Survived and Punished (Emily + Kanoa)

Dear Kanoa,

We are newly friends, still getting to know each other with each mail exchange, as penpals and comrades separated by prison walls. The prison visiting team of Survived & Punished California brought us together. Through this work, organizers inside and outside of prison like you and me can learn from each other and strategize together on how to create a future without prisons and violence. I’d already heard from several people that you are a powerful and seasoned organizer, advocate, creator, and mentor inside. I was pretty nervous when I reached out!

In your first letter to me, you told me ‘Kanoa’ means ‘free man.’ So every time someone calls your name, they affirm that you are free. The next day I wrote back to share that my Corean name ‘Hye-Won’ is made from the Hanja characters ‘惠’ for ‘grace’ and ‘原’ for ‘origin’ to signify that I am rooted in grace.

These are difficult names to live by in this world. How do you lead a life so that it affirms your freedom and your grace when the world seems neither freeing nor gracious? It’s been roughly a half year since COVID became the focal point of our daily life. It is an unrelenting, ruthless virus with truly terrifying effects. The scale of devastation it is causing is beyond comprehension. But what’s even more disquieting to me is the cage from which you and millions of incarcerated people are fighting for your lives, not just against COVID but against the violence of the state. As a Black trans man sentenced to Life Without Parole (‘Death By Incarceration’) for surviving violence, you were already living in grave danger, long before the virus struck. This is a dangerous world in which to be free and gracious.

There is also the matter of our difference. Prisons cement our differences into harsh categories of belonging and unbelonging. Anti-Blackness and transphobia have forced you to bear a steep price of those distinctions. Both you and I survived gender-based violence as trans and gender-nonconforming people, but I was never criminalized for the ways in which I survived that violence as you were. I have had windows shut in my Oakland apartment for weeks now because of the wildfires and the unremitting smoke. It occured to me to wonder when might have been the last time you were able to sit by a window simply to feel a breeze roll in. These are profound and tragic differences that I know will be an enduring challenge for us to overcome. I won’t lie to say it doesn’t scare or discomfort me.

But with these stories about our names to introduce ourselves, I remembered that we have much in common, too. We both wish to disrupt and end violence in our lives. We’re both invested in working toward the end of prisons and caging. We’re both aware that our fates are intertwined. We’re both committed to showing up for each other in the ways we know how. We have been striving for the same goal all our lives after all: to live up to our names.

Kanoa, Free Man, my friend —  I am a little closer to freedom and grace because I met you. You are of integrity, steadfastness, and strength. You are a survivor. You affirm for yourself and others that you are a Free Man, deeply rooted in grace. You mentor seven young incarcerated people right now. You garden and encourage them to garden too. You play volleyball together. You write to me every week, and we exchange childhood stories while discussing organizing strategies.

One day, you ask me to look into how to start a podcast — you would like to start one for survivors with LWOP sentences. I send out emails to ask who can help and get a few responses. I feel freer and more gracious, even as the world burns outside my window.

We are resisting tremendous and awful power. Day after day, the state and its agents display their blatant disregard for human life and dignity in the face of soul-shaking, earth-shattering loss. They have sentenced you to Death by Incarceration  — but you do not give up hope.

And I do not either.

Sincerely with love,

Emily Hye-Won Suh

Survived + Punished

Survived & Punished is a prison abolition organization aimed at freeing incarcerated survivors of domestic and sexual violence. Their work calls for racial justice and migrant justice movements organizing against the violence of policing, immigration enforcement, and prisons to consistently highlight survivors of gender violence in political analysis and strategies. They specifically focus on the criminalization of survival to build knowledge and to mobilize around the integrated relationship between systems of punishment and the pervasiveness of gender violence.

Emily Suh is an organizer with Survived & Punished California, working at the intersection of gender-based violence and criminalization. They are also the administrative assistant for Survived & Punished National. They are currently based in Oakland, California.

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