The Prison Industrial Complex & Political Prisoners

The Real Cost of Prisons Comix edited by Lois Ahrens; PM Press, 2008, 104 pp.

Let Freedom Ring: A Collection of Documents from the Movements to Free U.S. Political Prisoners edited by Matt Meyer; PM Press, 2008, 877 pp.

Abolition Now! Ten Years of Strategy and Struggle Against The Prison Industrial Complex – edited by the CR10 Collective; AK Press, 2008, 176 pp.


Two thousand eight marked the ten-year anniversary of both the founding of the prison abolitionist Critical Resistance group and the National Jericho Movement’s march in Washington, DC, demanding the release of all U.S. political prisoners and prisoners of war. To commemorate the 1998 events, a Critical Resistance anniversary conference (CR10) was held in Oakland this past September and Jericho organized a march to the United Nations in October.

Three new books document both the accomplishments and shortcomings of the last ten years of political prisoner support movements. 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. Featuring artwork by Kevin Pyle, Sabrina Jones, and Susan Willmarth, all three comic books can be downloaded as well.

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 prison industrial complex (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 U.S. 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 that many other 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 taxpayers. 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 comic book series. The stories presented here are mostly fictional, but are based on the writers’ research and personal experience working with women prisoners. 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 U.S. 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.

Let Freedom Ring
is an epic 877-page compilation of both pre-existing documents and original articles. Explaining the context of its release, editor Matt Meyer cites the recent persecution of the San Francisco Eight, who are former Black Panther Party (BPP) members being charged with a 30-year-old crime. Beginning with the 2006 grand jury, "the state threw down a gauntlet. When it became clear that the investigations were reopening cases based on evidence obtained primarily through torture, the message was unmistakable: Be afraid, be very afraid—and don’t even think of fighting back. When these same men stood strong, firm on the principle that they would not take part in a new, government sponsored witch-hunt, they sent a counter-message: ‘We will not allow our communities, our struggles, our communities, our very lives to be criminalized by a corrupt and racist criminal justice system.’"

The book’s many sections focus on a wide range of U.S. political prisoners, featuring both facts about their cases and writings from the prisoners themselves. One particularly interesting section is titled "Resisting Repression: Out and Proud," which includes the 1991 interview "Dykes and Fags Want to Know: Interview with Lesbian Political Prisoners," which features Susan Rosenberg, as well as Linda Evans and Laura Whitehorn—both pardoned by President Clinton in 2001. Also notable is a 1991 speech given by former BPP political prisoner Dhoruba Bin-Wahad, who was released after 19 years. Considered a groundbreaking speech from a Black Muslim revolutionary, Bin-Wahad declared that "we can not build a new society if we premise that society on the oppression of other people." Continuing the legacy of BPP co-founder Huey P. Newton, he argued that fighting the oppression of women and GLBTs is inseparable from the fight against capitalism, racism, and all oppression. Also featured is a tribute to the late Kuwasi Balagoon, who died in prison of AIDS-related pneumonia in 1986. In the words of poet Walidah Imarisha, Balagoon "was an anarchist in a Black nationalist movement, he was queer in a straight dominated movement, he was a guerrilla fighter after it was ‘chic,’ and he…demanded to be seen not as a revolutionary icon, but as a person, beautiful and flawed."

Abolition Now!
was published to coincide with the CR10 conference. The introduction explains that Critical Resistance is not only "struggling to tear down the cages" of the PIC, but "also to abolish the actions of policing, surveillance, and imprisonment that give the PIC its power. We are also reminded that abolition is the creation of possibilities for our dreams and demands for health and happiness—for what we want, not what we think we can get."

The book features reflections and constructive criticism from a variety of CR organizers and activists. For example, Mills College professor Julia Sudbury emphasizes the "need for healing as an abolitionist practice. Many of us come to this work with our own wounds," and while "many of us draw energy and inspiration from these wounds," we are "also drained by these traumas…. As a result our movement can be very ‘head’ oriented—talking, planning, thinking, writing—and not body and emotion oriented." Sudbury concludes that a "movement against a violent and violating phenomenon like the PIC cannot hope to be successful if we don’t directly address and heal the effects of that violence."

Former political prisoner Bo Brown argues that the movement should have more "street awareness" and not be limited to "legislative" goals and actions. "You have to do both. I think you can get lost in that and you can stay there and consider yourself a good person and never really get your hands dirty in a human kind of way…. I’d like to see us come up with some kind of support group for families with prisoners that’s real. We need to figure out how to support the prisoners when they’re coming home. We need to understand post-traumatic shock on an ongoing, day-to-day basis."

Andrea Smith, co-founder of INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, argues that "the criminalization approach proffered in the mainstream anti-violence movement doesn’t work. And, also, this criminalization approach obfuscates the role of the state in perpetrating gender violence. At the same time, we have to deal with the practical concerns for safety for survivors of domestic and sexual violence. Thus, we are working on developing community accountability strategies that do not rely on the state, and also do not depend on a romanticized version of ‘community’…. This intersects with work in indigenous rights movements, which have concepts of indigenous nationhood that are not based on nation-state forms of governance that rule through violence, domination, and control."

Abolition Now! also spotlights examples of organizations putting abolitionist strategy into practice, like the LEAD Project’s group of transition homes for women returning from imprisonment in the Watts District of Los Angeles, called "A New Way of Life." Also, the UBUNTU Coalition in Durham, North Carolina works at responding to violence without reinforcing the PIC.

Above all, these three highly-recommended books argue that prison-related issues are inseparable from racism, classism, sexism, and all oppression, so the more we know about prisons, the better informed multi-issue activist strategies will be. They conclude that in working to abolish all oppression, we must also work to abolish the PIC and free all political prisoners.


Hans Bennett is an independent multimedia journalist and co-founder of Journalists for Mumia.