The Real Cost of Prisons Comix

By Thapliyal, Nisha | Radical Teacher, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

The Real Cost of Prisons Comix


Thapliyal, Nisha, Radical Teacher


The Real Cost of Prisons Comix

Edited by Lois Ahrens

(PM Press, 2008)

As an educator of undergraduate students who have grown up in the digital age, I am always in search of materials on social justice issues that engage the ways they encounter and digest information. For this reason, I have begun to integrate comic books into my teaching. The first comic book I introduced into my classes on education and globalization was A Field Guide to the US Economy by economists Nancy Folbre and James Heintz. I was even more delighted to come across The Real Cost of Prisons Comix.

The topic of prisons never fails to elicit passionate debate among my students. Coming from predominantly middleclass and upper-class white families, few of them have personal experience with the U.S. prison system. Thanks to Hollywood and the overabundance of tough-on-crime politicians, however, almost everyone has a strong opinion about prisons. My students are eager and skilled at arguing philosophical questions such as "Why do we have prisons?" and "Is the function of prisons to punish or to rehabilitate?" However, even the skilled debaters in the classroom begin to slow down when faced with even trickier propositions, such as: should a female prisoner wear shackles while giving birth?; should prisons be run as profit-making entities?; do prisoners deserve to be treated with rights and dignity?; should non-violent offenders be treated differently from violent offenders?; and why does the wealthiest country in the world need so many prisons? As these questions enter the conversation, the tone of discussion becomes less abstract and more situated. New voices are heard at this point, perspectives from students who have intimate connections to the prison system through the experiences of friends and family members in prison or on probation or parole. Unfortunately, in privileged classrooms 1ike ours, a teacher cannot always count on those voices being present or even willing to speak.

The Real Cost of Prisons Comix brings vivid images of the lives of people incarcerated for nonviolent offenses into the classroom. Published in 2008, the book comes out of almost a decade of research and popular education by anti-prison activists Lois Ahrens and Ellen Miller-Mack with support from the Sentencing Project and the Open Society Institute. Artists Kevin Pyle, Sabrina Jones, and Susan Wilmarth provide the inspired black-and-white artwork to complement powerful stories based on the testimonials of prisoners, prison activists, and research data from sources as varied as the Department of Justice, Women's Prison Association, and Human Rights Watch.

The volume collects three separate comic books: Prison Town, which outlines the economic imperatives that drive prison building, Prisoners of the War on Drugs, which traces the historical impact of Rockefeller drug sentencing laws on poor urban communities in New York, and Prisoners of a Hard Life, which presents the stories of incarcerated women and the impact on their families. The three sections are divided by powerful testimonials from activists inside and outside prison, and educators who have integrated these comics into their educational activities in different ways. Each section includes a glossary and a discussion of alternatives to prevalent incarceration and drug laws. Each of these comics can be downloaded separately and for free from the website www.realcostofprisons.org. More than a hundred thousand copies of the book have been sent out for free. Unfortunately, reprinting as well as the production of additional books has been halted because of the lack of financial support for the project.

We live in a time where prisons are talked about as "recession proof" and "non-polluting" forms of economic growth. Wall Street investors can count on "prison stocks" as a solid investment. Prisons and jails "rent" or "lease out" prison labor at a pittance to major retailers to manufacture furniture, license plates, and underwear or to provide telephone customer service and sales support (Scott, 2001). …

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