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The Real Cost of Prisons Comix, by Lois Ahrens, PM Press, 90 pages

Reviewed by Gary Hunter

Three stories, 90 pages, and infinite information about how rampant prison construction is destroying America. That’s what The Real Cost of Prisons Comix brings to the table.

The impact of unchecked prison construction has been a blight on American society for the past three decades. From 1975 to 2005, the number of citizens imprisoned in this country rose from under 300,000 to over 1.5 million. With 2.3 million men and women currently behind bars, “…the U.S. incarcerates residents at almost seven times the rate that Canada sends people to prison, 5.8 times the rate of Australia, 8.6 times the rate of France and 11.9 times the rate of Japan.” These are just some of the staggering statistics that have the U.S. simmering at critical mass both socially and economically. All of this information is found on just the first page of the introduction to The Real Cost of Prisons Comix.

Before the 1980s, small towns mostly eschewed proposals to build prisons in their areas. Large-scale political and social mismanagement coupled with tough-on-crime policies now have small towns offering incentives to prison builders. These towns are led to believe that prisons are a good source of jobs and economic stability. In truth, “80% of new prison jobs go to folks who don’t live, or pay taxes, in the prison town.” Seldom do imported prison workers buy homes in the towns where they work. Divorce rates climb. Juvenile jails tend to grow, and local populations sometimes suffer shortages as prisons take priority in water and electrical consumption.

Large cities don’t fare much better. Parts of Brooklyn, New York cost the government $1 million a year on law enforcement alone. Non-violent drug offenders account for 58% of all U.S. prisoners. Eighty-seven percent of U.S. prisoners are people of color. A picture-graphic pie chart unfolds the chilling reality of how blacks compose 13% of the U.S. population, account for 13% of all drug use, 35% of all drug arrests, 55% of all drug convictions and 74% of drug-related prison sentences.

The Real Cost of Prisons Comix reveals how nearly two-thirds of female prisoners have children. More than 50% have been physically or sexually abused or both. In the state of New York, 79% of the female prisoners are black or Hispanic and 93% of the women incarcerated for drugs are black or Hispanic. Yet blacks and Hispanics, male and female, make up only 33% of the state’s population.

One in every 50 black women in the U.S. has permanently lost the right to vote due to a past criminal conviction. In some studies the mental illness rate for incarcerated women is as high as 25%.

From a political standpoint, no administration or political party is guiltless. From the Rockefeller laws in New York to former Governor Pete Wilson’s 3-strikes law in California, politicians of every ilk have infected our society with a malignant lock-em-up mentality. From Reagan to Clinton, our highest elected leaders have marginalized minorities and eroded human and constitutional rights with the hue and cry of the “war on drugs” and the “war on crime.”

The Real Cost of Prisons Comix also educates readers as to how sentencing alternatives have been effective at reversing the rampant deterioration inflicted by tough-on-crime politics.

Placing juveniles in community service and allowing communities to determine how funding is distributed in their neighborhoods has had a positive impact on what were previously high-crime areas.

Lois Ahrens had a vision. Use “comic books ... and plain language to explain complex ideas.” Her concept ushers in a visionary view for impacting social dynamics. People scurrying day-to-day to earn a living have little time to invest in ongoing formal education. Leisure hours are spent relaxing, not trying to change the world. Few people spend free time reading sociology books, but a comic book can be read in minutes. Give that comic book some teeth and those minutes might translate into major social change. In short order, ordinarily disinterested people become armed with life-changing information.

In The Real Cost of Prisons Comix, writers Ruth and Craig Gilmore, Sabrina Jones, Ellen Miller-Mack, Susan Willmarth and author/artist Kevin Pyle help Ahrens bring elementary explanations of extremely complex social systems to ordinary people. This is because real-world solutions require intervention by real people, and such intervention can’t be born from ignorance.

The Real Cost of Prisons Comix offers a substantive and sensible response to a troubling trend of incarceration and social injustice. Knowledge is power. Empower yourself.


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