by Aleks Kajstura, February 12, 2018

In The Washington Post this weekend, I explained how states continue to use the war on drugs to meddle with driver’s licenses:

You’d expect to lose your driver’s license if you drove dangerously, but what if you ran afoul of the tax code, mail regulations or controlled-substance statutes? Sadly, in Virginia, that’s not a hypothetical question.

Virginia currently suspends nearly 39,000 driver’s licenses annually for drug offenses unrelated to driving. This is a relic of the war on drugs, and, while most states have opted out of the federal law that created these automatic suspensions, Virginia motors on.

As do 11 other states: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Mississippi, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Utah.

It’s time for these states to leave this practice in the dust. Or take the next legislative exit ramp. Or change lanes on reform. Or put the pedal to the metal… ok, you get the idea. More info available on our driver’s license campaign page.

by Lucius Couloute, January 30, 2018

In April 2014 the sheriff’s office in Knox County, Tennessee banned in-person visits at its jail facilities and entered into a contract with Securus Technologies, forcing incarcerated people to interact with their loved ones through video screens alone. The sheriff’s office cited concerns about contraband, safety, and efficiency to justify the switch from in-person visits to video chats, but failed to illustrate how a new video calling system would provide the magic bullet.

In a new report from Face To Face Knox, a grassroots coalition of citizens in Knox County seeking humane treatment for incarcerated individuals, data from an open records request shows that the replacement of family visits with video calls has resulted in more violence, no drop in the rate of reported contraband, and higher levels of disciplinary infractions, putting more demand on staff.

assaults.staff assaults.contraband.disciplinary infractions.

Scroll to the right to see the impact of eliminating in-person visits on assaults, contraband cases, and disciplinary infractions over time. Data compiled by Face To Face Knox through a public records request.

The video-only “visitation” system did exactly the opposite of what the sheriff’s office intended – except for turning a profit. At a cost of $6 a visit, the sheriff’s office has generated nearly $70,000 from the 50% commissions it makes on the backs of people attempting to stay in touch with their incarcerated loved ones.

As the report explains, “The results are clear: The ban on in-person visits makes the jail more dangerous, does nothing to stop the flow of contraband, and strips money from the pockets of families. It’s time to end the ban and give visitors the option to see their friends and loved ones face to face.”

by Wanda Bertram, January 24, 2018

In case you missed it, the push to end driver’s license suspensions for drug offenses is picking up steam in Pennsylvania. Only twelve states continue to enforce this obsolete federal policy, which requires states to suspend driver’s licenses for reasons completely unrelated to driving. Pennsylvania alone has suspended the driving privileges of around 150,000 people since 2011.

Now, with the governor’s vocal support, the state legislature is considering multiple bills to end the practice. Separately, the nonprofit Equal Justice Under Law is suing the state on behalf of two victims of this counterproductive policy.

Nationally speaking, close to 200,000 people are impacted by this outdated law every year, and we’re glad to hear arguments for reform coming from across the political spectrum. The eleven other states where this law is still active should follow Pennsylvania’s lead.

by Lucius Couloute, January 24, 2018

Earlier this month LatinoJustice PRLDEF, a national not-for-profit Latino civil rights organization, released findings from a new national poll of the Latinx community on their views of the criminal justice system. Whereas most survey research on criminal justice issues tend to abide by a Black-white binary, this poll brings to light the impact of mass incarceration in the lives of people often left out of the conversation.

Senior Analyst Edward D. Vargas finds that, like most Americans, the majority of Latinxs favor rehabilitation over more punitive responses to crime, such as added police or prisons. Almost 60% of Latinx respondents felt less safe in the wake of Trump’s presidency. Other findings include:

  • In the context of widespread attention to the treatment of African Americans by the police, 64% of respondents believed that Latinx people face similar treatment at the hands of the police.
  • 57% of all respondents and 70% of Afro Latinx-identified respondents believed that the police are more likely to unjustly use deadly force against Latinx people than against whites.
  • 84% of respondents believed that police officers should not stop and search people simply because of their race or ethnicity.
  • 83% of Democrats and 70% of Republican respondents support the voting rights of people who have “paid their debt to society” after being convicted of a crime.
  • 67% of respondents believe that the Department of Justice should collect better data on Latinx people in the criminal justice system.

The Latinx community is diverse, making it difficult to conclude that any one view defines their experience as a whole. But one thing is clear: mass incarceration is a Latinx issue.

Latinx people make up about 20% of the U.S. incarcerated population, they experience differential treatment at the hands of the police, face stiffer school discipline than their white peers, and are increasingly subject to harassment by ICE, making this poll both timely and informative. The majority of Latinx people want reform. As Juan Cartagena, President of LatinoJustice PRLDEF, explains in a recent piece for HuffPost, “their voices need to be heard.”

by Wanda Bertram, January 22, 2018

Attorney, director of the Western Massachusetts ACLU, and friend of the Prison Policy Initiative Bill Newman publishes an excellent weekly podcast that highlights threats to civil liberties and what you can do. (Don’t be intimidated – they’re just 90 seconds long.) (website | iTunes)

Here are some of the recent highlights that are still timely:

January 2018:

December 2017:

November 2017:

October 2017:

September 2017:

by Wanda Bertram, January 22, 2018

We frequently get emails from students and professionals of all backgrounds asking how they can be part of our work, despite living far from Western Massachusetts (as most people do). That’s why we launched our Young Professionals Network: Now, when a project calls for a savvy designer, programmer or other specialist, we can offer the work to someone who really wants the opportunity.

Stephen Raher headshot

One of our most active volunteers is attorney Stephen Raher, who we interviewed in our recent Annual Report. Stephen has led several in-depth investigations into the industries that prey on incarcerated people and their families. He’s written extensively about exploitative prison “services” including “electronic messaging,” release cards, tablet computers, and commissary. We’re reprinting his interview below.

Why did you decide to join the Young Professionals Network?

When I was considering leaving the private practice of law, I talked to several people about how I could be helpful to the movement against mass incarceration when I no longer had the resources of a large law firm at my disposal. Peter Wagner said the Prison Policy Initiative’s Young Professionals Network could match me with high-impact projects involving my areas of expertise, and that’s exactly what has happened.

What does your work focus on? And what’s the connection between that work and the Prison Policy Initiative?

SR: I have a background in both anti-prison activism and business law. Because of the Prison Policy Initiative’s broad scope of work, I get to work on a wide variety of projects involving financial regulations, public contracting, consumer protection, and telecommunications law.The projects I’ve worked on are challenging, innovative, and they strategically fit within a larger coordinated effort to reverse this country’s incarceration crisis.

What do you think is unique about the Prison Policy Initiative and the projects it takes on?

SR: Since I started working on criminal justice issues in 1998, prisons have become a much more popular topic. As a result, a lot of organizations have rushed into this space and have prioritized projects based on funding availability or superficial talking points.The Prison Policy Initiative is one of the handful of groups that plans its work based on hard evidence and deliberate strategy. Refreshingly, it also views other like-minded organizations as true allies, not just competitors for scarce resources.


Want to learn more and see examples of past collaborations? Fill out our introduction form! Then, send the form to lcouloute [at]

by Wendy Sawyer, January 10, 2018

Today, the Bureau of Justice Statistics released its annual update on prison populations in the U.S. Of course, it’s just my luck that they released the 2016 data the day after my report on women’s state prison population trends over time. But the changes over the last year are largely consistent with my finding that women’s prison populations remain near record highs while men’s populations are falling.

In 2016, state prisons across the U.S. cut men’s populations by more than 12,000 – but maddeningly, incarcerated over 700 more women than they did in 2015, widening the “gender divide” we’ve seen in the past few years. In 14 states, women’s populations grew or were unchanged while men’s declined. In some of these, the differences are minimal, but in others, the disparities are cause for alarm. The changes in these states underscore how the growth of women’s incarceration can undermine efforts to decarcerate:

  • Tennessee managed to grow its overall prison population solely by incarcerating more women. The men’s population actually decreased, but that progress was thwarted by an even greater growth in the women’s population.
  • South Carolina saw a modest reduction in the men’s prison population, but locked up 10% more women – enough to cancel out most of the reduction in the men’s population.
  • Ohio reduced its prison population by 222 men – but counteracted most of that change by incarcerating 164 more women.
  • In Arizona, almost half of the prison beds emptied by reductions in the men’s population were backfilled by additions to the women’s population.

The new report offers more evidence that as states undertake the critical work of reducing prison populations, they need to pay attention to these gendered trends. The most effective reforms will reverse the growth of all incarcerated populations, without leaving women behind.

January 9, 2018

Easthampton, Mass. – States have made impressive progress over the last 10 years in reducing their prison populations, but for most women in prison, this progress might as well never have happened. Even as men’s incarceration rates are falling, women’s incarceration rates hover near record highs, a trend driven by criminal justice decisions at the state level. A new report from the Prison Policy Initiative identifies more than 30 states driving this national “gender divide.”

women's incarceration rates: select states and all 50 states

The mass incarceration of women has severe and far-reaching effects: 62% of women, for instance, are separated from minor children when they are put behind bars. But though this is largely an issue of state policy, “few people know what’s happening in their own states,” says Wendy Sawyer, author of The Gender Divide: Tracking Women’s State Prison Growth. Sawyer says states undermine their commitment to decarceration when their criminal justice reforms leave women behind.

For example:

  • Texas recently reduced its men’s prison population by 6,000, while backfilling its prisons with 1,100 more women.
  • Michigan’s female prison population grew 30% from 2009 to 2015, while the number of men in Michigan prisons fell by 8%.
  • Six other states have seen men’s prison populations decline even as women’s populations have climbed.

The report features more than 100 state-specific graphs tracking 40 years of women’s prison growth, designed to help policymakers assess the need for local reform. It also isolates the underlying causes of women’s mass incarceration, including the War on Drugs, harsh sentencing for violent offenses, and the growing frequency of women serving jail time.

Women in prison are uniquely burdened by mental health problems and trauma, and Sawyer notes that most prisons, having been designed for men, “make those problems worse.” But she stresses that the appropriate response “is not to build better prisons – it’s to ensure women are included in reforms that move people away from prisons.” Most women in the justice system could be better served through alternatives to incarceration. Developing those solutions should be an urgent priority in every state.

How are women faring in your state? See the report and state-specific graphs

by Peter Wagner, December 29, 2017

2017 was another big year for powerful data visualizations from the Prison Policy Initiative. These are 9 of our favorites:

1. The “whole pie”

We updated our most famous data visualization for 2017, Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie:

Pie chart showing the number of people locked up on a given day in the United States by facility type and the underlying offense using the newest data available in March 2017.

This report also included four slideshows of additional detail on different parts of the carceral system — including the under-discussed world of jails — and some state-to-state comparisons.

2. The “whole pie” of women’s incarceration

In partnership with the ACLU, we produced Women’s Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie to aggregate the disparate systems of confinement and illustrates where and why 219,000 women are locked up in the U.S.:

pie chart showing the number of women locked up on a given day in the United States by facility type and, where available, the underlying offense

3. Following the money of mass incarceration

In the first-of-its-kind report accompanying this graphic, we find that the system of mass incarceration costs the government and families of justice-involved people at least $182 billion every year. In this report and visualization, we follow the money:

Excerpt of a larger graph showing the $182 billion system of mass incarceration and the relative size of its sub-parts from policing, to courts to private companies. Private prisons are a very small part of the total.Please click to see the full visualization.

4. The short-sighted cruelty of charging incarcerated people high fees for their own medical care

If your doctor charged a $500 co-pay for every visit, how bad would your health have to get before you made an appointment? You would be right to think such a high cost exploitative, and your neighbors would be right to fear that it would discourage you from getting the care you need for preventable problems. In a 50-state analysis of medical co-pays in prison, we find that this is the hidden reality of prison life:

Graph showing how much minimum wage earners in each state would pay if a single co-pay took as many hours to earn as a co-pay charged to an incarcerated person does. The average equivalent co-pay is about $200 and in West Virginia, it's over $1,000.

5. Putting the emphasis of criminal justice reform where it belongs: on state and local policies

The federal government gets all the attention, but the real story of mass incarceration is at the state and local levels. We’ve been continuing to update this key visual:

Image charts the incarcerated populations in federal prisons, state prisons, and local jails from 1925 to 2015. The state prison and jail populations grew exponentially in the 1980s and 1990s, and began to decline slowly after 2008, while federal prison populations show less change over time.

For more on this perspective, see our blog post President Obama’s parting reminders on criminal justice reform.

6. Tracking this country’s priorities

For a blog post Tracking the impact of the prison system on the economy, we highlighted one key and unfortunate shift in our nation’s economic priorities:

Graph showing the portion of the civilian labor force that works in agriculture or for the justice system from 1971 to 2012. In 1971, about 4% of the workforce was in agriculture. The number of agricultural workers have declined as the number of justice system employees has grown, and by 2001, the number of police, corrections and judicial employees was higher than the number of agricultural workers. The 2.3 million incarcerated people in the United States are, of course, excluded from the labor force and therefore are not reflected in analyses of labor force participation. Including them would make the portion of the workforce that is involved in the mass incarceration system even larger.

7. Racial discrimination and use of force in “stop and frisk” policing

President Trump supports “stop and frisk” policing; but a return to the violent police tactic would be – to use some of the president’s favorite Twitter words – “a disaster!” In this visualization and report (you’ll need to click through to get the full effect) we explore the ineffectiveness of the police tactic and the racial disparities in who is stopped, who is frisked and who has force used against them by the police:

thumbnail of data graphic showing the numbers of Blacks/Latinos, Whites and people of other races and ethnicities stopped by the New York City Police in 2011, along with whether they were also frisked and whether force was used. Blacks and Latinos are dispropionately stopped, frisked and have forced used against them.Please click to see the full visualization in its original context.

8. Exploring the causes of jail growth

For our report Era of Mass Expansion: Why State Officials Should Fight Jail Growth we started with the big picture view of the two reasons why jail populations are growing:

Figure 1. Most state policymakers are not tracking jails in the first place, and the jails’ frequent practice of renting cells to other agencies makes it difficult to draw conclusions from the little data that is available. This report offers a new analysis of federal data to offer a state-by-state view of how jails are being used and we find that, even more than previous research has implied, pre-trial populations are driving “traditional jail” growth. The data behind this graph is in Table 1.

9. The rise of the “prosecutor politician”

Fordham University historian Jed Shugerman has finally made it possible to examine the scale of prosecutors’ influence on American politics and justice throughout history. At great effort, he produced the data and made it available to the public. To draw more attention to it, we made a visualization to accompany our blog post about the data:

50 state chart showing which states have had a senator, governor, and/or attorney general with prosecutorial experience in office between 2007 and 2017In at least 38 states, a senator, governor, and/or attorney general holding office in the past 10 years was once a prosecutor. This chart may understate the prevalence of these “prosecutor politicians,” since the source is a work in progress and has no data for some positions in five states as of July 7, 2017, and does not include changes in all offices after January 2017.

by Wendy Sawyer, December 28, 2017

One of our goals here at the Prison Policy Initiative is to engage the public in current criminal justice issues. Journalists who use our research in new, creative ways play a crucial role in that process. These are some of our favorite stories of 2017 that feature our work, starting with the most recent:

  • press clipping thumbnailThe end of American prison visits: jails end face-to-face contact – and families suffer
    Shannon Sims
    The Guardian
    December 9, 2017

    For three years, we’ve been tracking the quiet spread of virtual jail “visits” in jails across the country; fortunately, a surge of hard-hitting journalism is pushing back, building off of our research and exposing the harms of eliminating family visits in favor of video calls. In Shannon Sims’ deep dive into the video calling industry for The Guardian, she investigates the switch from in-person family visits to expensive video calls in one jail outside of downtown New Orleans. The Guardian’s article raises another important point that we haven’t raised in our own work or seen raised elsewhere: does international human rights law require jails to allow in-person visitation? According to Sims, this is one more reason that using video calling as a replacement for real visits is bad policy.
  • Bloomberg News thumbnailNBA Pistons Owner Under Fire for Deal on Inmate Phone Service
    Todd Shields
    July 24, 2017

    When the sale of prison and jail telecom giant Securus Technologies to Platinum Equity was announced in May, we joined with other advocates to ask the FCC to block the sale and investigate the company’s ongoing defiance of FCC regulations. We also questioned why Platinum’s owner Tom Gores – who has built a reputation for helping recovery efforts in Detroit and Flint – would invest in a company that charges Michigan residents as much as $8.20 for a single minute of a call from an incarcerated loved one. Bloomberg picked up the story and ran with it, in the process producing a comprehensive review of the biggest news related to the prison and jail phone industry in the past year.
  • press clipping thumbnailWhat’s actually driving local jail growth?
    Mark Bennett
    June 4, 2017

    Vigo County, Indiana, like many counties around the country, has plans to build a new, larger jail to accommodate its growing jail population. Indiana reporter Mark Bennett uses our report Era of Mass Expansion to explore the underlying causes of jail growth in the state, like its high rate of pretrial detention and the fact that 14% of its jail beds are held for outside authorities. Bennett’s reporting gives local and state authorities plenty of reasons to reconsider jail expansion.
  • press clipping thumbnailThe plunder of the American prison system
    Ryan Cooper
    The Week
    January 25, 2017

    Ryan Cooper elegantly summarizes our Following the Money of Mass Incarceration report, with all its data intricacies, and pulls out the most salient threads for discussion. Going further, he connects the massive growth and abuses of the criminal justice system to the political economy of incarceration, concluding “the profit motive… tends to dissolve moral considerations.”
  • thumbnailDriver’s Licenses, Caught in the War on Drugs
    The Editorial Board
    The New York Times
    January 3, 2017

    The New York Times Editorial Board responds to our December 2016 report, Reinstating Common Sense, unequivocally denouncing laws that automatically suspend driver’s licenses for drug offenses unrelated to driving and then charge costly reinstatement fees: “These laws… are simply cruel and stupid, and it is past time to expunge them from the books.” Strong editorial support like this fuels our advocacy work and the work of advocates in the remaining states that have yet to eliminate these outdated and counterproductive laws.

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