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The Prison Industrial Complex and Political Prisoners

By Hans Bennett
Z Magazine, February, 2009

A Book review of:
The Real Cost of Prisons Comix, edited by Lois Ahrens, PM Press, 2008.

Let Freedom Ring: A Collection of Documents from the Movements to Free US Political Prisoners, edited by Matt Meyer, PM Press, 2008.

Abolition Now! Ten Years of Strategy and Struggle Against The Prison Industrial Complex, edited by the CR10 Publications Collective, AK Press, 2008.


2008 marked the ten-year anniversaries of both the prison abolitionist Critical Resistance (CR) conference in Oakland, CA that coined the phrase “prison industrial complex” (PIC) and the National Jericho Movement’s march in Washington DC that demanded the release of all US political prisoners and prisoners of war. To commemorate the 1998 events, the CR10 conference was held in Oakland in September, and Jericho organized a march to the United Nations in October.

These two important events in 1998 successfully re-energized the prison-activist and political prisoner support movements rooted in the 1960s and 1970s. However, while recognizing this accomplishment, three new books document how the prison industrial complex has actually grown bigger and stronger since 1998, while the post-911 climate has further escalated political repression. While recognizing this frustrating reality, these new books look honestly at both the accomplishments and shortcomings of the last ten years.

The Real Cost of Prisons

The new book The Real Cost of Prisons Comix, reprints three comic books published as part of the Real Costs of Prisons Project (RCPP), which began in 2000. So far, 125,000 comic books have been printed, with over 100,000 distributed for free to community groups and college classes alike. Featuring artwork by Kevin Pyle, Sabrina Jones and Susan Willmarth, all three comic books can be freely downloaded at www.realcostofprisons.org.

Prison abolitionists Ruth Wilson Gilmore and Craig Gilmore write in the book’s introduction that the RCPP’s value “has been to show us how the system of mass incarceration permeates our lives, who is paying the costs of that system and the many ways the system is vulnerable to people who put their thought and effort into organizing to shrink it.” Significantly, the RCPP’s comics “demonstrate that the ideas we need to change the world can be explained simply enough and packaged attractively enough to be used by all kinds of readers.” Prisoners and their families can “understand material usually circulated only among academics and those who focus on policy.”

Editor Lois Ahrens writes that “a central goal of the comic books is to politicize, not pathologize.” She argues that the “deregulation and globalization” of the last 30 years has “resulted in impoverishing urban economies, limiting opportunities for meaningful work and slashing funding for quality education, marginalizing the poor, and creating more inequality. 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.”

The recent growth of the PIC and mass incarceration is staggering. Ahrens writes that “every year from 1947 through the beginning of the 1970s, approximately 200,000 people were incarcerated in the US. Today, there are more than 2.3 million men and women incarcerated, with more than 5 million more on parole and probation.”

The Prison Town comic book debunks the myth that building a new prison actually helps to revitalize a town with an ailing economy, and instead illustrates the many negative costs that a new prison can impose. Importantly, Prison Town also documents how many towns learned by example and cited the prisons’ negative impact in successful campaigns to stop prison construction in their community.
   
Prisoners of the War on Drugs is a heart-wrenching look at the victims of the so-called “war on drugs.” At least according to its official purpose, the “war on drugs” has been a total failure, resulting in the mass incarceration of non-violent drug offenders at a huge, inefficient expense to tax-payers. Prisoners emphasizes “harm reduction” and treatment as a better solution, stating that the “war on drugs locks up more users than dealers. Most want to quit, but can’t. A year of treatment costs much less than a year of incarceration, plus: the person can work, pay taxes & take part in family life.” While drug laws may seem insane, they appear to have unofficial motives that are highly rational. For example, they have served to accelerate mass imprisonment, the criminalization of poverty, and the erosion of civil-liberties.

Prisoners of a Hard Life: Women & Their Children concludes the three-comic book series. The stories presented here are mostly fictional, but are based on the writers’ research and personal experience working with women prisoners. Therefore, Ahrens explains that the stories “represent the lives of hundreds of thousands of people suffering as a result of the war on drugs.” Perhaps most outrageous is the true story of Regina McKnight, the first woman in the US to be convicted of murder because of behavior while pregnant. When McKnight’s baby was delivered stillborn and an autopsy found traces of cocaine in the fetus she was arrested and convicted of murder with a 20-year sentence. In 2008, following several appeals and eight years in prison, the South Carolina Supreme Court unanimously reversed her conviction, after concluding that there is no medical evidence of cocaine causing stillbirths.  

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