by Paul Buhle
Jones, Sabrina and Mauer, Marc, Race to Incarcerate: a Graphic Retelling (foreword by Michelle Alexander), New York: New Press, 2013. ISBN-13: 978-1595585417, 111pp, eight-and-a-half by eleven, paperback, $17.95.
(Swans - May 6, 2013) Every close observer of penal trends knows that something has gone very wrong in a society that consistently leads the world in prison populations and, in the current drift, soon will have incarcerated a quarter of its African-American males and a sixth of its Latino counterparts. Whatever prison was supposed to do in the old-fashioned model of rehabilitation, teaching skills, and imparting better moral attitudes, seems now to have worked in reverse. Forget the costs of the defense budget, Social Security, and Medicare for a moment. How can society pay this bill? A thought leading to another: What went terribly wrong? What kind of democracy do we live in?
The idea of making a comic out of this terribly serious subject was brilliant.
Sex and death themes have made for comedy at least several centuries now, or several millennia (if we go back to the Greeks). Sabrina Jones, a toiler in the vineyards of the radical comics annual World War 3 Illustrated some three decades, is surely the artist for the job. Michelle Alexander, author of the stunning best-seller The New Jim Crow, rightly says in the Foreword that Race skillfully reframes the original work by Marc Mauer (under the title Race to Incarcerate,) published more than a decade ago, on the same vital subject, "to appeal to both our intellectual and emotional capacities." Alexander has no more to say about the nature of the book's comic art, so I think it is up to the reviewer to say something more.
Artist Jones, a Quaker activist who has spent many a night volunteering at a refuge house shelter for the homeless and many more days at her drawing board (she is also a union set designer scenic artist for Saturday Night Live, her day job), rethinks visually the very idea of jail. She recalls Charles Dickens visiting Pennsylvania's state pen in 1842, remarking that although the intentions are benign, the reality is an extended torture. Not much different here at the beginning of the twenty-first century: confinement and isolation, sometimes extreme isolation, are taken to be cures or at least a way of getting unwanted people, sometimes dangerous and sometimes not dangerous at all, out of sight.
The so-called War on Drugs is Jones's ideal metaphor, as it was for Mauer and Alexander, because the low-income families most needing help are the ones who get the least access to treatment -- as any fool knows. The uprisings of the 1960s, ghetto streets to campuses to prisons, might have pointed in another, more sensible direction, good for sometime prisoners and good for society at large. Instead, politicians and those benefiting in scores of ways from the prison system pushed through legislation for the greatest or at least most concentrated building boom that modern society has ever seen. The village that did not get a college would get a prison. The well-paid jobs disappearing with industry would reappear, at least for some, in the prison system. Mandatory sentencing and long jail terms appealed to nervous (or vindictive) voters but even more to prison-building corporations, eventually turned into vast profit-making machines, and most lamentably, even to unions of guards.
Jones has a way of making all this at once ruthlessly logical, given the assumptions, and monstrous almost beyond imagination. Heroin epidemics, then cocaine, sweeping through neighborhoods of demoralized minority youth, prompted "get tough" campaigns of Richard Nixon and finally Ronald Reagan. She shows Democrats outbid Republicans on being "tough," or thought they did...until the original George Bush hauled out Willie Horton as proof that only the Right had the muscle to smack down the criminal. The apex of this book artistically, at least for me, is in the saga of Kemba Smith, a young black woman who takes a plea bargain for what she has been told will be 24 months and actually turns into something like ten times that. Never previously in trouble, caught up in a relationship with a violent cocaine dealer, she became the system's perfect victim. Smith actually got a commuted sentence from Bill Clinton, who meanwhile proved his own Tough On Crime credentials by keeping thousands of others just like her in jail.
Crime (that is, the official response to crime) is politics, politics is race, among other things, and fear is the weapon used by those in power to keep the big checks rolling in to favorites who have no interest in changing things. Jones and Mauer point to community, religious outreach, and the real self-interest of society as a whole. The book ends most appropriately in an appeal for outreach to prisoners.
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About the Author
Paul Buhle retired from college teaching to produce radical comics fulltime. His latest include Studs Terkel's Working, A Graphic Adaptation [reviewed in these pages], The Beats, A People's History of the American Empire (aka an adaptation of Howard Zinn's classic) and a pictorial biography of his childhood hero, The Art of Harvey Kurtzman. His last production (2011) is Yiddishkeit: Jewish Vernacular & the New Land, edited with Harvey Pekar, and reviewed in these pages. (back)