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Background Information

Cartoon from The Black Commentator

The Real Cost of Prisons Project

By Lois Ahrens, Founder

What drives mass incarceration?

Every year from 1947 through the beginning of the 1970's approximately 200,000 people were incarcerated in the U.S. Today there are more than 2.4 million men and women incarcerated with more than 5 million more on parole and probation--- one in every 32 adults.

In our analysis of mass incarceration, we do not seek to remove individual responsibility; however, we seek to place an individual within a bigger picture. To do this we look back on how Ronald Reagan and the neo-liberal agenda came to power in 1980 by using covert and overt racist messages fabricating the myth of the welfare queen, capitalizing on fears of affirmative action and the gains made in civil rights movement of 1950's and 60's, fostering alarm about crime to exploit the divisions between poor and working-class whites and African Americans which remain today. The racist sub-text of neo-liberal political campaigns succeeded in creating acceptance of mass incarceration while simultaneously capitalizing on the industries they created to police, prosecute, cage and control millions of people.


Neo-liberal policies have been in place for almost thirty years. As a result many people are not aware that our political and economic life now is not the result of natural course of events but rather of a systemically created ideology that has pervaded every aspect of our daily lives. Deregulation and globalization - the loss of U.S. manufacturing; outsourcing; corporate agriculture and the disappearance of the family farm; the reduction of protections for workers; the decrease in number of unionized workers; the privatization of hospitals, water, education, prisons and the military; drastic cuts in public spending for welfare, public schools, public transportation, housing and job training; and attacks on affirmative action - are now part of the air we breathe. These policies have resulted in impoverishing urban economies, limiting opportunities for meaningful work and slashing funding for quality education and marginalizing the poor and creating more inequality.

A one-week project grows into ten years of agitation, education and more

The Real Cost of Prisons Project began in 2000. It was then I proposed the idea of a series of presentations by prison/justice activists as part of the Center for Popular Economics (CPE) Summer Institute which was to take place in July 2001. I named the course "The Real Cost of Prisons: Human, Economic and Social" and began researching presenters.

One of the first people I contacted was Ellen Miller-Mack, a nurse practitioner and anti-prison activist. She was organizing "Re-Claiming Our Lives," a one-day conference in Springfield, Massachusetts, focusing on women and incarceration. She had been providing health care first to HIV+ men and then to women at the Hampden County jail on behalf of Brightwood Health Center. She was a guiding force in the creation of two Real Cost of Prisons workshops on the ravages of drug policy and its devastating impact on women who are addicts. She has worked to ground the RCPP in her experience in "the trenches" and in her belief in the principles and practice of harm reduction. Ellen's participation has added soul to the Project and resonance for people who live the pain of the real cost of prisons.

I continued my search for presenters whose work combined research and activism for the Summer Institute. Many excellent people participated and then agreed to continue discussion on expanding the week-long session into something more long-lasting.

Soon after the Summer Institute ended, I asked key justice/policy activists if they would lend their names to a funding proposal I was writing to the Open Society Institute (OSI). OSI took a leap of faith in funding the Project. OSI supported our idea that activists need to learn from the experience of others, discover and incorporate new research into their work, take time to make connections across issue areas and deepen their analysis in order to become more effective organizers. In July 2002, a year after the Summer Institute, they funded the Project.

The Real Cost of Prisons Project was to last for two years. In that time three political economists and a group of advisors would create three workshops: "The Economics of Women and Families in the Criminal Justice System," "The Economics of the War on Drugs" and the "Federal, State and Private Financing of Prisons." We proposed teaching the workshops in six cities to activists and organizers. We also would create popular education materials based on the workshops and construct a website.

CPE economists James Heintz, Kiaran Honderich and Mark Brenner were part of the core group. Nine months into the project, I had the good fortune of meeting Craig Gilmore, co-founder of the California Prison Moratorium Project, developed "The Real Cost of Financing and Siting of Prisons" workshop.

Soon after the Real Cost of Prisons Project grant was awarded to the Center for Popular Economics, the CPE Steering Committee unexpectedly decided they did not have the expertise to supervise me, a non-academic and a non-economist. OSI was open to another non-profit sponsor for the project. I contacted Marc Mauer and Malcolm Young, founder and then Executive Director of the Sentencing Project. They responded quickly and enthusiastically. Through the leadership of Malcolm and Marc, The Sentencing Project agreed to be the non-profit sponsor of The Real Cost of Prisons Project.

Finally we were underway. After a year of research, writing, long meetings and discussions with Mark Brenner, Craig Gilmore, Kiaran Honderich, James Heintz and Ellen Miller-Mack, we began conducting trial runs of the workshops in Springfield, Massachusetts. The feedback we received was crucial to honing the content and the analysis of the workshops. For example, workshop participants told us it was essential to include alternative solutions and organizing successes to balance the stark reality we were presenting, otherwise we would run the risk of overwhelming people with the enormity of the work ahead.

After the first few workshops, we realized our target group of participants was too narrow and that we should include people and communities most egregiously affected by mass incarceration. Clearly three trainers were too few. We needed to train trainers to expand our base and geographical reach. In October 2004, James, Mark, Craig, Kiaran and I held a Train the Trainers workshop. Twenty-nine people attended from around the country. All were prison/justice activists, twelve people had been incarcerated, three quarters of those attending were people of color and the age range was from 19 to 63. It was a powerful group. Each person was trained to teach one workshop, incorporating his or her own experience and insight. Many who attended remain connected to the RCPP.

Real Cost of Prisons Comic Books

Why comic books?

Comic books and anti-prison agitation and education may seem like an unlikely match; but, it seemed perfect to me. My idea was to make comic books combining drawings and plain language to explain complex ideas and concepts. I wanted them to incorporate statistics, new research and footnotes but not scare off readers who were not used to reading academic articles and books. To do this, they needed to be about people's lives. The glossy cover would be attractive enough for someone doing laundry in a laundromat to pick one up and start reading.

The inspiration for the comic books came from three sources. For more than 30 years, I traveled to Mexico, where I saw women tending market stalls and sitting on park benches engrossed in photo novellas, or "picture stories." Photo novellas were everywhere, inexpensive to produce and buy. Only rarely do they have one reader.

In 2000, trade union leaders from South Africa's COSATU (The Congress of South African Trade Unions) gave me copies of two newly published, eye-opening publications: "Stop Privatisation" and "A South African Workers' Guide to Globalization." Using graphics, photos and concise explanations, they had created popular education materials which communicated complex ideas in easy-to-understand language. Their target audience was South African trade unionists, astute in political consciousness but perhaps without a lot of formal education.

Lastly, A Field Guide to the U.S. Economy written by economists James Heintz and Nancy Folbre used everyday language, graphs and cartoons to explain how the economy works. The book was written to help illuminate the complexities of economics for people with little or no background in economics.

My goal was to create materials which organizers, educators, medical and mental health providers, along with people directly experiencing the impact of mass incarceration could use in their work. It was the combination of the Field Guide, COSATU's publications and the photo novellas that led me to comic books.

The comic books place individual experience in this context and challenge a central message of neo-liberal ideology: the myth that people can pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. In this paradigm, racism, sexism, classism and economic inequality are not part of the picture. Most people now believe that change happens through personal transformation rather than political struggle and change.

A central goal of the comic books is to politicize, not pathologize. Despite years of conditioning, our message appears to be welcome. As of this writing 125,000 comic books have been printed. More than 115,000 have been sent free of charge. When we fill requests for comic books, we generally send all three. We do this to encourage people to think and act across issue areas.

From Second Chance Tattoo Removal to the Yakima Reservation School

Many thousands of comic books are being used by programs working with youth. Some examples include: NY Correctional Association's Juvenile Justice Project "Each One, Teach One"; Homies Organizing the Mission to Empower Youth for workshops on incarceration in two primarily Latino high schools in San Francisco; Children's Aid Society, NY, for a youth reentry program from Riker's Island in Brooklyn, the Bronx and Manhattan; Cibecue High School on the White Mountain Apache Indian Reservation in East Central Arizona; Central Juvenile Hall in Los Angeles; Partners In Health Program in Dorchester, MA; Second Chance Tattoo Removal in San Francisco for youth and former gang members; Yakima Indian Reservation School, Wapato, WA; a comic book project for youth in the Milwaukee schools and one at the Heritage school in Manhattan; a high school anti-violence campaign in Philadelphia; and Young Women's Empowerment workshops in Chicago.

Thousands more have been used by health educators and providers, including training for rural health students and their preceptors in West Virginia; classes for midwives and nurses; support groups for drug users in programs throughout the country; clients and staff at AIDS Action Committee in Boston; an HIV and Hepatitis C prevention project in 14 counties in northeast Alabama; for work with youth as part of a wellness coalition at the Railbelt Mental Health and Addiction Program in Nenana, Alaska; in an STD/AIDS prevention program in San Diego; for participants in the National Summit to Ensure the Health and Humanity of Pregnant and Birthing Women; and for the training of doulas in Washington State. Organizing efforts throughout the country have used Prison Town-Paying the Price, to educate people in communities being impacted, lawmakers and others on what the realities of having a prison in their town will really be.

Comic books on church pews

Prison politicizes many prisoners. Some prisoners are fortunate to have families and support systems that provide them with subscriptions to magazines and send books and newspaper articles; but in this age of information overload in the "free world," politically conscious prisoners are starved for information, new research and political material. Unfortunately many organizations have stopped printing hard copies of their reports, fact sheets and resources. More and more, research important to prisoners is available only on websites, making it almost impossible for prisoners to have access to current, relevant materials they can use in their continuing education and in organizing work inside of prisons. The comic books reflect the lives of many prisoners and speak to their experience, and are free and available. Comic books have been received by prisoners in every state prison system, every federal prison and numerous jails. Thousands more have been sent to prisoners through 13 Books Through Bars organizations. We know that comic books are passed hand to hand by prisoners, since as soon as a set is sent to one prisoner, not a week passes before we begin receiving requests from other prisoners at that prison. Word of the comic books spreads from prisoners to their families, friends and organizations with which they work, and the network continues to expand. One prisoner wrote that he found one on a pew in the prison chapel.

In response to the comic books, we began to receive a wealth of insightful political writing and comix from prisoners. This inspired us to create two sections of the Real Cost of Prisons website: Writing from Prison and Comix from Inside. The comic books have put us in touch with hundreds of politicized prisoners. Thanks to them, we have become more involved in organizing against the cruelties of life without parole, juvenile life without parole, supermax prisons, intensive management units and other forms of segregation.

Poster-sized comic book pages have been used in exhibits around the country and tacked to walls in offices everywhere. Individual pages are incorporated into leaflets and reproduced in newsletters. The comic books and individual pages have been downloaded from the website more than thousands of times a year.

Real Cost of Prisons Comic Books

In January 2005, I began to develop the idea of comic books. The first comic book artist I contacted was Sabrina Jones. Ellen Miller-Mack began writing stories for Prisoners of the War on Drugs, Sabrina Jones drew the stories and I assisted with the research.

Sabrina Jones recommended Kevin Pyle, another artist with whom she works on the World War 3 Illustrated comic book series. I looked at Kevin's excellent work online and hoped he would agree to work with Craig Gilmore to create the comic book on financing and siting of prisons. Kevin and Craig formed a great team. Once again, my role was to provide editorial oversight. Prison Town was the first comic book released, in early March 2005, with 7500 copies printed. In April 2005 , Prisoners of the War on Drugs was published.

Ellen wrote the stories for Prisoners of a Hard Life and Prisoners of the War on Drugs, based on our research and on her years of experience providing health care on behalf of her health center to women at the Hampden County jail. The stories in Prisoners of the War on Drugs and Prisoners of a Hard Life are fictional but represent the lives of hundreds of thousands of people suffering as a result of the War on Drugs. Two stories are true. In Prisoners of a Hard Life, Regina McKnight's ordeal ends with her imprisonment in South Carolina. In an important ruling, on May 12, 2008 after 8 long years, the South Carolina Supreme Court reversed the 20-year homicide conviction of Regina McKnight. The unanimous decision recognized that research linking cocaine to stillbirths is based on "outdated" and inaccurate medical information. And, in "3 Strikes You're Out" in Prisoners of the War in Drugs, we describe what happened to Shane Reams and his mother, Sue. I thank them all for allowing their heart-breaking stories to be included in the comic books and this book.

Susan Willmarth, also a World War 3 Illustrated artist, enthusiastically signed on to do Prisoners of a Hard Life. Ellen and I met Susan in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and talked for hours. Soon she began faxing us the powerful drawings that make up Prisoners of a Hard Life-Women and Their Children, which was published in July 2005.

The work of these three talented, smart, politically committed artists-Kevin Pyle, Sabrina Jones and Susan Willmarth-continues to resonate emotionally and intellectually with tens of thousands of our readers.

In the first month of publication, half the comic books we had printed were sent to organizations around the country. The comic books were flying out the door. I approached OSI seeking additional money to reprint the comic books and pay for postage. OSI funded the reprinting of Prison Town and increased the number of copies of the first printings of Prisoners of the War on Drugs and Prisoners of a Hard Life.

In November 2005, less than a year after the comic books were published, our supply had dwindled to almost nothing. Luckily, the Starry Night Fund of the Tides Foundation to invite me to submit a grant to reprint and distribute the comic books and we were awarded our first grant from the Starry Night Fund. A second grant for reprinting and distribution was received from the Starry Night Fund in September 2006.

With the success of the comic books, I began receiving suggestions for new comic books. Suggestions included comic books focused on the criminalization and incarceration of youth, solitary confinement and control units, felony disenfranchisement, immigration detention and the obstacles men and women who have been incarcerated faced after being released from prison and jail. Many people have requested Spanish language-versions of the comic books. I had mistakenly thought that the demand and the apparent usefulness of the comic books would generate funding for new ones. Unfortunately this has not been the case. Instead, the Real Cost of Prisons Project including the workshops, our Train the Trainers program, the website and news blog and the printing and distribution of free comic books are all unfunded despite numerous requests. The work continues but no new comic books have been created and Prison Town is no longer in print.

The Real Cost of Prisons Project Today

Over the years the Real Cost of Prisons website has become central to the Project. Winston Close redesigned is the webmaster, keeping it current and easy to use for more than 3,000 unique page views a day. In 2010 almost one million people will have visited the website. The website includes up-to-date research, books, and links to hundreds of organizations, PDFs of RCPP-created materials, including the three comic books, political and analytical comix and writing from prisoners, and a daily blog of news focusing on mass incarceration. (www.realcostofprisons.org/blog/).

The RCPP has changed enormously in its first ten years. When we began, my contact with prisoners and people who had been incarcerated was limited. Each day I receive mail and write to prisoners around the country. Most of my correspondence began with a request for comic books and over the years, friendships and political alliances have grown. Six days a week, I send comic books to prisoners along with other materials they may find of use.

Additionally, through the website and blog I have had the privilege of connecting with people doing outstanding organizing work. Most often this work is done by families and loved ones of prisoners and through their strength and perseverance; they have formed powerful organizations based on the experience of people most affected.

Every day, my political and personal life is enriched by prisoners with whom I correspond and through my work with grassroots, family-based prison activists around the country. They inspire my work to abolish prisons.

© 2003-2011 The Real Cost of Prisons Project