“Finding Common Ground on Prison Grounds,” written and narrated by Deon Whitmore; animated and directed by Stephanie Salas and Vanessa Salas (all images courtesy Letters from the Etui)

LOS ANGELES — “Etui,” a French word, refers to an ornamental box — a container for precious odds and ends. Deriving from “estuier,” meaning to shut up” or “keep,” the word is also used to refer to prison. It is fitting for the new digital platform named Letters from the Etui, which draws together animations, letters, resources, merchandise, and virtual workshops relating to life behind bars.

Letters from the Etui is a collaboration between Brianna Mims, Minh-Han Vu, and Georgina Grkikian, organizers in residence at the Women’s Center for Creative Work in Los Angeles. The three artists all met at the University of Southern California, where they worked on the Jail Bed Drop Project, an ongoing series of creative interventions developed to bring awareness to the effects of mass criminalization. Letters from the Etui extends the group’s work in merging art and activism.

“Developing Emotional Awareness and Intelligence,” written and Narrated by Clifton Gibson; animated and directed by Brittany Barrera

The website, built by Vu and Grkikian and launched in 2020, features animated shorts by students in Lancaster State Prison’s Communication Studies program at Cal State LA, led by Kamran Afary, a professor who specializes in drama therapy. Produced in collaboration with animation students at Cal State, the videos document the world of prison, childhoods, and romance. Intimate and diaristic, they offer humanizing portraits of people grappling with their pasts, the weight of trauma, and the need for love. Given even more power by the bright, swirling animations that accompany them, the videos show how narrative tools like video, performance, and writing, enable people to understand and rewrite the stories of their lives.

In one short, Justin Hong describes the feelings of frustration, anger, and shame at being denied freedom after 12 years in prison. The film, animated by Cal State student Stephann Lalanne, shows the officials, with computers for heads, delivering the bad news as Hong’s small avatar goes into free-fall, a gray box sealing him in. “I remember the first few nights after the denial, I would wake up in the middle of the night crying. It was like my body was grieving before my mind could process what happened,” he narrates. The audio, recorded via the prison’s pay phone, is fuzzy. We see his featureless face, head bent, with a quivering scribble where his heart should be.

The website also positions the fight for prison abolition in a global context, publishing open letters written by the Iranian political prisoners Narges Mohammadi and Golrokh Iraee, women who have both been imprisoned in Tehran since 2016 for speaking out against the Islamic state. Translated from Persian by Frieda Afary, the letters are not only means of expression but political tools — a technology for exposing what would otherwise be suppressed.

Letter writing, said Mims, who curated the website’s content, is one of the primary forms of communication for incarcerated people. The platform also sells envelopes with artwork by activist Christian Branscombe (the proceeds go to incarcerated people and their families). When Branscombe was in prison, it was common to embellish the envelopes with drawings — which, once stamped with “State Generated Prison Mail,” eventually came to be sold on the outside as “prison art” to generate income for those incarcerated.

“The Three Jewels: Path to Balance Behind Bars,” written and narrated by Ninh Nguyen; animated and directed by Sheila Lopez and Zoe Kim

Letters from the Etui shows how abolition is not only about dismantling the carceral state, but the structures of oppression that exist within. Play, imagination, and joy, the artist’s work of dreaming new futures, are equally important in the work of collective liberation, Mims said. “We rest, we imagine, we organize, we play, I’m making this conversation of abolition very full and holistic,” she said. “Why artists have to be a part of the conversations and should be involved is because we have to do this work culturally and communally as well, it’s not just about policy.”

You can watch all of the “visual letters” on the Letters from the Etui website.

Anya Ventura is a writer currently based in Los Angeles.