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NACDL Reviews Real Cost of Prisons

Real Cost of PrisonsBy Angelyn Frazer
National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers

According to the Bureau of Justice, the United States currently incarcerates 2.3 million people. Of that number, close to 200,000 are incarcerated for drug offenses. Long time prison reform activist and author, Lois Ahrens, has advocated against “unprecedented growth” of prison facilities and the number of people incarcerated within the last 30 years, and has stressed the importance of understanding the “real costs” behind the system. In order to facilitate that understanding, Ahrens authored, The Real Cost of Prisons Comix, an educational primer that describes our overreliance on incarceration, particularly as it relates to the war on drugs, in a clear and concise manner.  

The book offers an explanation of the various mechanisms that ensnarl individuals in the prison industrial complex.  In addition, it provides the reader a glimpse into the world of those mired in negative social and economic realities and the subsequent collateral consequences that besiege those with a criminal conviction.

Initially a series of three comic books modeled after Mexico’s popular photo novella or “picture stories,” the book is illustrated by political artists, and consists of a Preface by Ahrens describing the neo-liberal policies that have helped create our prison culture and an Introduction by Professor Ruth Wilson Gilmore and Craig Gilmore that illuminates the direct social, fiscal, and human costs of mass incarceration. Ahrens’ inspiration to create a comic book was drawn from her life experiences, her desire to reach those affected by the system, and her goal of educating those with little knowledge of how the prison industrial system has developed. Her ultimate objective was to create a resource that approached complex issues in a simple and comprehensive way. She aptly accomplishes this feat by succinctly presenting accessible statistical information and anecdotal stories often prerequisites in policymaking.

Ensconced within the historical context, the book houses the three comic books appropriately titled “Prison Town: Paying the Price,” a reflection of a town whose leaders plan for prison expansion under the guise of economic development;  “Prisoner of the War on Drugs,” which explores the war on drugs and mandatory minimums, through the lens of poverty, gender, and race; and “Prisoners of a Hard Life: Women and Their Children,” providing an examination women who are affected by harsh drug penalties and how their increased incarceration further fractures already fragile communities.  

These comics allow readers of all ages to become educated voices against policies that keep us wetted to an often unjust criminal justice system, in the name of economic development.  This is all the more important as Senator Dick Durbin, and Illinois Governor Pat Quinn, recently supported the move of Guantanamo prisoners to an Illinois prison, as “…an opportunity to dramatically reduce unemployment, create thousands of good-paying jobs and breathe new economic life into this part of downstate Illinois." In The Real Cost of Prison Comix, Ahrens compels the reader to cautiously approach the discussion of prison development as necessary for “job opportunities” and “national security.”

Ahrens encourages society to realize that prisons are a great cost to our nation and it is only through working together on solutions that we will be able to combat our reliance on our overburdened prison system.  As such, The Real Cost of Prisons Comix offers recommendations and alternatives on how we can turn the tide away from the existing system of incarceration, including re-directing prison budgets to education, housing and job training. The Real Cost of Prisons Comix is a highly recommended resource for the novice and expert seeking to reform criminal justice policies.

About the Reviewers
Angelyn Frazer is NACDL’s State Legislative Affairs Director and Susana Inda was a former NACDL intern from UC Merced.

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