NORTHAMPTON — After more than 50 years of activism, social justice organizer Lois Ahrens has received her first award.
Recognizing her tireless work, most recently on behalf of incarcerated people, the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA) presented Ahrens with the Kathleen Roberts Creative Leadership Award June 17 at the 34th annual Human and Civil Rights Awards banquet in Waltham.
Ahrens is the founder of the Real Cost of Prisons Project, a national organization working to end extreme sentencing, improve the treatment of prisoners and educate policymakers and the public about the “cruel conditions of confinement that still exist in our nation’s prisons,” according to a release from MTA.
Since 1983, MTA has reviewed nominations and selected the award recipients based on remarkable dedication to civil rights, human relations and equality.
Ahrens said Monday that while the acknowledgment of the work she’s been doing for “decades and decades” feels good, for her it’s not about recognition.
“My political life has been my life,” she said, noting that she works to create more justice by way of public education, legislation and organizing. “For me, there’s really no separation.
“I’m compelled to do this work. I’ve always felt compelled to do it.”
Ahrens’ current work hinges on justice in the criminal legal system but in the past she has focused on women’s rights and gay liberation as well as “wars the U.S. was fighting against people’s movements in Central America.”
The common thread, she said, is “allowing people to be seen as human beings — not as problems to be dealt with.”
Ahrens now travels the state and country to work on behalf of prisoners and highlight inequality in the prison treatment of women and people of color.
She said she has spent the last 16 years focused on “calling attention to the extreme, extreme human rights violations in jails” and working to change those conditions.
After starting the Real Cost of Prisons Project in 2000, Ahrens reports that the website realcostofprisons.org receives more than 2,000 visits a day, as well as drawing 27,000 “likes” to the project’s Facebook page. MTA calls the website a “hub for prisoner support projects across the country,” by “providing a unique platform for expression by incarcerated men and women throughout the United States.”
The project also published three comic books in 2005 titled “Prisoners of The War on Drugs”, “Prisoners of a Hard Life: Women and Their Children” and “Prison Town: Paying the Price.” Some 135,000 of the books were sent for free to “prisoners in every state prison system, every federal prison and numerous jails,” according to the MTA.
Ahrens said her life’s work is about creating ways to give people a voice. The project’s websites, she said, allow prisoners to speak for themselves instead of through intermediaries.
Guided by her frequent correspondence with prisoners and their families, MTA said Ahrens has worked to end the state’s “videotaping of strip searches of women prisoners by male corrections officers, stop the handcuffing and shackling of women to gurneys during labor and childbirth, and (to) end the building of new jails.”
Andrea James, a formerly incarcerated woman and now founder of Families for Justice as Healing, wrote in support of Ahrens’ nomination for the award.
“As a former criminal defense attorney,” James said, “I didn’t think anyone could tell me anything more about how broken the criminal legal system is until I became an incarcerated woman.”
MTA said James was faced with multiple challenges after being released from the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Connecticut, including post-incarceration mental illness as a result of “mothers’ separation from their children” and the related “children’s struggle to survive without them.”
James wrote that it was Ahrens who was the first person to help her understand that “I was not crazy and that all I had experienced was truly a symptom of a very unjust, racist and classist system.”
Ahrens is also the only founding member of the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Children who is not a former prisoner.
(The award) “is a nice boost,” said Ahrens, “But I have energy to carry on.”
Sarah Crosby can be reached at email@example.com.