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Sabrina Jones translates the history and statistics of America's era of mass incarceration into a graphic, sometimes claustrophobic story. Image: Sabrina Jones
Sabrina Jones translates the history and statistics of America's era of mass incarceration into a graphic, sometimes claustrophobic story. Image: Sabrina Jones

A graphic account of America's love affair with prisons

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This year marks the 40th anniversary of New York's controversial Rockefeller drug laws -- laws that set tough mandatory prison sentences for drug dealers and addicts.

Many of those laws have been reformed and New York's inmate population has been shrinking dramatically.

But the aftershocks of New York's prison boom are still being felt, from urban neighborhoods in New York City to the North Country prison towns where thousands of inmates are still held behind bars.

We're exploring these issues with our year-long Prison Time Media Project.

In our latest installment, Brian Mann profiles Sabrina Jones, a political artist in Saratoga County who's using comic books to capture the complicated, painful history of America's era of mass incarceration.

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Sabrina Jones divides her time between New York City and her cottage in Ballston Spa where she keeps a work space. Photo: Brian Mann
Sabrina Jones divides her time between New York City and her cottage in Ballston Spa where she keeps a work space. Photo: Brian Mann
Sabrina Jones sits at her drafting table in a small office in a cottage in Ballston Spa. Working with a piece of tracing paper, flipping it back and forth, she's sketching out panels for a new comic.

"This guy's reaching out to help somebody out of the ruins of the prison system that we're going to begin to dismantle shortly."

Jones grins a little mischievously and shrugs. The truth is she's been working on prison-related comics for more than a decade and for a lot of that time the nation's inmate population has been soaring.

She says the work, and this topic, has shaped her art.

"I naturally have a tendency to be very brushy and fluid. Because is a dark subject, I find emotionally, it seems suitable to use a material where I can use a lot of darkness and have hints of light."

Jones says she was never really into comics as a kid. She first realized that comics could be used in a political way – telling socially conscious stories – back in college.

"I didn't go through that kind of comics fandom," she says. "I approached it as a form of political art, political activist art. I realized, boy, these comic books are handy. They were cheap, portable and I didn't have to be a performer and yet my work would go out there and hopefully make the world a better place."

Jones says she first got interested in prisons as in issue through her mother, who worked teaching poetry to inmates in Vermont.

Then she was recruited by the Real Cost of Prisons Project to create a series of short comics designed to raise awareness about the drug war and its impact on black and Hispanic neighborhoods.

A single panel of Jones' book can illuminate an entire issue within the larger prison debate. Image: Sabrina Jones
A single panel of Jones' book can illuminate an entire issue within the larger prison debate. Image: Sabrina Jones
"Comics are definitely an approachable medium. That's something I've always liked about them for talking about political issues. It's a disarming medium. Before people even know what's in it, when they hear it's a comic book, their eyes light up."

A couple of years ago, a publisher approached Jones about doing an illustrated version of Mark Maurer's book "The Race To Incarcerate."

Maurer's book is considered a seminal work of criticism, raising questions about the cost and morality of America's growing network of prisons and correctional institutions.

As part of her own research for the illustrated version, Jones spent time in a prison, talking to inmates and hearing their experiences.

Jones' art translates the complicated, often ugly realities of America's huge prison system. Photo: Brian Mann
Jones' art translates the complicated, often ugly realities of America's huge prison system. Photo: Brian Mann
"I actually volunteered to join a Quaker worship group that was visiting a prison on Staten Island. That just seemed like the easiest, most authentic way for me to go through my faith community into a place with people I knew."

Jones says met people who "stayed with me in my heart while I was drawing. And it somehow felt that what I was doing was somehow more authentic because there were people I had met and cared about."

Jones visual version of "Race to Incarcerate" is dense, layered with images and words and numbers. Woven throughout are visual metaphors, sign posts in our changing sense of crime and justice.

The mandatory minimum sentencing laws that helped to grow America's inmate population seven-fold are shown as a growing landslide that began with one policy idea here in New York state.

"The Rockefeller drug laws, casually referred to as 'the Rock,' I thought, 'Okay let's draw a rock,'" Jones says. "So here's a picture of Governor Rockefeller and he's holding a rock and the rock gets rolling and we see the rocks multiplying across the landscape. We see them crushing people."

Those policies produced millions of new inmates across the country and a vast new prison system – including roughly twenty local, state and Federal correctional facilities here in the North Country.

In Jones' book, that crowded system is shown as a towering pile of men sitting idle on bunk beds.

Jones is straight forward about her own politics and her convictions about America's prison system.

She says "Race to Incarcerate" is based on facts and statistics and true stories.

But she describes her political art as sort of a hammer designed to knock down walls that she says should never have been built in the first place.

"What we have is an overuse of incarceration," she argues. "It's not more kingpins and mass murderers that we're bringing in. We're bringing in people who are much more likely to be rehabilitated at much less expense to society."

Jones' hope is that her comics will at least get people talking about the choices and the values that shape our prison system.

"I'm stunned at how many people just don't realize the scope of the situation. They don't realize what an outlier we are among nations in this emphasis on incarceration and what a large part of our economy is being used not particularly fruitfully that way."

Prison reform groups say projects like "Race to Incarcerate" are changing minds, shifting the political debate.

While Federal inmate populations continue to rise, many states have begun adopting less stringent sentencing laws, sending more people to drug counseling or other alternative programs.

Over the last decade, New York state has downsized its prison population by nearly one fifth. Two more prisons are slated to close this year.

Support for the Prison Time Media Project is provided by the Prospect Hill Foundation, the David Rockefeller Fund, and the NY Council for the Humanities. Special assistance provided by ACT, the Adirondack Community Trust. Hear more from the series at prisontime.org. 

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