Jeff ‘Free’ Luers grew up in the Southern Californian anti-fascist punk community. A trip to the forests of Oregon in the late 90’s resulted in him becoming the first tree-sitter in the ultimately successful Fall Creek forest campaign. In 2001 Jeff was sentenced to 22 years and 8 months on a number of counts of arson, after setting fire to 3 light trucks in a car yard in Eugene, OR. as a symbolic action highlighting the issue of climate change. There was outrage from civil liberties groups across the globe at the judge’s excessive sentencing. Jeff had a strong support campaign while in prison, and regularly wrote personal and political dispatches from prison that were widely read. After 6 years in a maximum security prison, Jeff won his appeal and his sentence was reduced to 10 years. He was released from prison in 2009 at the age of 30 after serving 9 ½ years.
How did you feel when you first walked out the gate after 9 ½ years?
I think ‘weird’ is really the only term. We use it so much that it might not have the meaning that it should. I spent 9 ½ years having every aspect of my life dictated to me. When I could go to chow, when I could go outside, when I could talk to my loved ones, when they could come see me. While going through that gate didn’t mean total freedom – I still had to deal with supervision being told what I could and couldn’t do – it was like my prison yard got a lot bigger.
It mostly felt like, okay, so that was hard prison and now this is soft prison. Now I’m out and I can mostly do what I want, but they could throw me back in at any time. I still needed to get permission before I could do a range of things. It was amazing, but it wasn’t really freedom.
It was also trying to remember how to be the person I was before I went in. How to not let down my loved ones that were there to pick me up and support me. It was awesome, but it felt like a lot of pressure to make it all work.
Was it different to your expectations of release?
Of course it’s different. We all tell ourselves a story to get through prison. Whatever that story is – my life is going to be this, or my partner is going to be this person – we all have this idea of the free world that gives us some element of hope to survive the ordeal that we’ve been placed into.
The reality is that it never comes true. It certainly wasn’t true for me. I don’t think it’s been true for anyone I know that’s got out of prison. There’s always this element of ‘wow, this isn’t how I pictured getting out was going to be’. The excitement is amazing and I don’t mean to downplay that at all, but there’s always an element of disappointment.
It’s a hard thing to deal with after spending years behind bars, holding onto a dream that doesn’t come true. Yet, it’s those dreams that make those years behind bars bearable. Without them I would be less of a man than I am today. It’s a classic catch 22; we find hope where we need it, but hope is a double-edged sword. Because when hope doesn’t come true it can lead to despair.
In the first few months of your release, what did you find the most challenging about life on the outside?
Tolerating people, and not treating this world like prison. There’s a fairly strict code of ethics and honor, and standard way of conducting one’s life and business, within prison walls. If it isn’t adhered to it can result in your community turning on you. In prison if you’re not polite and courteous to every single person it can lead to a fight.
It’s the most polite place I’ve ever been. It’s amazing, you’ve never seen anything like it, the most hardened criminals saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ at every turn and venture and ‘excuse me’, ‘pardon’, ‘may I?’, it’s incredible. To not adhere to that creates social disharmony that can result in violence.
Out here none of that exists. Say you’re at a crowded cafe and someone bumps into you and doesn’t say ‘excuse me’, in prison I would certainly say something. I might push the guy, things could escalate to the point where I’d feel like I have to hit him. In Eugene, that’ll pretty much just put you back in prison and everyone will think you’re nuts.
How do you transition from a world largely dictated by violence to one in which that’s not really how people interact? It’s really difficult to get the conflict out of my head.
What did you find the most wonderful about the outside world in the first few months after your release?
Spontaneity, I think it’s something we often take for granted. The idea that if you want to you can get up and walk down to the store and grab a beer, or call up a friend and suddenly go and hang out, or just go for a walk around the block just because you feel like it. Spontaneity is not something that exists in prison.
I missed all the things that I couldn’t have in prison, seeing all the stars, seeing the moon, hanging out in fog. Crossing yellow lines, just because I could cross them. The fact that they were a yellow line had no meaning any more. Door knobs, that was weird at first. Getting used to the fact that I could open doors and I didn’t have to stand in front of them until they opened for me. Fortunately I never stood at the entrance to my house waiting to get let in or anything, but you know, there were situations people teased me about.
How do you feel life in prison affected your relationships with people? Did you find different kinds of relationships challenging after prison?
I think that prison actually helped me evolve my relationships. You only have communication in prison, and even that can be strained because of how much it’s observed. Words become incredibly important, and being able to communicate and have honest dialogue. Interacting with a whole new slew of people since I’ve been out, I’m honestly surprised by their lack of communication, their ability to express their thoughts and how they feel about things, and to share.
I find that’s really unique, to think that I actually communicate better and more openly than most people because of my time in prison. It’s allowed me to say ‘hey, I feel a thing, and it’s important that I share it with this person that I care about’, or ‘hey I’m really angry, and it’s important that I tell this guy before he pisses me off to the point that I punch him in the face’ and then all sorts of bad things happen. Ideally it’s nice to hear when people have something they want to share with you, especially when that’s ‘stop this or I’m going to punch you in the face’.
But, I think all relationship are challenging when you get out of prison to a degree. I know I definitely had a series of disastrous relationships with female friends of mine. Maybe disastrous isn’t quite the right word, we’re all still friends. It’s tricky trying to navigate the world of love and sex and friendship, and trying to do it when everything around you is so overwhelmingly intense and absorbing. It’s a bad comparison, but it’s like going to the big city for the first time and seeing shiny lights everywhere, and you just want to take it all in and be a part of it because you haven’t for so long. Everything feels so brand new. In a lot of ways it’s almost like being a kid all over again, except you’re not a kid any more, and it can be a really difficult thing to navigate.
What do you feel were the most useful forms of support that you received?
Space, and money, sadly. I think one of the reasons why my transition was so successful was that I had a plan before I got out. For me that plan was basically going back to school, which allowed me to apply for financial aid and a bunch of other things. The timing of my getting out worked out really well because it was only 2 weeks away from a financial aid check. Here I am, I get out, I have a source of income. That’s a challenging thing for a lot of people getting out.
I was also incredibly fortunate that because of my support campaign I was able to parole with several thousand dollars. It was more than enough to give me a few clear months to get my shit together, and not have to worry about if I was going to eat or be able to pay rent. That was absolutely huge.
Space was critical. I loved the fact that I had great friends that were there and supportive, and we’d hang out and do things. But all too often it really felt like there were a lot of people that seemed to demand my time. There were people that weren’t key supporters of mine, and I didn’t know all that well, or maybe I hadn’t even got a letter from in 9 ½ years. Yet they just felt like they really needed to engage with me and take of my time, and ask me how I was. Frankly, I didn’t talk to you for 9 ½ years and I really don’t need to tell you how I’m feeling today. It doesn’t mean I don’t want to have a conversation with you, but please back off.
Were there any forms of support you found particularly unuseful?
I think people sometimes need to understand that their good intentions are their good intentions, but they don’t need to be accepted. I had a number of people – very well meaning, and I absolutely appreciated it – offer me types of support that I just didn’t want. I didn’t want counseling, I still don’t want counseling. I might have my problems, and I’m happy to work with them and talk to people about them, but I’m not going to talk to a stranger.
Being able to accept when your offer of support isn’t going to be accepted, that’s huge. At the same time, maybe asking before you offer support. I found a lot that people liked to think that they knew what I needed. More often that not these were people that had very little direct communication with me while I was locked up. Which isn’t to negate the fact that they might have done huge amounts of support for me, but they didn’t communicate with me so we didn’t have a relationship. I don’t think many people tend to take personal support from people that they don’t have relationships with.
How do you feel that prison has affected you in the long term?
Violence will always be an inherent part of my life. It’s hard for me to be around loud aggressive men, or to be walking down a street at night and see two guys walking opposite from me, without me very clearly imagining how I’ll disable them and where I’ll hit them. For 9 ½ years of my life I was conditioned to be a combatant.
My prison experience was not a mellow and tame one. My prison experience, like many people I know, was one that was constantly full of violence. I saw violence every day. I’ve seen multiple people get stabbed, and people get hit in the head with padlocks. I saw my friend kill a man in front of me. I’ve stepped out over a dead body full of blood and got caught up in the murder investigation. I’ve attacked people, I’ve confronted people. I trained for 5 ½ years with an amazing crew of very talented fighters and martial artists in a semi-full contact mode. I knew that we’d be ready to fight against prison guards, or prison gangs, or anybody that we needed to.
I had a very solid crew of individuals that were doing 20 years-to-life that were amazing friends. We went through everything together, and sometimes that meant that when one person had a problem, we all had a problem. The formative years of my life, all of my 20’s, were conditioned by the violence around me and how I’d respond to that with violence.
Now I live in a world where I’m trying to not let that be the basis of my life. I’m not ashamed of that, and I don’t want to forget it, and I certainly don’t want to hide it. I definitely feel more disciplined, more safe, and ultimately more dangerous because of it. I honestly think that gives me a level of confidence that I don’t see in many other people. Although that could largely just be attributed to martial arts. I frequently find that I have more in common with combat veterans than I have with the average person. I think it’s difficult readjusting back to a way of life that doesn’t include violence as a daily ritual.
As someone who was politically active before and during your prison term, how do you feel about engaging in the struggle since you left prison?
I think sadly more than anything the word is disappointment. I went into prison at a time when struggling meant fighting back. When struggling was more than words. I think that the vast majority of activism today is talking about activism. It’s about saying the right thing to the right people so that you can raise your status in a social group. The vast majority of activism I see today is replicating the same hierarchies and the same culture that we profess to be against, by recreating these systems within our own little cliques. I think we find our empowerment by disempowering others. I find it sad and disappointing that my 9 ½ years in prison did nothing at all to further change.
I’ve had a lot of amazing dialogues with people since I got out. I know that my words have reached a lot of people. I know that a lot of people think differently. I think that’s amazing and it makes every day I did worth it. Yet the world is worse off today than it was the day I went to prison. Our communities are more divided today than they were when I went to prison. I think that’s a sad, sad state of affairs. It makes me not want to participate with movements that I’ve historically affiliated with. It makes me not want to engage with people who define themselves as activists.
I often find that for many people it’s all just words. It’s just getting together and talking about ideas and not acting on them. It becomes being able to feel better about ourselves because we can see there’s problems, rather than doing something about it. I feel like by and large we’ve simply tried to find a way to carve out our existence within the dominant paradigm, without challenging it any more. Which isn’t to say we’re not getting repressed and there’s not amazing people out there doing things. That’s certainly not what I mean to imply. But I think we would all be foolish and blind to not recognize that we’re losing.
What would you say to someone who is hoping to be able to support someone coming out of prison?
That it’s not about you. It’s not about ‘ooh, you’re friends with this political prisoner’ and you can talk to your friends about it. It’s not about whether at the end of the day you can pat yourself on the back for supporting the person that just got out. It’s not about a scene. It’s about someone coming home who has been to war, who has faced an ordeal, who has suffered.
That doesn’t mean that I want pity, it doesn’t mean I need your empathy. I just need you to recognize that it’s not about you. It’s not about a movement. It’s about me being able to smell a flower again, to be able to share a bed with someone, to visit a grandparent that I haven’t seen in 9 ½ years. It’s about me remembering how to be human, and what that means.
I think that too often political prisoners, and even movements to a larger degree, get iconized and put upon a pedestal, or turned into something more than just ‘Jeff’. What’s important is trying to be a friend, trying to see what the individual needs, rather than what you need to give. Which isn’t to suggest that you don’t offer support, but it means that for however many years we’ve been locked up, everyone’s been telling us exactly how it’s going to be. Getting out is about being able to make some determinations for ourselves. While we might need encouragement, we’re capable of asking for the things that we need.
What would you say to someone that is struggling with life on the outside after a prison term?
If you can do prison, you can do not being in prison. Sometimes we have to remind ourselves of that, I know I have. There’s these times when it feels like the weight of the world is incredibly intense and unbearable, and then I go ‘oh, wait a minute, I did 9 ½ years in prison, I can get through this’. It might suck, I might not like it, but if I’m strong enough to survive the worst that my enemies can throw at me, I’m strong enough to survive life.
It certainly didn’t hurt that I had friends to help remind me of that as well. I think sometimes we just forget our strengths. That doesn’t just happen to people getting out of prison, that happens with anyone. In extreme hardships we can forget how strong of a person we are. For me, I know what I’ve experienced, I know what I’ve been through, I know how strong of a person I am. When I forget I remind myself to take a deep breath, remember my victories, remember my strengths, and remember above all that if there is one trait that I and every other die hard revolutionary and activist I know has, it’s determination.
Determination can see us through a lot of things. It won’t make things more pleasant, but it will give us the fortitude we need to overcome and ordeal and become stronger and wiser because of it. We’re not defined by our hardships, we’re not defined by our obstacles, we’re defined by how we overcame them. We defined by how we choose to define our own existence.
I went to prison because I believed there were things worth fighting for, regardless of their consequences. There’s right and there’s wrong, and there’s inherent truths in this world that can’t be argued against. That same principle and strength that allowed me to do those things is the same strength I rely on to be a good person, a good partner, a dedicated student. Not just in school but of life, with a constant desire to learn and improve myself.
I think that we need to remember that the same courage that we found to stand for the earth, or stand against injustice, or to defend animals, that’s the same strength that inspired us to take the action that led to our incarceration. Or inspired us to participate in movements that were targeted because they’re effective. It’s the same courage that we should be cultivating in our communities and ourselves to just live. It takes courage to live free. That’s why it’s so hard for so many people to do, because the shackles aren’t just something that the State puts on you, the shackles are things we put on ourselves.
We need to remind ourselves that the thing that brings warmth to our hearts and inspires us to resist is the fire that’s burning inside of us, yearning to be free. When we learn to cultivate that personally and as communities, look out, because then we’ll be remaking the world into what it should be.