Race to Incarcerate:A Graphic Retelling - Review

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Written by Sabrina Jones and Marc Mauer

Reviewed by Maya Wright

In 1999, Marc Mauer first published Race to Incarcerate, a book detailing the history of the U.S. prison system, and the inequities and fallacies in our country’s approach to crime. This 2013 edition has transformed Mauer’s 200+ page book into a thin graphic novel, produced in collaboration with artist Sabrina Jones. Together they have boiled Mauer’s original book down to its most central points, with the goal of making it more accessible to both the mind and the heart.

Race to Incarcerate chronicles the prison system in the United States from the 1790s through the start of the 21st Century. Before the founding of our country, prisons were short-term holding areas for people on trial or people in debt. In the newly formed United States, a new kind of prison was created for penitence and deterrence. More recently, our country turned away from such humanistic goals towards a new political emphasis on being “Tough on Crime.” Beginning in the 1970s, this new approach resulted in increasing numbers of people being imprisoned, sometime for very small offenses. Mauer notes that in 1972, there were 300,000 prisoners in the United States; in 2010, there were 2.3 million. Not only are we taking the wrong approach to crime here, the book tells us, but the United States is also exporting our crime policies and prison systems to other countries.

At the heart of Mauer’s book is the argument that mass incarceration has little to do with lowering crime rates. In the introduction, Mauer writes, “The best studies of this issue to date suggest that rising imprisonment in the 1990s may have been responsible for between 10 to 25 percent of the decline in violent crime. Such an impact is not insignificant, of course, but it also suggests that 75 to 90 percent of the decline was not the result of sending more people to prison.” The facts are laid out clearly and concisely in this book, with helpful graphics making the heaviness of the topic and the many statistics digestible. 

Sabrina Jones, an accomplished graphic novelist and author in her own right, draws with a thick line. Presenting only a sentence or two of text on each page, Jones makes characters come alive to illustrate points and guide the reader through information. Bar graphs become prisons filled with miserable bodies in a stylized form reminiscent of woodblock prints. Jones’ caricatures of past presidents and social reformers are instantly recognizable, and lighten a very heavy book.

Unsurprisingly, a central focus of the book is the roles of race and class in the prosecution of crimes and our “War on Drugs.” The book is full of horrifying statistics. For example: “Between 1980 and 1993, federal spending on employment and training programs had been cut nearly in half. Spending on corrections had gone up by 521 percent.” And this: “One out of three African American boys born in 2001 can expect to spend time in prison.”

Mauer’s encouraging solution is to take a proactive rather than reactive approach to crime prevention – by increasing funding for education and social programs, rather than prisons. He also encourages us to refute our own assumptions that “they” commit crimes, while “we” are innocent. We are not so different after all. In other words, there is that of God in everyone.

Race to Incarcerate opens with this sentence: “At the turn of the 19th century, Quakers and other reformers developed the penitentiary. It was an experiment in molding human behavior, an innovation befitting the new democracy of the United States. Based on the concept of penitence, sinners labored in isolation to reflect on the error of their ways.”

That opening sentence is the only mention of Quakers in this book. As Friends read this book, they should ask themselves what role the Religious Society of Friends might play in creating a new era of prison and social reform.  ~~~

Maya D. Wright is a lifelong member and attender of Mountain View Friends Meeting in Denver, Colorado (IMYM). Her skit, “A Short History of Quakerism in 10 Easy Points,” was published in Build It! A Toolkit for Nurturing Intergenerational Spiritual Community, and has been performed at Quaker gatherings all over the world.