did not go how I expected. I had zero experience with anything like that. I can't even remember how long it was. 

I wasn't able to hear what was being said because it was either not true or it hurt. I didn't know how to deal with it. I remember the bailiff at times, he kept giving me a signal to put my head up, to look up. I wouldn't realize I'm just staring down.

And in addition to that, the county jail had put me on some serious psych meds. I don't remember what they were, and I was kinda zombified the entire trial. But even in spite of the meds, the trial was terrible. The DA who was trying to get me convicted was not even in reality talking about me.

He would talk about a few facts, but then he would just go off on all these spiels about how terrible I was, comparing me to a vulture and a thief and [saying] I was psychopathic. And they kept saying so much that was not in line with reality that I just did not know how to deal with something like that.

It felt like I was on a TV show with the super bad character and the really good DA. I did something wrong. I did something terribly wrong. I took someone's life. There's no way to take that back. I can't even pretend like I'm the victim in the trial because I deserve to be convicted.

But the nature of the trial and how it was presented to the jurors, they didn't present me. They just presented the worst image that they could make up from the facts that they got from the case. One of the last things the DA told the jury was, "Pretend that parole does not exist. Give this person the amount of time that you would like them to do before you see them out with your family again."

I was an 18-year-old kid, but they gave me an 80 year sentence, basically meaning they never wanted to see me out there with their family again.

I did not know how to deal with that.

I had lots of issues from growing up, many things related to how I grew up and then many more related to the choices I had made. One of the turning points in my life. When they gave me that sentence, I stopped caring. It was like, I'm an 18 year old. It's hard to see in my future anyway.

And they give me such a huge prison sentence. I can't even really comprehend it.

From that point, I go, 18 years old, to a men's prison, and I have to deal with all the hazing and the violence and the potential rapings. And the potential murders. Even when in county jail, people had been scaring me with these stories that this could happen or that could happen. In my head, I'm blowing things up way out of proportion of what they really are.

I don't know how to describe it. Any word other than terrible.

Casper: It's so beyond my capacity to even try and put myself in your shoes at that time being a teenager who has gone through so much stuff with your identity and trying to figure out where your place was in the world and delving into any form of escapism to try and deal with that pain and then making a huge mistake in your life.

Then being reamed by the prosecution, the district attorney, being villainized and turned into a monster caricature of yourself and witnessing all of that. Correct me if I'm wrong, but you were also awaiting trial in jail for a year at that point, right? 

Taylor: At least a year, yes. I got locked up when I was 17 years old. I spent, if not a year, it was very close to it, but I believe it was a year, most likely over. A lot of that period in my life, my brain had like, kind of repressed in a way because those were really painful years. My early prison years. Even the years in my childhood before the crime, before any of this criminal stuff happened, those were really painful years.

I went from one painful experience to another. It took me a long time to learn to deal with it, to learn to understand, even longer to learn to start healing. But again, I want to point out that I deserved to be on trial. I deserved to get convicted. I took someone's life. So I won't pretend in any way like I am the victim. I deserved this. I might not deserve this sentence, but that was not for me to say. A jury of my peers gave me this sentence. If that's justice, I don't know. It's something that I've had to live with. 

Ashley on mental health care

Ashley is a prison psychologist who works within the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). She describes working in mental health; a typical day with an astronomical caseload; and why it is so difficult for people in prison to access consistent and effective care.

Click to expand the audio transcript.

Casper: How is mental healthcare within the prison system structured?

Ashley: You've heard of the Coleman [v. Brown] lawsuit. 

Casper: I haven't. 

Ashley: So, the Coleman lawsuit. I think it started in 1991. It was finalized in 1995. It's a federal lawsuit. Essentially CDCR [the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation] lost a lawsuit because the prisoner's rights were being violated because they weren't receiving adequate mental health treatment. And so now you have a bunch of lawyers dictating, "You need to see these patients. This is how often you need to see them." This is what a lawyer thinks mental health treatment should look like. And so mental health dockets, which are their appointment cards, prioritize everything else. So if you're at work and you get a mental health docket, that's priority, if you miss your mental health dockets, it could lead to a rules and violations report (an RVR) which is a disciplinary thing. You know, it could either be counseling or administration, it can be serious. So my dockets always take priority. But I think my patients know me pretty well. Whenever they show up, I tend to see them anyway. It's like my one area of flexibility because it takes time and things get in the way of it, but yeah, they have to show up.

Casper: What sort of disciplinary action do people face if they don't?

Ashley: It's usually counseling. It's like a counseling chrono [chronological documentation], which is the lowest level. And that's only if the clinician chooses to do that. So I think a lot of times the inmates or patients forget that if you misuse the mental health program, if you don't show up for your dockets, it's an obligation, right? If you come into the program, it's an obligation, it's part of your program, we can write you up, right? If you're disrespectful, if you keep missing your appointments, we can write you up. 

Clinicians don't tend to do that because it's a weird role for them to be in. A lot of clinicians don't feel comfortable, toggling the line between being a humanistic mental health clinician and being very structured and holding people accountable, which is like an RVR. I've never had to do it, but I've had to have a lot of stern conversations with my patients. 

Casper: I imagine it's a really hard line to kind of have to straddle between getting the trust of your patient and working with them on a consistent basis. And then also, potentially having to issue them disciplinary action, but is most of this court ordered or can people voluntarily sign up for your services?

Ashley: Inmates are not required to be in the mental health program. It is volitional with the caveat that we can actually, per our mental health program guidelines, and I've heard psychiatrists say this, we can force someone to stay in the program if we think we know what's best for them. So that's where involuntary medication comes in. That's where placing someone in a crisis unit comes in. So if they're a danger to themselves, someone else, they're gravely disabled, we can force treatment that way. If we think that they would decompensate if we discharge them from the mental health program, regardless of what they say, we can still keep them in. 

I've never played that card. That's not my vibe. I think someone's mental health needs to be their choice and they need to volitionally be in that room with me. Otherwise it doesn't work. You can't force someone to be different than how they want to be. 

… Coming from a non-institutional setting, I am used to working with people who want to do work. Even if they don't know, they just come in, they're like, "I don't know, something's off. I need help with that." And you see them and you treat them and you help them. 

And I've had to have a conversation with a lot of people where they come in and they're like, "I need help gaining insight into my offense." I would love to do that work. I do not have the capacity to do that. And I have to tell them, "Listen, per our guidelines, I can't diagnose you with a major mental health disorder. You don't have one, you don't suffer any functional impairments because of mental health-related symptoms. I can't place you in the system. I can't continue to meet with you." 

I've had to toe the line of what I have available and my helping-self, which is I always want to give more, and so what I'll do with those peoples, I'll say, "I'll meet with you three or four times more just to give you support, but I can't put you in the program," and it's really difficult. Like how—in the helping profession—do you tell someone you don't deserve help? Because that's what they're hearing: What I'm going through isn't valid. 

That's always my fear with them. "It's not that it's not valid and I would love to help you. But if I give you this help, then someone else doesn't get it who may have worse symptoms or may be struggling a little bit more." I hate that, I do.

Sirbrian discusses lack of mental health services upon reentry 

Sirbrian Spease is a formerly-incarcerated artist and author of The Boy of Hearts from A.B.O. Comix publications. He details the abuse he endured as a child that resulted in his development of a personality disorder.

Click to expand the audio transcript.

Casper: So since you've come home, I think you've seen a few different therapists. What has that been like for you?

Sirbrian: Not that good. In the beginning, I was doing exposure therapy. I suppose the therapy is… it was not good. They put me in a padded cell. They said keep it all to myself, but no, I wanted to tell A.B.O. Comix anyway. They put me in a padded cell. They didn't know how serious my personality disorder was because each personality disorder is distinctive. So they put me in a padded cell and they was saying things to me to see what triggers me.

I gave them a list of things that trigger me. Okay. So they know that crosses trigger me, churches, Jehovah's witnesses, people talking about a religion, Muslims, things like that trigger me. Irons, because my mom burned me with an iron on my chest. I have a big iron mark on my chest. That right there triggers me, irons, needles. Because my mom used to stick me with needles, pieces of glass, broken pieces of glasses, stuff like that trigger me.

So they were real brutal. I think it was really disrespectful, but it is what it is. And when I got triggered, Devon switched over and then I left and then you have to talk to Devon about that. Cause I don't know what happened with Devon.

Casper: Does the therapist explain to you what the purpose of exposure therapy is and what the intended outcome is supposed to be?

Sirbrian: Yes. They wanted to see what coping strategies, coping skills that they can use, and grounding techniques where they can use in the circumstances that I'm in. If I'm outside, and I'm being triggered, they told me to count the bricks on the building, find your favorite color.

And things to ground me. If I'm outside, if there was a bakery coming by, smell the bakery. But you didn't bake no cakes. So somebody else must've baked those cakes, so that lets you know that you're grounding yourself.

So they would say, okay, what does this smell like? It smells like chocolate. When you walk down a certain street, you hear buses, okay. Now you're not driving those buses. So that lets you know that you're bringing yourself back into reality, that's what they say. Reality. My reality is little bit different to other people's, but they said that's how you've bring back in reality.

So that's how they trying to work. It's hard because I had memory loss real bad because when I switched back and forth, if I don't have my diary, I'm going to forget. So that's what they do to me. They're trying to find ways of: If I'm around a church, what else is around that church?

If you walk past a church, think about all the stuff that's around it, around a church around your neighborhood. And then when I remember those things was around our church, then it brings me back to reality. That's what they taught me.

Casper: Do you feel like those sorts of grounding techniques have helped you?

Sirbrian: Sometimes, it depends on if I have too much on my plate.

If I'm showed transphobic abuse or homophobic abuse at the time, and I'm being triggered at the same time, they know it's not going to work because it's too much on my plate. Once Devon takes over, I don't know what happens after that. So I can't speak for Devon.

Casper: So right now you are looking for a therapist sorta for the long haul. Is there a specific need that you would like to speak about with a therapist or any asks for anybody who might be listening, who might be familiar with personality disorder and could maybe provide a resource or a name of somebody?

Sirbrian: That's real good.

Okay. I graduated from a program but it wasn't long. It was only like what, five months. That's not enough time for me. This is not a game. Like you can't just do that and leave me out there to try, especially when I have a routine.

I used to have a therapist. She'd call me every morning to see where my mind is, and depending on who has the body, they would ground the person. Devon has the body, they would say something to Devon because they know Devon pretty well. I don't know what they say to Devon. I can't really speak for Devon, but whatever they say to Devon, it brings Devon comfortable enough to feel like I'm safe to give me back the body.

So that's what happens. So I'm looking for a therapist who's willing to work with me full time, but it seems like everybody's turning me down because I have Medicaid and they said that everybody that I'm going to, they're trying to say, "You are a full-time project so you can't afford our services." They felt like they were in danger for me to be there. They said, "I'm sorry, we can't have you here because we just got to know you. And this is a mental health and drug treatment." And then we don't have time to like, be focused on hoping that somebody doesn't say the wrong thing. So that's what gets to me, I feel like I'm being painted into a corner. That everybody's saying the same thing to me. And I'm looking for a group where everybody has what I have.

So then it won't be like, have I switched over? No one will be afraid because they understand what personality disorder is. And I can't help what Devon does. People don't understand that I can't speak for Devon, people don't understand it. And I switch back and forth, I altered back and forth at the program. They was like, look, this is too much. And then one therapist got afraid of me and told everybody else, and then that made me feel like I was in the corner. And I feel like right now that actually right now to this day, I just graduated.

And guess what? I have no therapist. I have no therapy because I can't find no therapist who is willing to take me on full time, who does personality disorder. So I'm trying to send my book out here to get people to understand what personality disorder is. It's not my fault. And I feel like giving up because it's like, all I got is my book.

Financial precarity inside a Texas Prison with Krysta 

Krysta is a trans woman incarcerated in Texas. She is featured in all editions of A Queer Prisoner's Comix Anthology from A.B.O. Comix publications, and is the author of Anthology of an Artist from the same press.

Click to expand the audio transcript.

Casper: So what is it like for you as someone that kind of has limited financial means? Like what sort of things are provided to you? What sort of things are you responsible for providing for yourself on the inside?

Krysta: It's very difficult being someone that has limited outside financial support. The only thing that the state actually provides you in here is a set of clothes, one razor a week, a single roll of toilet paper a week, 4 bars of lye soap a week, and three meals a day that are covered in flies. I'm not exaggerating about that.

Casper: What kind of meals do you all have to look forward to? 

Krysta: Whatever it is, it will come with insects, but sometimes they have something worth the fuck, other times, not so much. On the shitty end of the spectrum, they have my least favorite meal, which is pork noodle casserole, which is some form of ground pig mixed with the elbow macaroni and no seasoning. And on the good end of the spectrum, they've been known to make baked chicken and fried chicken from time to time, maybe twice a month. The baked chicken. I like chicken patties. They serve us cold cuts from time to time, which is preferable to a lot of the food that they actually call food. Somebody asked me, "What's for chow?" once, and I said, "Well, it's food, but it's questionable."

Casper: So it's pretty hard for folks who don't have any sort of financial income to help supplement their diets with goods and stuff from commissary, right? 

Krysta: Yeah. It's very difficult. We don't get paid in Texas to actually do the work that they force us to do. It's all slave labor here, but there's hustles. We can wash other people's laundry for basically a ramen noodle an item. We work on a barter system here. So a ramen noodle costs 30 cents out of the commissary. So you're breaking your back just to try and put a little food in your locker. And I wish it was different because I come down with dysentery eating the food out of the chow hall. I was hospitalized over this about two years ago. 

Brian on the surveillance of love and intimacy

Brian Meegan is a formerly-incarcerated artist and personal trainer whose work is featured throughout the Queer Prisoner's Comix Anthology series from A.B.O. Comix. He discusses coming to prison as an openly-gay man, facing discrimination due to his HIV status, facilitating queer and trans community on the inside, and finding joy in the darkest places. 

Click to expand the audio transcript.

Brian: I was also very fortunate to meet a wonderful person while I was there and who actually made me a better person. He and I had a very important relationship to me. I've been positive since 2001.

I had had men reject me constantly for being HIV positive. I tried telling them on the first date and that way I wouldn't get emotionally attached. I tried waiting until like the third date. And see maybe if they got to know me better, that they could look past all of it. It always went badly.

It was called back then being "stood up." Now it's just called being "ghosted." Now this is a man who was locked in the dormitory with me, and this could go very badly because a lot of us have impulse control problems, and that's why we were in prison. When I told him that I was HIV positive and that's why I wasn't going far with him, he cried. I had never had anybody react that way to me before. It was also when he told me he appreciated me, it sounded more like, "I love you" than anyone who had ever said those three words. But anyway, so our relationship was found out. We went to the hole for 60 days because even though it was consensual, it's still considered evil. I went to a new housing unit because they separated us. I had gotten a job on the food cart and because of the fear of "misperception of perceived contamination," I petitioned for a different job.

And there was a job cleaning the guards' bathrooms. I remember one of the guards that I fairly got along with. He told me that they were trying to get me fired. I came up with the list. I'm like: "So is it because I'm gay? Is it because I'm dating a Black man? Or is it because I'm HIV positive?" He goes, "Well, a little bit of each, but mostly the last one." 

Casper: I'm so sorry for all that you had to go through while you were in prison. I hear this story over and over and over again from so many people. And it's so devastating to hear the impact that it has on real people's lives, because we see prisons and television shows and in movies and stuff.

And people joke about things like prison rape, and they joke about this sort of thing. Not realizing real people are really going through it and the relationships that people form with each other. They're so rare and they're so beautiful that people find somebody to love, or somebody to cherish or somebody to just have a friendship with inside the prison walls.

It's so rare. And then the system like purposefully sent you to a different unit to tear you apart from having any sort of human relationship with another person. And if the focus is supposed to be on rehabilitation, then we should be focusing on how to make sure that humans can interact with one another.

Brian: So two things about that. There was one time they actually had me talking to someone about PREA (Prison Rape Elimination Act) and so I got the chance to ask them why consensual relationships were such a problem. And they said, because two people in a romantic relationship would fight harder if one of them got hurt or in trouble for each other than anything else. 

And that was their whole reasoning: the fear that two people in love would take down the prison system, or take down an entire block somehow.

"Is it because I'm gay? Is it because I'm dating a Black man? Or is it because I'm HIV positive?" — Brian

"They felt like they were in danger for me to be there." — Sirbrian

"It's all slave labor here, but there's hustles." — Krysta

Teleway 411 is a project of A.B.O. Comix, an inside-outside collective of artists and activists working towards queer and trans liberation through creative expression.

As part of Scalawag's 3rd annual Abolition Week, pop justice is exclusively featuring perspectives from currently and formerly incarcerated folks and systems-impacted folks.

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Alysia Nicole Harris

Alysia Nicole Harris, Ph.D. is a poet, performer, linguist, and charismatic Christian. She lives in Atlanta and serves as Scalawag's arts & soul editor.