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Lois Ahrens


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Lois Ahrens has been an activist and organizer for social justice for more than forty years.

In 2000 she started the Real Cost of Prisons Project which brings together justice activists, artists, justice policy researchers and people directly experiencing the impact of mass incarceration to work together to end the U.S. prison nation.  

The Real Cost of Prisons Project created workshops, a website which includes sections of writing and comix by prisoners, a daily news blog focused on mass incarceration and three comic books. The website (at www.realcostofprisons.org) and blog (at www.realcostofprisons.org/blog/) receive more than 30,000 distinct visits per month.  

In 2005, she developed three comic books: Prison Town-Paying the Price by Kevin Pyle and Craig Gilmore, Prisoners of A Hard Life-Women and Their Children by Susan Willmarth, Ellen Miller-Mack and Ahrens, Prisoners of the War on Drugs by Sabrina Jones, Ellen Miller-Mack and Ahrens. More than 100,000 free comic books have been sent to prisoners, their families, organizers, teachers and others. The comic books have now being anthologized into the book, The Real Cost of Prisons Comix, published by PM Press in September, 2008.

Through the Real Cost of Prisons Project, Ahrens has been fortunate to have built an extensive correspondence with prisoners, which has grown into working relationships and friendships. Additionally, Lois is involved in educating people with criminal records, those who hire them and the public about how to overcome and end obstacles created by laws and practices surrounding Criminal Offender Record Information. She also works to raise awareness and opposition to the building and expanding of new jails in MA.

A recent letter addessed to Lois:

 

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Real Cost of Prisons

The Real Cost of Prisons Comix
Edited by Lois Ahrens
Written by: Ellen Miller-Mack, Craig Gilmore, Lois Ahrens, Susan Willmarth, and Kevin Pyle
Illustrated by: Kevin Pyle, Sabrina Jones and Susan Willmarth
Introduction by: Craig Gilmore and Ruth Wilson Gilmore
Published by: PM Press
ISBN: 978-1-60486-034-4
Format: Paperback
Pub Date: September 2008
Page Count: 104 pages
Size: 7 by 10
Subjects: Comics, Social Justice, Penology

$14.95

Winner of the 2008 PASS Award (Prevention for a Safer Society) from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

One out of every hundred adults in the U.S. is in prison. This book provides a crash course in what drives mass incarceration, the human and community costs, and how to stop the numbers from going even higher. This volume collects the three comic books published by the Real Cost of Prisons Project. The stories and statistical information in each comic book is thoroughly researched and documented.

Prison Town: Paying the Price tells the story of how the financing and site locations of prisons affects the people of rural communities in which prison are built. It also tells the story of how mass incarceration affects people of urban communities where the majority of incarcerated people come from.

Prisoners of the War on Drugs includes the history of the war on drugs, mandatory minimums, how racism creates harsher sentences for people of color, stories on how the war on drugs works against women, three strikes laws, obstacles to coming home after incarceration, and how mass incarceration destabilizes neighborhoods.

Prisoners of a Hard Life: Women and Their Children includes stories about women trapped by mandatory sentencing and the "costs" of incarceration for women and their families. Also included are alternatives to the present system, a glossary and footnotes.

Over 125,000 copies of the comic books have been printed and more than 100,000 have been sent to families of people who are incarcerated, people who are incarcerated, and to organizers and activists throughout the country. The book includes a chapter with descriptions about how the comix have been put to use in the work of organizers and activists in prison and in the "free world" by  ESL teachers, high school teachers, college professors, students, and health care providers throughout the country. The demand for them is constant and the ways in which they are being used is inspiring.

Praise:

"I cannot think of a better way to arouse the public to the cruelties of the prison system than to make this book widely available."
--Howard Zinn

"The Real Cost of Prisons comics are among the most transformative pieces of information that the youth get to read. We take it with us to detention centers, group homes, youth shelters and social justice organizing projects. Everywhere we go we see youth nodding with agreement and getting excited to see their reality validated in print. The Real Cost of Prisons helps youth know what's up and gives them the push they need to get active in the struggle to make interpersonal and community-wide change."
--Shira Hassan, Co-Director Young Women's Empowerment Project, Chicago, IL

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What others are saying...

Book Reviews

 

rcpThe Real Cost of Prisons Comix Review
By Joyce Frohn
Bitch Magazine
September 2011

Comic books can't change the world, right? Maybe they could, if more were like The Real Cost of Prisons Comix (PM Press).l Comprising three comic books originally published by the Real Costs of Prisons Project, a nonprofit whose mission is to educate about and track the human and communty impacts of incarceration, this collection combines graphic-novel punch with the facts about what drives prison policy and growth. From exploring the economic impact of a new prison, to laying out the history of drug laws as they relate to imprisonment, to telling the stories of incarcerated-women and the children many of them leave behind, these 100 pages contain vital information for anyone interested in the realities of the prison-industrial complex and the need for reform.

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rcpThe Real Cost of Prisons Comix Review
By Nisha Thapliyal
Radical Teacher
Winter 2009

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.

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rcpFour Things You Can Do for Juvenile Justice Reform
By GRACE BAUER
Reclaiming Futures

There are rumblings throughout the country about racism right now. People are wondering what the implications of racism are, if it still exists, how much it affects and to what extent. These are the kinds of discussions we should be having as a nation. They are long overdue and the results of such discussions would be a welcome change to the silence and the ability of this country to ignore what is plain and evident. Yet it seems they're slow to begin and could go on for decades before we see any real change.

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rcpThe Real Cost of Prisons
By Kebby Warner
make/shift Magazine

After reading The Real Cost of Prisons Comix, what stands out the most for me is that something as complex as prisons is explained so effectively in comic form! This is for everyone, from the young to the old—no matter your educational background, the Comix are easy to understand.

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rcpPrison Comix
By Jim Ridgeway
Unsilent Generation

With more and more older people going to prison there is a growing demand for educational materials to keep their minds alive and well amid the deadening atmosphere of the American correctional system—created in large part by government and supervised and informed by the judiciary. Not to mention the thousands upon thousands of young and middle-aged people whose “rehabilitation” has been cut short by the cruel sentencing laws. There are all sorts of projects afoot in this area, but one is of special interest. It is called the Real Cost of Prisons, and is run by Lois Ahrens of Northampton, Mass., on a shoestring. You can get a feel for her work by obtaining the Real Cost of Prisons Comix book which includes three comics: Prison Town about the financing and placement of prisons and their effect on rural communities; Prisoners of the war on Drugs, a history of the war on drugs; and Prisoners of a hard Life,which includes stories of women trapped by mandatory sentencing. To me, this last book is the most telling. PM Press publishes the book at $12.95 a copy.

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rcpVivid comics show the impacts of mass incarceration on communities of color
By Jenna M. Lloyd
Colorlines

Locking 2.3 million people behind bars is a vast social project. It takes work to hide the equivalent of a large US city in plain sight. The explanations served up on the nightly news and by tough-on-crime politicians graphically focus on violent crime, despite its decline. More prisons, they say, will create safe and drug free communities.  The Real Cost of Prisons Comix (PM Press), winner of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency’s PASS Award, asks whether the billions of dollars invested annually in mass incarceration delivers on these promises.  Hidden behind these fear-provoking images, the book documents the steep human costs exacted on individual health and freedom, family unity, and community well being. What else could be done with the social wealth and creativity now trapped into cycles of cage-building and neighborhood abandonment?

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rcpThe Real Cost of Prisons Comix
By Jeanne Vacaro
Feminist Review

As activists know all too well, crafting a political message and effectively mobilizing an audience is an elusive task. In The Real Cost Of Prisons, Lois Ahrens and her contributors beautifully stage a difficult dialogue—about mass incarceration, mandatory sentencing, and the “war on drugs”—with comics. Comics are an accessible, popular form of education, and most importantly, addictive, and hence become a subversive way to raise awareness. The Real Cost of Prisons Project has distributed 115,000 comics to the incarcerated, affected families, and social justice organizations free of charge. Comics are just one part of the organization’s mission to end mass incarceration; since Lois Ahrens founded organization in 2000 a coalition of artists, activists, and researchers has produced and distributed educational materials about the costs—material and affective—of the prison industrial complex and it’s devastating impact on family preservation, women’s reproductive rights, rural economies, and much more.

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rcpThe Real Cost of Prisons Comix
Rethinking Schools

Between the 1920s and 1960s, about one out of every one thousand people in the United States were incarcerated. By 2000, about five out of every thousand people were incarcerated. With compassion, insight, plain language, and compelling images, The Real Cost of Prisons peels back this startling statistic to explore the human stories it hides. Student-friendly comic chapters examine prison towns; the so-called "war on drugs" and prisoners; and women prisoners and children. The U.S. prison-industrial complex deserves a bigger place in the curriculum. This slim volume is an excellent start.

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rcpFeel The Real Cost of Prisons
By Paul Buhle
Monthly Review 2008

This remarkable book is the political proof and artistic expression of what has become a key movement for prisoners in the United States.  As a book, it is beautiful and genuinely entertaining in its own right, the veritable launching pad of a new artistic/political press.  As an organizing tool, it is perhaps a great deal more...

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rcpComics for community organizing, outreach and education
Hunger, Homelessness & Poverty Task Force
Social Responsibilities Round Table of the American Library Association
Monday December 15, 2008

Graphic novels are a suitable medium for illustrating cold, hard facts. They can literally put a face on morbid, impersonal economic reality. Lois Ahrens understands this and perfects the medium well in the graphic novel, The Real Cost of Prisons Comix. This collective work, part of the Real Cost of Prisons Project, which initially began with the work of economists, reveals the human cost of the prison industry, where 2.3 million people a day are locked up in our nation's prisons. The work is in three parts, "Prison Town," "Prisoners of the War on Drugs," and "Prisoners of a Hard Life." "Prison Town" details the economic incentives behind mandatory sentencing guidelines and describes how the prison industry thrives in rural America, driving out local businesses and eroding community. "Prisoners of the War on Drugs" relates how racism, sexism, and classism fuels the prison industry. "Prisoners of a Hard Life" provides personal stories of women prisoners and their children. The illustrations, all in stark black and white, are paired beautifully with the text. Each section ends with reader responses, from community organizers to academics to prisoners and there is a glossary of terms used in the book. The series is designed as an educational tool for anyone who is interested or affected, which given current statistics, is one in every 32 Americans.

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rcpLessons in The Real Cost of Prisons
By Jordan Beltran Gonzales
Changing Lives, Changing Minds


This anthology combines three engaging and educational comics with dozens of letters and testimonials from readers. Fewer than 100 pages yield a thorough breakdown of how America’s economic and social addiction to imprisoning Black, Brown, and poor people for particular behaviors has spiraled into an epidemic of mass incarceration. Through vivid black-and-white images, well-researched background information, and case studies of women and men in context, readers gain vital knowledge and access to progressive networks that will transform this crisis...

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The Real Cost of Prisons Comix
By Christine C
Our Bodies Ourselves

PM Press has recently published “The Real Cost of Prisons Comix,” three comic books produced by the Real Cost of Prison Projects in one volume.

The number of incarcerated women has risen at a rate nearly double that of men in recent decades, in large part due to mandatory sentencing and draconian drug laws. There is now believed to be about 200,000 incarcerated women in U.S. prisons, jails and immigration detention centers...

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Review: Illustrations From the Inside and The Real Cost of Prisons
By Josh MacPhee
Just Seeds Blog

The Real Cost of Prisons covers similar material, but is a completely different take on it. This is primarily a paperback compilation of 3 comic books produced by the Real Cost of Prisons Project in order to educate prisoners and the public. The project is a nation-wide public education campaign designed to illustrate in plain and simple language what the real costs of prison are in our society. Since the 1970s the levels of incarceration in this country have skyrocketed, but there has been little to know public dialog about the reasons for this, or what it all costs, not just in financial terms, but the human costs. These comics were designed as popular education tools, and are being used as just that. Tens of thousands of copies have found their way into high school classrooms, prison study groups, politicians desks, and activist hands.

realcost01.jpg

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The Prison Industrial Complex and Political Prisoners
By Hans Bennett
Z Magazine, February, 2009

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.”

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thumbThe Person is Polemic: The Real Cost of Prisons Comix
By Rob Clough
High-Low

The philosopher & historian Michel Foucault wrote a number of books that tended to have the same core idea: that the nature of human relations, stripped bare of idealistic constructs, is one of power relationships. In HISTORY OF SEXUALITY, Foucault makes a case that sexual relationships are entirely based on power and hierarchy. In DISCIPLINE & PUNISH, he gives us a history of prisons and pushes the idea that the Enlightenment Project did nothing to make the concept of the prison more humane, and in fact made it less so in certain ways. In MADNESS & CIVILIZATION, he lays out the history of the treatment of mental illness. He exposes the curious phenomenon of madness "rising" in certain areas during certain eras, which he posits is again a rationalist position of defining certain behaviors or groups of people as insane. The writers and artists behind THE REAL COST OF PRISONS COMIX use aspects of all three of these arguments to aggressively push for a total reform of not just the prison system, but the entire justice system that surrounds it.

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thumbComic book series provides a fresh look at prison myths
By Ruth Kovacs
Street Roots, Portland, Oregon
March 13, 2009
“From the Desk of Ruth Kovacs”

Last week I spoke to a group of prisoners about the power of truth. After a lengthy discourse about the importance of truth, and that it empowers us to become a part of the oneness of man, and I have had to discern the untruths from the truth, I concluded by offering a way to search for truth. Of course I listed free-press papers such as Street Roots, free-speech radio such as KBOO, and the many books written by conscientious research journalists – including a few books I’ve reviewed in this column...

The new book The Real Cost of Prisons Comix reprints three comic books published as part of the Real Costs of Prisons Project, which began in 2000. So far, 125,000 comic books have been printed, with more than 100,000 distributed free to community groups and college classes. 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 value of the “Real Cost of Prisons Project” “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 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.”

Read more | Buy book nowDownload e-Book now | Back to reviews | Back to top

 


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