ORANGE IS THE NEW FLUFF: Furry Life in Prison – guest post by Farrah “Sisk” Barney
by Patch O'Furr
Before the web, zines were a gateway to subculture. In the 1990’s, one of my subscriptions was to Industrialnation, a zine for music where robots met punk. I never expected the prison-industrial complex to get involved. It offered a free ad for subscribers, so to be silly, I put something like “send pranks and hate mail”. The underground obliged. I got comics, tapes, and a cursed baby doll with monster fangs and one eye popped out (plus spiders, nails and burned nipples). It was gross-out hilarious. But the most unexpected thing was mail from lonely prisoners. A few of the letters needed to get picked up with tongs and thrown in a barbeque, but most were just forgotten people who’d write to anyone with an open mailbox. It was almost like bottling it and throwing it in the sea. They were in no position to hurt me, and just wanted a voice from outside. Now imagine having a family that didn’t communicate well, and a parent intercepting a letter and shitting squirrels about it. I felt misunderstood. That’s how giving an ear to society’s trash can become mind opening.
I don’t claim to know more facts, and I have questions, but here’s some context I found important. For sex charges against an LGBT person, with extradition from Utah to Arizona, one place is Mormon and the other has Joe Arpaio’s “concentration camps”. It seems like being gay in Uganda and getting sent to Mordor. If this did involve misunderstanding/prejudice, expect railroading. Whatever the case may be, she’s getting what a court deemed to be fair punishment. Here’s what Sisk has to say about it. – Patch
>> Due to unforeseeable events and a twisted view to "justice" my life as a #trans woman is resident to a male yard in an AZ prison. I'm very much alone as a woman, here, and I face daily trials by those taking advantage of my gender. >>#SaveOurSisk #TDOV #TransDayOfVisibility pic.twitter.com/JStjnpBNpQ— A Siskmas Miracle ~☆ (@Tailpoof) March 31, 2018
ORANGE IS THE NEW FLUFF: Furry Life in Prison
“Mommy!” A short, bald Chicano squeaks as he glomps me from behind. Others in line with us stare in confusion, annoyance, and a lot of other descriptive words. Even more heads turn as he makes cute animal noises, then pants like a happy dog. Is this a furmeet at the local theatre?
Nope! It’s prison!
I can’t say this is what I expected when I was sentenced. Meeting furries in the wild has always felt like the Internet sprung a leak, and when those furs are in prison the whole experience takes a turn to the twilight zone. It’s as jarring as finding a phone booth on top of a mountain, and I can legitimately make that comparison, because I really did find a phone booth on top of a mountain once! Granted, our numbers are small, but we exist, taking things one day at a time in the Meadows Unit of the Eyman Prison Complex in Sunny Arizona.
Meadows is one of several medium-security protective custody yards dedicated to housing sex offenders. Due to the nature of many sex crimes and the type of people who commit them, sex offender yards are considered “easy” as far as prison experiences go — inmates in here joke that Meadows is a “retirement home” — though no prison is without danger, especially if one sticks out.
For me, being a transgender woman on a male sex offender yard crowds out all other concerns. Dodging predators aside, I’ve never felt the need to bring up my involvement in the furry fandom unless asked. If I did bring it up unprompted, inmates would give me a blank stare, shrug, then move on. The few who have heard of us give the standard line of, “Oh, those guys who have sex in animal costumes?” Given where we are, though, fursuit sex is ordinary compared to that creepy old guy on the yard who pays young inmates for baggies of their semen. For what purpose, you ask? Not even the angels know for sure.
Thus, my experience being a fur in prison is a personal one. For others I’ve had the chance to observe and talk to, it hasn’t always ended well. Sometimes that’s their fault; other times it couldn’t be helped. That’s just how it goes in prison. Boo.
Sometimes A Golf Pencil Is All You’ve Got
My small notoriety in the fandom comes from me being a webcomic artist, and, more recently, from a few other things as well. I eventually decided to violate my probation a few years ago by going online in the face of a lifetime, court mandated ban on my internet access. The wisdom of that decision is arguable, but the loss of my online life was so devastating that I attempted suicide shortly after I was sentenced. That most definitely was a mistake, and after taking almost a month to recover, I concluded that if things were bad enough to die, then they were bad enough to live.
I lived, and did some of my best work with my webcomic, “Ask Keis”. I also helped a lot of people both online and off. Then I learned that ex-wives can be really vindictive. In short, getting into a heated disagreement with a vindictive spouse while they have the leverage to see you thrown in jail is a bad idea. HOMEWRECKING: NOT EVEN ONCE. (I joke).
That I thought the gamble was worth it says how I feel about my connection to the furry fandom. It’s easy to scoff at that, and say it’s just cartoon art and stories, but when you’ve been neck-deep at the bottom of the Geek Hierarchy for two-thirds of your life, all of that becomes you. So when a judge points at you and says your very identity must end, that’s as terrifying as an Alzheimer’s diagnosis. That’s what made me want to die, then want to live.
This is all a lot of words to say that I am my ability to create art and stories that those inside and outside the furry fandom can enjoy, and because this connection still exists even while I’m in a dreadful place like this, I still exist. As long as I still exist, I can do some good in this world, and I have my fiance to thank for that. He works hard to not only build our future, but to also keep my online presence alive.
Working my craft in here is not easy, though. Prisons are negativity vortexes that are fed by an internal culture incompatible with external society. If you think your work environment is bad, try concentrating on a drawing while someone is getting stomped a few bunks away for not paying his debts. Depression is highly contagious, and as of this writing, I’ve been struggling with it for a while. Sorry about that.
On the flipside, being an artist in prison is like being an artist in the fandom: it bestows a special status. There’s no shortage of inmates wanting custom cards or other crafts for their loved ones, and every prison has a thriving, policy-violating tattoo industry. I can neither confirm or deny that my art has made it onto people’s bodies, but I do have an advantage when it comes to stuff like birthday cards for kids. Children are natural furries, so it works out great for the both of us, because I really like drawing fluffy things.
Delivering art in here gives me something I rarely got to experience on the outside, too, and that’s to see my clients’ faces light up in person. Being a prison artist also gives me something else: I get to be seen as just an artist. It’s my fault that I carry the furry artist label on the outside, but in here my art is just art, except for the few who lump my work into the “anime” category. I silently rage inside whenever that happens. Still, it’s a refreshing experience.
Ironically, what’s also a refreshing experience is the challenge of creating art with a minimal set of often sub-par supplies and tools. I don’t know why I’m wired this way, but I take pride in gnawing the tip of a golf pencil to sharpen it, because proper sharpeners aren’t allowed in isolated confinement. If even a golf pencil wasn’t an option, I’d fall back to my own blood. I’ve used it in art before, and I sure as hell will use it again.
It can’t be all tailpoofs and pawprints in here, unfortunately. If you’re a furry artist who’s planning on going to prison, be sure to brush up on your busty human babes, angel wings, demons, skulls, and celtic knotwork.
…or you can, y’know, not go to prison. That works, too. Congratz if you’re on top of this.
The Antithesis Of Furry Culture. Sort Of.
The furries that reside here don’t get much of a chance to socialize together. Meadows is split into East and West yards by a fence, and although there’s a central gate, movement across it is only allowed for limited reasons, and meeting fellow fluffs is not one of them.
An additional barrier is racial. Prisons are racism training camps, and suspicion can easily arise if inmates of different races mingle too much. Caution could be thrown to the wind, but I am aware of another subculture that faced the same racial barrier, and lost: the Juggalos; fans of the Insane Clown Posse, and embracers of weirdness much like furries do.
Juggalos wanted their own “political” group in which they could manage their own affairs, but the established races shut that down quick. They couldn’t have members of their race ignoring edicts because they also held allegiance to another group. LGBT groups have also fallen to this political logic, and a furry group would surely follow in their footsteps. Whatever sense of community a furry was brought up to exercise, that must be left at the prison gate, and a new community beyond their control to belong to will be assigned.
That sounds extreme, but it’s a reality, and I have flirted with disaster on the previous yard I was housed on when I spent most of my time with a guy not of my race, but who was the only person who hailed from the same Internet culture of games, memes, and shit-posting I was a part of. I don’t really know how I can put it any other way than it sucks. I’m doing some serious mental gymnastics to not walk out of here with a trained distrust for other races. My only choice may be to throw in with otherkin, and just hate humanity as a whole.
An unfortunate commonality between prison and furry culture is punishment of those who mess up. There is a fingersnap readiness to brigade and bully, and there are always a few inmates wandering around who have been put on “shine” — don’t interact with them; don’t help them. Trust is able to be rebuilt again, but never fully. History sticks, and instead of websites that list transgressions, prison uses an oral history, and memories are long. The only thing the online world lacks is the ability to punch people over TCP/IP, though I’m sure there’s an RFC working on that. That leaves prison one up.
Another commonality that is really a symptom afflicting modern society as a whole is the age of offenders. A lot of guys I’ve talked with in here were pulled in for crossing that barrier that decides who gets to vote, or get shot at by foreign armies. The depressing average seems to be 18-20 years, and a few were cuffed younger than that, and tried as adults.
All but one of the other furs in here fall in that early adulthood range for their offense. I, myself, was 23 when I committed my crime. It’s up to readers on how to interpret that information, though the low-hanging fruit seems to be that young people are more prone to being dumbasses. That drugs or alcohol were a factor of their offense lends credence to this hypothesis.
I sat with a fur recently, and discussed an uncomfortable subject. We wondered if the fandom was more prone to producing sex offenders than other subcultures. There’s not many furs in here, maybe seven or eight, but in proportion to the total yard population, that’s a high number. I’m in no position to investigate this, and although I have my suspicions, the scientist in me must fall back on the philosophical razor of Newton’s Flaming Laser Sword: Anything not settled empirically is not worth debating. Any sociologists out there are welcome to study this, though, and then piss off the entire fandom if it turns out to be true.
I’ll spare my readers the detailed biographies of every fur that is or has been on the yard, but a few notables do deserve paragraph space. Their experiences probably speak louder than mine.
Winter is a siberian husky punk rocker with gauged ears, a split tongue, and plenty of piercings, all which match his real self. Seeing him wiggle the two halves of his tongue independent of one another is disturbing and cool, and he’s chill with having his gauged lobes tugged on. That’s probably the best way to describe him: chill, except when he works in the kitchen, apparently. Then he wants to stab people. Winter’s former job on the outside was a porn actor specializing in BDSM. He’s willing to do a lot unless it involves midgets. He’s afraid of midgets. I felt it was inappropriate to press him as to why.
This husky is a recent member of the fandom, having joined two years ago. He’s taken to it fairly well, staying low key for the most part, but not afraid to bring it up in conversation as if it was the most natural thing in the world. Winter is not afraid to say a lot of things, actually. My first exposure to him was on the last yard I lived on (though, I didn’t know he was a furry then), and it involved him jumping atop an outside park table, pointing at me, and shouting, “You’re my next rape victim!” How charming.
Despite what most would consider a horrific introduction (including me), Winter’s seemingly inexhaustible supply of mellow, take-life-as-it-comes happiness is an island of positivity in an ocean of suck. I have yet to see the guy in a bad mood. I love having him around.
Winter has a tag-along called Blue Jay, a jackal convert from the anime fandom. In real life, genetics conspired against him to deliver perhaps the most unfortunate mole placement ever: on his filtrum, right between his nose and lips. The resulting effect is an emo-style Mexican Hitler, and we jokingly call him “Mexler” when we want to be dicks about it. Blue Jay rolls with it, a sure sign of immunity built up from years of teasing. Goddamn, what luck, though!
Blue Jay is an up-and-coming artist, formerly into pure anime, but Winter helped him to see his furry side in the past few months. On reflection, Blue Jay thinks he’s always been a furry, but just didn’t make the connection until now. After seeing some of my art, he’s hyped up for sergals, and has drawn a group picture of Winter, him, and me together as our glorious furry selves. I haven’t known Blue Jay for as long, but he’s similarly low-key from what I’ve observed, and I’m getting a fanboy vibe from him towards me. He’s amazed at how fast I can draw, but he doesn’t know how lazy I am between drawings. I think it evens out between him and me. Unfortunately, both Winter and Blue Jay are not of my race, so my exposure to them has to be limited. Boo.
Emerald arrived late last year, a full-fledged, green-furred sparkle wolf who also crosses over into the MLP fandom. This poor kid had absolutely everything going against him: he hit the yard with a snitch jacket — wherever he was before, he ratted out another inmate; he was utterly obsessed with the furry and MLP fandoms, and he let you know it; and he had a shrill voice that was even more intolerable to listen to than two cats making carnal love. Emerald also had the tendency to lie. A lot.
I consider this kid’s story to be a tragedy, though. Emerald — or Emmie, as I called him — had a lot of mental health issues, foremost being his autism. His obsessive babbling about ponies and wolf-kitsune crosses to anyone unlucky enough to be in earshot reminded me of my mentally handicapped sister, but replacing furries with movies. Emmie was mentally ten years younger than his actual age, and given his size and youth, he could’ve easily passed for a teen.
The yard heads banned Emmie from entering their buildings, and the youngsters harassed him constantly. Things got bad enough that he confessed to me he wanted to end his own life. I talked him down from it, but I knew the idea would remain. Emmie was facing four years — not a horrible sentence, but might as well be an eternity for a scared kid like this. Worse, several lifetime probation terms awaited him at the gate, and I can’t see him being successful with that. If Emmie somehow survives this four-year gauntlet, her’s not likely to make it through the second, or the third, or…
My friend and I were his only support. We did our best to teach Emmie about prison life, made sure he had enough hygiene, swatted bullies away, and let hims play in our Pathfinder campaign to keep him away from the drama. We both saw the writing on the wall for this one, but we had to try.
And then one morning Emmie was no longer there. We would learn later that several inmates conspired to drive him out. The kid was easy to manipulate, so they set him up to do something extremely taboo, “caught” him in the act, and then threatened to beat the shit out of him if he didn’t bounce to another yard. So.. Emmie bounced.
Several days later, my friend and I were sitting on a curb, and our talk turned to Emmie, and the dirty way he was ran off the yard. He said something then that hurt to hear, but I knew was true.
“That kid is going to get raped.”
We got Emmie to let on a little of why he was in prison. We didn’t twist his arm too hard about it, but from what little he spoke of, I can guess what happened: Emmie had a furry boyfriend who was underage, and he got caught sexting him. That’s upsetting, y’know? Arizona might have well sentenced this kid to death, or worse, and for that.
…Give me a few moments. That was a tough one to write about…
There are some other personalities I could cover, but for the sake of brevity, I will skip those whose main claim to fame is shoving shampoo bottles into orifices not explicitly recommended on the label, getting busted for mailing out furry porn, or pissing off enough people with their entitlement to get several visits from the Fist Fairy. Amidst that chaff, however, is the story of Dez and Llewellynn, and their story is one worth telling.
My first encounter with Dez was in front of medical. The transgender woman had just arrived, and was slated for a two month run before going back out on probation. She was speaking to another transwoman, and dropped that she was waiting for her legal paperwork to come in, because one of those papers had a drawing of her fursona on the back of it. This was a blatant fishing attempt, but I couldn’t help but look at the sky and groan.
Dez is actually the first known furry I met in prison. She is a cat-jackal hybrid, a self-labeled sociopath, and skilled “cyber-warrior”. Dez considered herself to be untouchable, and carried herself as such, surveying the prison landscape with the aloofness of a cop. In fact, she claimed that one day she wanted to work as a corrections officer. That’s probably not a good thing to say when you’re wearing orange.
While not as obnoxious as Emmie, Dez made sure to put her furriness on display, much to the chagrin of others. She drew pawprints on her shoes and arms, like tiny kittens had stepped on an ink pad, and then walked all over her. Dez would also meow and make cute gestures while waiting in line for meds. At one point, she wore her ID lanyard like a tail until the cops chewed her out for it.
This is the weird thing, though: As much as you hated Dez, you still wanted her around. That is a terrifying power to have, and before long even my friend, who had threatened to deck Dez for starting an annoying cat chorus, came to like her.
I think half of it was that the yard had never seen anyone like Dez before. Usually, inmates get checked in the chin for not leaving their freak at home, but everyone was swept into this surreal spectacle of a trans woman pretending to be a cat. Two inmates were so taken by this display that they became furries themselves. Dez was a furry virus slowly infecting those around her.
One of those converts would come to call himself Llewellynn, choosing to be a femboi fennec with a massive, floofy tail. He is the one I described glomping me at the start of this essay. He would could to be an even grander spectacle than Dez.
Dez and Llewellynn eventually hooked up. The relationship was highly exploitative, and even dangerous. Her untouchable attitude, and her expensive wants and vices did not endear her to those wanting payment, but Llewynn was smitten by Dez, and he made it his personal mission to protect her. Her debts became his debts, and her attitude became his problems. The fennec took a lot of punches because of Dez. For a time, it seemed like every new day brought a fresh bruise. He fought back valiantly, but the regularity of battles demoralized him, and Dez showed no sympathy to him, nor did she express a desire to change her behavior to spare him the violence.
Despite this, Dez retained her magnetic pull, not just on him, but on all of us. We picked up her mannerisms, like faux-sneezing cutely when our nose is touched. I have never acted that murry-purry in real life; prison has ruined me.
I did try to pry Llewellynn away from her, but since they both weren’t of my race, the options were limited. Llewynn wouldn’t listen to what advice I gave anyway. She was, depressingly enough, his first real relationship. I could do nothing except watch.
As we all ticked over to 2018, Dez went back out onto the streets. Llewellynn was crushed, and spent nearly two week indoors. When he did come out he would howl, forlorn. Fennecs aren’t really known for that, but I let it slide. I was relieved Dez was gone for Llewellynn’s sake, but standing in line at medical wasn’t the same anymore. That ambivalence is scary. Dez is one of the worst people I have ever met in person, but a small part of me wishes she was still here.
I may get my wish: we had friends keep tabs on her, and about a month and a half into her probation, she made a violation, and was sent to jail. Apparently Dez flipped out and assaulted her probation officer. As stupid as that was for her to do, I totally get why she did it. WITNESSED.
Even if she doesn’t come back to this yard, Dez’s legacy will live on for a long time. She changed people, including me. She also brought Winter to my attention, and Winter then went on to make another convert. For better or for worse, Dez is responsible for giving furries a foothold in prison, bringing them together (as much as prison life allows), and expanding the ranks. Furries are now a subculture here at Meadows, alongside the races, the nerds, the comic book/manga enthusiasts, the pagans, the Juggalos, and so on. Yes, Dez is one for the history books. Goddamn cats.
I’m proud of Llewellynn. However unhealthy his relationship was with Dez, Llewellynn stood his ground where lesser men (or furs) would have fled. This little femboi fennec held onto his new furry identity in an environment that can easily respond violently against it. If there’s anyone I know who has been through real “fursecution”, it’s Llewellynn. Out of all the people on this yard, I admire him the most, and I wish he didn’t face the decades of prison ahead of him. I wish he could have a second chance.
I asked Llewellynn how he felt about being a furry in prison. “It sucks”, he replied, “but I wouldn’t want to be anything else.”
I feel the same way.
#ArtvsArtist Hola! I'm Sisk - illustrator of aliens, builder of worlds, and visual creator who uses what little is at her disposal.— A Siskmas Miracle ~☆ (@Tailpoof) April 11, 2018
Which, at present, is not much more than lead, a pen, ten colored pencils, some envelopes, and the help of my friends. 💛 pic.twitter.com/jJV5ZaYj5J
The Tail End Of Things
As of this writing, I have approximately a year and a half to go. What happens after that is an ominous question mark. The #Justice4Sisk and #SaveOurSisk campaigns garnered a lot of support, but brought out a lot of powerful enemies, too. Most of their advocacy centered on me, but they also paint a bigger picture of a felon’s life — the lives of sex offenders especially. It’s easy to forget that criminals are still human, and it’s just as easy to look the other way from how cruel and damaging prisons can be, both physically and mentally. What’s hardly thought of at all is the swath of destruction wrought not only in the lives of victims’ families and friends, but also in the offenders’ loved ones. When offenders lose everything, the pull of their criminal past strengthens, and these men and women who have the greatest need of help to stop a destructive cycle are the least likely to get it.
I heard what happened to RC Fox. I won’t condone what he did, but neither will I condone what the fandom did to him. It’s been a joke for as long as furs have been around that our main export is drama, but whenever you maliciously harass someone, online or off, you’re acting like a criminal. You’re acting like a convict.
The furry fandom is all about fantasy. We get to tell stories about, or imagine ourselves to be, anthropomorphic animals, often in an idealized way. If we’re going to do that, then we can go one step farther, and rise above what humanity does to each other.
We’re halfway there, I think. Furries have created a racial diversity inspired by nature, and in that diversity is a near totality of acceptance of different species. It’s still fantasy, but it’s remarkable that a wolf and rabbit can fall deeply in love with each other. It’s normal, not only to the happy couple, but to their peers as well.
We can still be better. Remember, we have to convince geneticists that creating real anthro animals is a great (if not extremely far fetched) idea. Don’t mess this one up for all of us, guys.
–Farrah “Sisk” Barney