In 2000, veteran activist Lois Ahrens came up with the idea of a course, through Amherst's Center for Popular Economics, that would look at what we as a society truly pay for our system of mass incarceration—a system that, as of 2009, saw just under 2.3 million people in prison or jail, and another 5 million on probation or parole, according to government statistics.
That course was the starting point for the Real Cost of Prisons Project, a Northampton-based nonprofit whose mission is "to broaden and deepen the organizing capacity of prison/justice activists working to end mass incarceration." As its name suggests, the project looks at the deeper costs—to individuals, their families, their communities, and society as a whole—of a system that puts millions of people behind bars, many of them for nonviolent drug crimes.
The RCPP's website (www.realcostofprisons.org) is rich with research and statistics on the issue, as well as a blog devoted to news on the topic (including, last week, a report in the Boston Globe that prisoners at several state and county facilities—including the Hampden County jail—were being served expired food passed on from public schools). The organization is perhaps best known for its innovative comic book series, targeted to prisoners, their families, and activists, on issues including the "war on drugs"; how incarceration hurts women and their children; and the big business of siting and running prisons. The website also includes comics, essays. poetry and music submitted by prisoners.
The RCPP runs on a shoestring, depending on grants, donations and volunteers. Recently, Ahrens put out a call for volunteers to help with the work of answering mail from prisoners and sending out copies of its comic books (more than 115,000 of which are already in circulation). Interested in helping? Contact Ahrens at Lois@realcostofprisons.org.