Lessons in the Real Cost of Prisons

by Jordan Beltran Gonzales

The Real Cost of Prisons Comix.   Edited by Lois Ahrens, with comic art by Kevin Pyle, Sabrina Jones, and Susan Willmarth.  Oakland: PM Press, 96pp, paperback, $12.95.

41This anthology combines three engaging and educational comics with dozens of letters and testimonials from readers. These 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.

The task of critical storytelling and teaching about life-and-death issues is a careful balance, which the writers and artists achieve well. In each comic, readers find alternative solutions to prisons as we currently know them, learn about organizing successes, and gain feedback of how to teach teachers and how to train trainers.

Editor Lois Ahrens is also the founder and director of the Real Cost of Prisons Project, which creates popular educational materials by justice policy researchers, artists, and people directly experiencing the impact of mass incarceration. Potential readers span elementary schools through colleges, community-based organizations, medical and mental healthcare providers, legislators and voters, and people directly surviving inside.


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In the introduction, Ruth Wilson Gilmore and Craig Gilmore compel readers to translate knowledge into action. This book helps us understand “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.”

The first chapter, “Prison Town: Paying the Price,” by Kevin Pyle and Craig Gilmore, explains the economic greed and political collusion inherent in the siting of prisons. Following this chapter are eye-opening testimonials, in which one program director applauds this comic through “the complexity that is rendered through a few deceptively simple strokes of a pen.”

In “Prisoners of the War on Drugs,” Sabrina Jones, Ellen Miller-Mack, and Lois Ahrens highlight the relationships across drug policies, perceptions of race, class, and criminality, and, after incarceration, limited access to social services and educational opportunities. Five case studies present an individual person’s life context for a momentary decision. This context is necessary for readers to understand the persistence of institutional racism and barriers for people of color and, in particular, women and mothers. Alternatives to New York’s Rockefeller Drug Laws and California’s Three Strikes Law include programs in harm reduction, which reduce the harmful effects of drug use on families, and justice reinvestment, which supports jobs, housing, quality schools, and youth programs.

The final chapter, “Prisoners of a Hard Life: Women and Their Children,” by Susan Willmarth, Ellen Miller-Mack, and Lois Ahrens, exposes the subjective and violent enforcement of drug laws against women, specifically low-income women of color. Five individual women’s stories show how poverty, access to life chances, police targeting, and court sentencing have usurped hundreds of thousands of women’s reproductive rights. This comic’s closing pages feature excellent alternatives to jail through the theme “Change Is Possible.”

As an instructor of Ethnic Studies College Writing, I attest to the effectiveness of these comics. To teach my high school students about the prison industrial complex and the built-in tracking in our high school to college pipeline, I have challenged students to teach each other key themes and terms from the comics. Their group presentations were phenomenal, and far more impressive than my typical college students’ work! They took ownership of teaching the process of recidivism and the injustice of mandatory minimum sentences, and they identified their agency and social responsibility to affect this same system that is targeting our low-income communities of color.

My students have often told me that they have felt validated and affirmed to finally identify a concept, a theory, and a learning style that is relevant to their life experiences. These comics urge us to remember that we are not alone, either in our struggle or in our imagination for something better. Teaching with the Real Cost of Prisons Comix has been one of the most meaningful experiences I have had as an educator. I absolutely recommend this book as an assigned text in courses that bridge issues of media, American Studies, social justice, critical thinking, educational inequities, and the cross-cutting themes of gender, race, and class. Our potential for learning is limitless, and there is no time more urgent than now.




Jordan Beltran Gonzales is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley. He teaches courses in critical thinking, U.S. counter-history, research methods, and academic survival with high school and college students. He believes in justice through education, home-cooked food, and live music. Your words are welcomed at jgonzo@berkeley.edu

13 thoughts on “Lessons in the Real Cost of Prisons

  1. Sounds like an interesting book, Jordan. Thanks for bringing it to our attention. “Change is possible.” I agree, and like you, I hope “change” is on the horizon.

  2. Thanks for sharing this with us, Jordan. Have you encountered any resistance from other school system folks for using such a nontraditional text in your classes?

  3. I have not received any reluctance from school system folks as I teach with this text. I set this up partly as an example of visual media, which attends to our learning styles and different types of literacy. And, the ways that students create presentations and impressively teach each other–applying theories of racism, sexism, and corporate greed better than I have ever seen–gives school system folks a reality check. Even they know that this is the direction of teaching we need to go!

  4. Pingback: Blindspot by Kevin C. Pyle » Blog Archive » Real Cost of Prisons reviews coming in

  5. I’m one the Real Cost of Prisons artists and I wanted to let you know that I’ve also had great experiences teaching with the comics. I used the series as a text book with high school seniors at Heritage High School in East Harlem. One of the most common comments was how great it was to see real issues that effect them reflected in the material. We spent some time deconstructing how the comics used different methods to convey information and then they conducted their own research, doing surveys, interviews with incarcerated relatives and friends, etc. and produced their own comic.
    You can see the results here(click on “MORE”): http://www.anothercupdevelopment.org/projects/48

  6. Thanks for sharing the link Kevin–there’s some very interesting material there. We’re also glad to hear that schools are welcoming the use of this text and that it’s such an eye-opening experience for the students.

  7. If your students like this, they might like some snippits from Bomb The Suburbs, a graffiti/hip hop/activism manifesto.

    Free ’em all!!! BD

  8. Thanks for commenting, Kevin. I think that the graphic aspect of these works is important. Graphic novels are becoming an increasingly popular tool for writers and artists to relay artful and critical literary material. Similarly, these books could potentially stand in for longer works of literature that aren’t typically used in CLTL classrooms, such as novels or longer, non-fiction works.

    I look forward to learning more about this project.

    Thank you.

  9. Thanks, Jordan, for the lowdown on The Real Cost of Prisons Comix. The high school creative writing class I teach spent a month on graphic novels and graffiti collages, a little Satrapi, a little Basquiat. We’ll get much more out of our spring study of ethnic poetry and prose by looking into Ahrens’ book. Inspiration abounds.

  10. Pingback: Lost Souls Gaining the World « Changing Lives, Changing Minds: A Changing Lives Through Literature Blog

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  12. Pingback: Real Cost of Prisons in Changing Lives, Changing Minds - PM Press

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