SARANAC LAKE – Not everyone visits the North Country for the scenery.
Tonight at BluSeed Studios, artist Sabrina Jones will lead a presentation on the United States prison system, and discuss ways it could be changed.
“While we are up here reveling in this beautiful weather in this great part of the country, unfortunately it’s come for a lot of people downstate to symbolize a lack of freedom, a lack of the future and a lack of hope,” Jones said. “We want to look at the system from the inside and out to see if we can offer some alternatives to having the highest incarceration rates of any country in the world.”
Jones is a cartoonist who lives in New York City and spends summers in Ballston Spa. Her subject matter is fueled by social-justice issues like women’s rights and war. Her illustrations for Marc Maurer’s 1999 book “Race to Incarcerate” will be used in her BluSeed presentation.
For Jones, illustrating the book was a way to boil down Maurer’s exhaustive research into a graphic-novel format that could potentially reach a broader audience.
“Race to Incarcerate” traces the history of the criminal justice system and explores how the United States became the world leader in incarceration rates. It also discusses ways to rehabilitate criminals while they do time.
“There are more proactive approaches to public safety,” Jones said. “Not only alternative sentencing like drug treatment and community supervision in nonviolent cases, but just looking at the whole way that public safety is produced, as not only a way of policing and criminal justice. Public safety is something that’s created by strong families, communities, education, economic opportunity as well as criminal justice system.”
Jones said there has been a slow shift in perspective in recent decades.
“There has been a movement in the last two years, a bit of a shift on this issue,” Jones said. “Since the 1990s, the American public has not been quite so quick to accept rising incarceration rates. It’s expensive, and people have been questioning its usefulness.”
Jones noted that New York state’s Rockefeller Drug Laws – enacted in 1973 by Gov. Nelson Rockefeller that carry mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses – caused the state’s prison populations to soar. New York cut its incarceration numbers in recent years, after repealing the Rockefeller Drug Laws.
“New York state has seen a 26 percent reduction in its prison population since the peak in 1999, and that’s promising,” Jones said. “Even if the whole country and every state and federal prison were reduced 26 percent, we’d still have the highest incarceration rate internationally. That’s how far ahead we are.”
The purpose of Jone’s presentation is not to advocate abolishing prisons but instead to promote the rethinking of mandatory sentencing laws and discuss ways to help prisoners stay out of prison once released.
“Rehabilitation as a social prerogative has really been neglected since the rise of mass incarceration,” Jones said. “The emphasis has been so punitive that the idea of giving people an education has been attacked and greatly reduced, and it’s been more of an idea of payback without understanding what the results are.
“Most people who go to prisons do eventually get out, and we do have to deal with what condition they’re going to be in when they get out,” Jones said. “There can be more damage done to people through their long incarcerations as their community ties and their family ties are frayed. They’re less able to return to a society and find a productive life after a long incarceration than a shorter one.”