Feel 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.
Comic art fans will probably know the names of the artists already. The three are associated, long since, with World War 3 Illustrated, the annual comic of artists committed to struggle against war, ecological devastation, and the gentrification of their own neighborhoods. Sabrina Jones, graphic biographer of modern dancer Isadora Duncan, seems on the verge of iconic status. Susan Willmarth and Kevin Pyle are fellow tillers in the fields of art and politics, known best for works reaching out to young people.
They and the scriptwriters of these stories grew into the role of prison condition chroniclers. As Lois Ahrens explains in her introduction, she set out years ago to explore the dread meanings of mass incarceration on a scale that overwhelms even the numbers of the Russian gulags and assorted Siberian exiles going back to Czarist days. And more profit-producing! The numbers of prisoners — which leaped forward in the Reagan years from a few hundreds of thousands to millions, eventually soaring to an astonishing 2.3 million men and women, one in every 32 adults in jail or on parole — stagger the imagination. How did it happen? What does it mean? Ahrens’ initial work, producing small-sized comic books and a Web site that allowed anyone to download comic-educational material, placed her in the little-understood comic art world of activists for literacy, health education, welfare rights, and associated causes, adopting comics to their own purposes for the very pragmatic reasons that their constituents could read comics . . . and learn from them, in ways that no other medium could allow them.
Ahrens advanced her cause and her understanding through workshops where she and her collaborators did more listening than speaking and were driven further into research. She and Ellen Miller-Mack, a nurse-practitioner and anti-prison activist, began to write scripts for comics. They hardly needed to dramatize the truth; the facts were melodramatic enough. The comic books, inexpensively produced, sold out almost immediately — they were not only appreciated but needed. Dozens of prisoners became their own spokespeople, telling stories that artists could bring to comics.
Kevin Pyle draws “Prison Town: Paying the Price,” about the ways in which the struggling economy of blue-collar America becomes wrapped up in the necessity for more prisons and more inmates. Sabrina Jones treats the drug issues in “Prisoners and the War on Drugs,” the drugging of the economy and society many times over, with the close attention to the intertwined histories. Susan Willmarth’s “Prisoners of a Hard Life: Women and Their Children” is, if possible, more heart-wrenching that the other tales, with more information and insight on the subject than a studious New York Times feature and a lot more empathy for the victims, too, the combination which makes the truth revealed in it all the more damning for the system that benefits from the suffering doled out to those who can least effectively resist.
Quite a package, all in all, and a promising start for PM Press.
Paul Buhle, currently a lecturer in history and American civilization at Brown University, is author or editor of twenty-seven books on radicalism, labor, and popular culture, including five volumes on the films of the Hollywood blacklistees. Most recently, he coedited Wobblies: A Graphic History (2005) and The New Left Revisited (2003), winner of an American Library Association’s Choice Academic Book Award. He has written for The Nation, Times Higher Education Supplement, The Guardian, and the Journal of American History, among others. He founded the journal Radical America (1967-95), the Oral History of the American Left project (New York University), and the Community and Labor Oral History project of Rhode Island.