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by Peter Wagner, August 28, 2017

The largest phone provider in prisons and jails, which incarcerated people use to call home, has just gotten bigger. GTL (formerly Global Tel*Link) has purchased its competitor Telmate.

In the broken market that is the prison and jail telephone business, families pay high costs because the companies compete not on the basis of low prices or high quality, but on which company will share the most revenue with the facility that awarded the company the monopoly contract. That’s how, in an era of unlimited long distance and free Skype calls, costs to receive a call from an incarcerated loved one have surpassed $1/minute.

By purchasing Telmate, GTL has eliminated a small but very quickly growing competitor. Telmate had contracts with two state prison systems (Montana and Oregon) and contracts with almost a hundred local jails. The company was one of the more innovative companies in the space, although their biggest contribution to the market might have been various kinds of creative accounting tricks that transferred money from customers’ pockets to Telmate without federal and state tax collectors or correctional facilities catching on.

Now that the number of major national companies competing for contracts has declined to just two (GTL and Securus), it will be that much harder for facilities that want to lower prices to do so. How bad is GTL and Securus’ domination of the industry? Our research associate Alex Clark determined each company’s market share as of July 2017 and prepared this chart:

Table 1 Market dominance of prison telephone providers prior to GTL purchase of Telmate. Percentage of market is calculated by the most recently available reported population of each county facility or state prison system. This table shows a range of values because some providers have outdated information on their websites about who has a given contract and we were not always able to confirm which provider to credit with that contract. The actual values should therefore lie within the range given. Each jail system is counted as one contract even if the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ Census of Jails separately counted individual facilities in that jail system. Similarly, each state prison system was counted as one contract regardless of the number of facilities in the state prison system.
Phone vendor Number of contracts Percent of market
Private companies
GTL 377-586 46.0% – 52.9%
Securus 635-794 15.0% – 19.4%
CenturyLink 6-20 10.6% – 11.5%
ICSolutions 129-288 3.7% – 6.3%
Telmate 101-157 1.9% – 3.1%
Paytel 151 1.3%
NCIC 169-170 0.9% – 1.0%
CenturyLink & ICSolutions working together in Nevada 1 0.7%
Legacy Inmate 46-61 0.4% – 0.6%
Regent 15-44 0.2% – 1.0%
AmTel 26-29 0.2% – 0.3%
Reliance 145-154 0.2%
Government-run systems
Bureau of Prisons (has their own system) 1 7.90%
Iowa Department of Corrections (has their own system, buys bandwidth wholesale from from ICSolutions) 1 0.40%
Maine Department of Corrections (has their own system, with assistance from Legacy Inmate) 1 0.10%
None of the above 709 1.80%

 

Fewer companies will mean less choice for facilities

Because the primary differentiation between vendors is cost, having fewer companies compete for contracts will mean less choice for the facility that awards the contracts and less of an incentive for the companies to offer good deals.

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by Emily Widra, June 26, 2017

New research expands the notions of collateral consequences beyond post-release barriers and discrimination. Two studies show that incarceration shortens life expectancy, at both the national and individual levels.

Nationally, there are so many people living behind bars that the average life expectancy for the total U.S. population has taken a hit. In 2014, the life expectancy at birth in the U.S. was 78.8 years, while most comparable nations (Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Italy, Japan, France, Germany, Canada, Australia, Austria) had life expectancies above 81 years.

A 2016 study by Professor Christopher Wildeman offers us an explanation for the U.S. falling behind on measures of population health, like life expectancy: mass incarceration. In comparison to other developed democracies, Wildeman finds that from 1981 to 2007, the U.S. life expectancy would have increased by more than five years – from 74.1 to 79.4 years – if not for mass incarceration. Without so many people behind bars, he argues, the life expectancy at birth would have increased 51% more than it actually did from 1981 to 2007. The sheer magnitude of how many people are locked up shortens our entire nation’s life expectancy.

This isn’t just problematic from a population health standpoint; the reduced life expectancy resulting from incarceration impacts individuals, families, and communities on a personal level. In her 2013 analysis of New York state parole data, Professor Evelyn Patterson identified a linear relationship between incarceration and life expectancy: for each year lived behind bars, a person can expect to lose two years off their life expectancy. In the parole cohort she studied, five years in prison increased the odds of death by 78% and reduced the expected life span at age 30 by 10 years. Time served has a direct correlation to years of life lost.

Although both studies suggest that incarceration affects life expectancy, neither study identifies the pathways by which this happens. Incarceration itself may be harmful enough to explain these effects, or it may be one of many adverse experiences putting vulnerable populations at risk. Either way, it’s important to address the appalling conditions of incarceration and the lack of opportunities and services for at-risk communities. Most importantly, we need to put less people behind bars. As Professor Patterson points out, unlike many collateral consequences of incarceration, “death cannot be reversed”.


by Wendy Sawyer, May 18, 2017

Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores has styled himself a hometown hero in Michigan, but his company’s current bid to acquire prison telecom company Securus Technologies suggests he cares far more about profits than he does people.

“It’s really Tom’s idea that [the Pistons] are a great platform, they’re a community asset and, with that, requires us to be socially responsible…. It’s about inspiring our youth, unifying our community, and improving the lives of others.” – Arn Tellem, vice chairman of Palace Sports & Entertainment (owned by Platinum Equity)

If Gores is trying to improve lives, Securus is the wrong investment. As the second-largest prison and jail telecom company in the country, it is arguably one of the most exploitative companies profiting from mass incarceration. It’s certainly among the worst of the bunch for the people forced to use their ever-expanding array of criminal-justice-related “services.” (See sidebar)

Securus stands out from other prison and jail telecom companies for the extremes it will go to generate revenue from the families and friends of incarcerated people:

Securus exploits the need for incarcerated people and families to maintain contact, charging extremely high rates and fees for phone calls. Some of the money goes back to the prison or jail in the form of commissions, so the incentive for Securus and the facilities is to charge as much as possible. In Michigan, that means a 15-minute in-state call can cost families over $22. In response to objections, rival company GTL has lowered rates in Michigan state prisons to about 20 cents per minute, but Securus continues to charge over $1 per minute.

And who are the people paying Securus those high rates and fees? Family and friends, many of whom are low-income and people of color – and the same community members whom Mr. Gores supports through his charitable endeavors. A Detroit sports fan or concert-goer might question the sincerity of Mr. Gores’ philanthropic efforts when the outrageous fees they pay Securus end up lining his pockets.

So why is Gores’ private equity firm, Platinum Equity LLC, interested in Securus, when its exploitative practices are well-documented and bound to invite criticism? Platinum is either ignorant of the company’s exploitative business model (unlikely) or it sees an opportunity too good to pass up.

Over the past 10 years, Securus has expanded its business to avoid pesky regulations that might restrict exploitative practices, and the current political climate may reward this strategy. Between 2007 and 2015 the company shifted from 100% regulated businesses to 65% deregulated businesses within the expansive world of “user-funded” criminal justice services, like telemedicine, commissary, probation and parole supervision, and GPS monitoring.

Securus’ remaining regulated business, its large phone provider service, may also be shielded from federal oversight under the new FCC chair, Ajit Pai. The FCC’s recent change in leadership ended the government agency’s willingness to defend the caps it placed on prison phone calls in 2015. That change improved the odds that prison phone calls will continue to yield steady profits for people and companies willing to ignore the impact on the people forced to pay obscene rates and fees.

By investing in Securus, Tom Gores’ Platinum Equity joins the ranks of those companies that care about social responsibility – only when it does not affect their bottom line.


by Emily Widra, May 9, 2017

A little more than a year ago, I wrote a blog post about the psychological research on the difference between video communication and face-to-face communication. Throughout the literature, I found that video communication – and therefore video visitation – falls short of face-to-face, in-person interactions.

The Prison Policy Initiative has been following the disturbing trend of jails ending in-person visitation and replacing it with video visitation. The problems with eliminating in-person visits come up again and again in the news coverage; but every time, the people behind bars and their families say it best. When looking for reasons to protect in-person visitation, all we need to do is listen to them:

“They’re probably less than 500 feet away from you and you feel like they’re still in another state…You can never look someone in the eye. It’s impossible.”
Richard Fisk, on video visitation with his mother, after she travelled 1,700 miles to sit at a video screen in the Travis County Correctional Facility, where he was incarcerated

“Those personal, intimate aspects of someone who loves you — that doesn’t show.”
Jorge Renaud, on his experience with video-visitation in a Texas jail in 2014

“Even if it’s through plexiglass, at least you can have some kind of live interaction with your loved one… That would have made it better for me and him to maintain that human contact. Just because someone committed a crime doesn’t stop the love you have with them.”
Susan Gregory, on her visits with her husband, who was incarcerated for six months in an Arizona facility where in-person visitation was eliminated

“It’s not something you can quantify… Eye contact is a huge deal. It’s blowing them kisses and putting your hand to the glass. The kids get lost with the video terminals. It’s just not the same experience. It’s a disconnected feeling.”
Lauren Johnson, on her family’s decision to travel and wait for in-person visitations instead of opting for video visitation at the Travis County Correctional Facility, prior to the elimination of in-person visitation

“As a kid, I went to prison. The environment in there, you are depraved of contact from family… Just seeing someone from the glass and putting your hand up there makes a positive difference for inmates. You cannot do that with video visitation.”
Josh Gravens, Soros Justice Fellow, previously incarcerated at age 12 for three years, discussing the psychological and emotional benefits of in-person visitation

These stories illuminate the real-life deficits of video visitation that explain why families prefer in-person, through-the-glass visits. As I found last year, research shows that video communication hinders the natural flow of conversation, slows the process of establishing trust, impedes the intimacy and social connection of in-person interactions, shortens conversations, and restrains interactivity and responsiveness. As these quotes show, incarcerated people and their families maintain trust, relationships, and community connection through eye-contact and face-to-face interactions.

As sheriffs in New Jersey and California consider eliminating in-person visitation in jails, the firsthand experiences of incarcerated people and their families remind us that in-person visitation is crucial to the reentry process and reducing recidivism.


by Wendy Sawyer, April 19, 2017

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. That’s not just a hypothetical story; it’s the hidden reality of prison life, adjusted for the wage differential between incarcerated people and people on the outside.

In most states, people incarcerated in prisons and jails pay medical co-pays for physician visits, medications, dental treatment, and other health services. These fees are meant to partially reimburse the states and counties for the high cost of medical care for the populations they serve, which are among the most at-risk for both chronic and infectious diseases. Fees are also meant to deter people from unnecessary doctor’s visits. Unfortunately, high fees may be doing more harm than good: deterring sick people from getting the care they really do need.

A $2-5 medical co-pay in prison or jail may not seem expensive on its face. But when we consider the relative cost of these co-pays to incarcerated people who typically earn 14 to 63 cents per hour, it’s clear how they can be cost-prohibitive. To compare the cost of medical co-pays in prisons and jails to what people pay on the outside (relative to the wages available to each population), I first calculated how many hours of work it would take a low-paid incarcerated person in each state to pay for one co-pay. Then, I translated this hourly cost into the wages earned by a minimum wage, “free world” worker in the same state.

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. See the table below for co-pay fees and minimum wages in each state. Policy details and sourcing information can be found in the Appendix. For another perspective, I also graphed what percent of the lowest-paid incarcerated person’s monthly earnings is taken by a single co-pay in each state.

In West Virginia, a single visit to the doctor would cost almost an entire month’s pay for an incarcerated person who makes $6 per month. For someone earning the state minimum wage, an equivalent co-pay that takes the same 125 hours to earn would cost an unconscionable $1,093. In Michigan, it would take over a week to earn enough for a single $5 co-pay, making it the free world equivalent of over $300. I found that fourteen* states charge a medical co-pay that is equivalent to charging minimum wage workers more than $200.

The excessive burden of medical fees and co-pays is most obvious in states where many or all incarcerated people are paid nothing for their work: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas. Texas is the most extreme example, with a flat $100 yearly health services fee, which some officials are actually trying to double to $200. People incarcerated in these states must rely on deposits into their personal accounts – typically from family – to pay medical fees. In most places, funds are automatically withdrawn from these accounts until the balance is paid, creating a debt that can follow them even after release.

Co-pays in the hundreds of dollars would be unthinkable for non-incarcerated minimum wage earners. So why do states think it’s acceptable to charge people making pennies per hour such a large portion of their earnings? Some might argue that incarcerated people have nothing better to spend wages on than medical care. But wages allow incarcerated people to buy things they need that the prison does not provide: toiletries, over-the-counter medicine, additional clothes and shoes, as well as phone cards, stamps, and paper to help them maintain contact with loved ones. Co-pays that take a large portion of prison wages make seeking medical attention a costly choice.

Part of the justification for charging incarcerated people medical co-pays is to force them to make difficult choices. Administrators want to deter “frivolous” medical visits. The National Commission on Correctional Health Care (NCCHC), however, argues that abuses of sick call can be managed with “a good triage system,” without imposing fees that also deter necessary medical services. And although providers must treat people regardless of their ability to pay, incarcerated people with “low health literacy” may not understand this right. The NCCHC warns that co-pays may actually jeopardize the health of incarcerated populations, staff, and the public.

Out-of-reach co-pays in prisons and jails have two unintended but inevitable consequences which make them counterproductive and even dangerous. First, when sick people avoid the doctor, disease is more likely to spread to others in the facility – and into the community, when people are released before being treated. Second, illnesses are likely to worsen as long as people avoid the doctor, which means more aggressive (and expensive) treatment when they can no longer go without it. Correctional agencies may be willing to take that risk and hope that by the time people seek care, their treatment will be someone else’s problem. But medical co-pays encourage a dangerous waiting game for incarcerated people, correctional agencies, and the public – which none of us can afford.

For details and sourcing information on co-pays (and what happens when incarcerated patients can’t afford them), see the Appendix.

This table includes co-pay fees for non-emergency, patient-initiated visits with medical staff. The co-pay average excludes Texas, which charges on a yearly basis rather than per-service. For details and sourcing information on co-pays, see the Appendix. For information on wages, see “How much do incarcerated people earn in each state?” State minimum wage information was obtained from the National Conference of State Legislatures. Exceptions: for states with no minimum wage law or minimum wages below the federal law, I used the federal minimum wage. For states with two tiers of minimum wages for free-world workers, I used the higher wages that apply to larger businesses (Minn., Mont., Ohio, and Okla.). For Nevada, I used the lower of the two minimum wage tiers, which applies to jobs with health benefits.
Co-pay or fee Prison job minimum wage Hours of work required to afford one co-pay State minimum wage Equivalent co-pay at minimum wage
(hours x minimum wage)
Alabama $4.00 $0.00 n/a $7.25 n/a
Alaska $5.00 $0.30 16.67 $9.80 $163.33
Arizona $5.00 $0.15 33.33 $10.00 $333.33
Arkansas $3.00 $0.00 n/a $8.50 n/a
California $5.00 $0.08 62.50 $10.50 $656.25
Colorado $3.00 $0.13 23.08 $9.30 $214.62
Connecticut $3.00 $0.13 23.08 $10.10 $233.08
Delaware $4.00 n/a n/a $8.25 n/a
Florida $5.00 $0.00 n/a $8.10 n/a
Georgia $5.00 $0.00 n/a $7.25 n/a
Hawaii $3.00 $0.25 12.00 $9.25 $111.00
Idaho $5.00 $0.10 50.00 $7.25 $362.50
Illinois $5.00 $0.09 55.56 $8.25 $458.33
Indiana $5.00 $0.12 41.67 $7.25 $302.08
Iowa $3.00 $0.27 11.11 $7.25 $80.56
Kansas $2.00 $0.09 22.22 $7.25 $161.11
Kentucky $3.00 $0.13 23.08 $7.25 $167.31
Louisiana $3.00 $0.04 75.00 $7.25 $543.75
Maine $5.00 n/a n/a $9.00 n/a
Maryland $2.00 $0.15 13.33 $8.75 $116.67
Massachusetts $3.00 $0.14 21.43 $11.00 $235.71
Michigan $5.00 $0.14 35.71 $8.90 $317.86
Minnesota $5.00 $0.25 20.00 $9.50 $190.00
Mississippi $6.00 $0.00 n/a $7.25 n/a
Missouri $0.00 $0.05 0.00 $7.70 $0.00
Montana $0.00 $0.16 0.00 $8.15 $0.00
Nebraska $0.00 $0.16 0.00 $9.00 $0.00
Nevada $8.00 n/a n/a $7.25 n/a
New Hampshire $3.00 $0.25 12.00 $7.25 $87.00
New Jersey $5.00 $0.26 19.23 $8.44 $162.31
New Mexico $0.00 $0.10 0.00 $7.50 $0.00
New York $0.00 $0.10 0.00 $9.70 $0.00
North Carolina $5.00 $0.05 100.00 $7.25 $725.00
North Dakota $3.00 $0.19 15.79 $7.25 $114.47
Ohio $2.00 $0.10 20.00 $8.15 $163.00
Oklahoma* $4.00 $0.05 80.00 $7.25 $580.00
Oregon $0.00 $0.05 0.00 $9.75 $0.00
Pennsylvania $5.00 $0.19 26.32 $7.25 $190.79
Rhode Island $3.00 $0.29 10.34 $9.60 $99.31
South Carolina $5.00 $0.00 n/a $7.25 n/a
South Dakota $2.00 $0.25 8.00 $8.65 $69.20
Tennessee $3.00 $0.17 17.65 $7.25 $127.94
Texas $100.00 per year $0.00 n/a $7.25 n/a
Utah $5.00 $0.40 12.50 $7.25 $90.63
Vermont $0.00 $0.25 0.00 $10.00 $0.00
Virginia $5.00 $0.27 18.52 $7.25 $134.26
Washington $4.00 n/a n/a $11.00 n/a
West Virginia $5.00 $0.04 125.00 $8.75 $1,093.75
Wisconsin $7.50 $0.09 83.33 $7.25 $604.17
Wyoming $0.00 $0.35 0.00 $7.25 $0.00
Federal $2.00 $0.12 16.67 $7.25 $120.83
Average* $3.47 $0.14 25.09 $8.30 $208.25

*Updated April 28, 2017 with information from a new source on wages for Oklahoma’s regular prison jobs (non-industry). The source I used when this was first posted did not state a minimum prison wage, only a maximum. According to DOC policy, however, the minimum wage for regular jobs is $7.23 per month, or about 5 cents per hour. A $4 co-pay for someone earning that much is the equivalent of a $580 co-pay charged to a non-incarcerated minimum wage earner in Oklahoma. The table, text, and graphs in this post have been updated to reflect the new information.


by Wendy Sawyer, March 3, 2017

Prison Voice Washington report coverThis past fall, a new report from Prison Voice Washington detailed the decline in food quality served in the state’s correctional facilities. While incarcerated people often voice complaints about (very real) quality-of-life issues related to food service, there is a broader public health concern here: the long-term health consequences of forcing incarcerated people to consume unhealthy food.

The Prison Voice Washington report

The report from Prison Voice Washington reveals how changes in food service at the Washington Department of Corrections violate the state’s own Healthy Nutrition Guidelines. Since turning over food service to the Department’s business arm, Correctional Industries, the quality of food has deteriorated and culinary job opportunities that require actual cooking skills have dried up. People incarcerated in Washington are now being forced to eat unhealthy, processed food from its central food factory.

The downturn in prison food quality can be blamed on larger trends toward industrialization and privatization. Industrialization, as exemplified by Washington state prisons, replaces cooking from scratch with processed foods that may only require reheating before serving. “When the Department of Corrections turned over responsibility for food services to Correctional Industries…, it substituted 95% industrialized, plastic-wrapped, sugar-filled ‘food products’ for locally prepared healthy food.”

Highly processed and hastily prepared food is typical of privatized food service as well. Nationally, much of prison food is outsourced to two large private corporations, Aramark Correctional Services and Trinity Services Group, the targets of increasing numbers of inmate grievances and embarrassing lawsuits. While under contract with Aramark, for example, kitchens in Michigan and Ohio prisons reportedly “served food tainted by maggots… rotten meat… food pulled from the garbage…[and] food on which rats nibbled.”

What’s especially disheartening about the state of food in Washington’s prisons is that not long ago, incarcerated people in each facility were preparing food fresh from scratch, using ingredients grown at the prisons or bought from local farmers. According to Prison Voice Washington, “Prisons grew their own food, maintained dairies and bakeries, and the food… was cooked locally.” Today, there is just one massive farm, which Correctional Industries touts as part of its “closed-loop grain-to-baker-to-prison food chain.” The most recent harvest it reports online is 200 acres’ worth of dry peas. There are still gardening programs at some facilities, but according to Prison Voice Washington, “a few small gardens… [present] a rosy veneer of sustainability and fresh produce to circumvent any real scrutiny of the bleak food reality.”

Their point? The Department is capable of doing a better job, and had done so as recently as 2009. Short-sighted administrators looking to save a few cents per meal have made a bad deal with Correctional Industries, trading a fresh, healthy food service program for highly processed foods that make incarcerated people sick.

To make their case, the authors of the Prison Voice Washington report include an incredible amount of evidence including invoices, nutrition labels, and four appendices of order forms and menus. They show that:

  • Incarcerated people in Washington do not receive minimum requirements for fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, or milk.
  • Incarcerated people are fed more than the recommended amounts of refined starches, added sugars and sodium.
  • The DOC is fully aware of the nutritional shortcomings of its menu, so it supplements meals with fortified drink powders. These are often left untouched, so even those supplements do little to make up for the lack of nutrients in the actual food served.
  • Besides the prison menu, the only other choices incarcerated people have are the products available through the commissary, where more than 90% of available products “are very unhealthy, and are categorized as ‘Avoid’ in the [State’s] Healthy Nutrition Guidelines for Vending Machines.” Even the instant oatmeal is the highly sweetened, low fiber variety on the “not recommended” list.

Again, this is all at odds with Washington’s ostensible commitment to improving nutrition. In most states, correctional agencies follow federal guidelines (or attempt to), without so much as lip-service to providing anything above a minimum standard. Washington, however, has the most comprehensive food standards of any state, although many other cities and states have adopted their own standards for food served or sold at other public agencies. The only other state with nutritional standards that apply to correctional facilities is Massachusetts; New York City and Philadelphia have sweeping city-wide nutritional standards that apply to correctional facilities as well. The Prison Voice Washington report should serve as a model to hold other agencies accountable and ensure healthy foods are available to people in correctional facilities.

Other studies of prison food show that Washington’s failings are not unique

Washington’s DOC is certainly not unique; prisons and jails are notorious for serving terrible food. Prison meals are a favorite subject for colorful photo projects and personal experiments — even Buzzfeed has made one of their trademark videos about it. And research confirms that prison food is not just gross; it is often nutritionally inadequate:

  • A menu analysis from a large county jail in Georgia found incarcerated people there were served a diet too high in cholesterol, saturated fat, and sodium, and too low in fiber and several micronutrients — all factors linked to an increased risk of heart disease.
  • An analysis in South Carolina found similar deficiencies, and like the Washington study, found the menu too stingy in fruits, vegetables, and milk, and too reliant on starches.
  • In a Michigan report, correctional officers reported frequent deviations from the menu, especially watering down recipes and serving small portions, making it impossible for people to get the nutrients agreed upon by contract.
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that sodium is off the charts in U.S. prisons: in 1989 (the most recent year of available data) federal prisons were serving a diet with 10,000 mg of sodium per day; by 1995, their goal was to reduce it to 6,520 mg per day — still almost three times the recommended upper limit.

So yes, prison food tastes bad. But more importantly, it’s really bad for you.

The links between chronic disease and nutrition mean that prison nutrition matters

Incarcerated people are at increased risk of chronic diseases, but rather than using Food Services to help control both health problems and the costs of medical treatment, prisons exacerbate illnesses by serving and selling unhealthy foods. Half of all incarcerated people in state and federal prisons report having had a chronic illness and are “potentially at risk for future medical problems.” Nearly as many — 40% — report a current chronic condition. Considering 1) the prevalence of chronic illness in prisons, 2) the documented impact of diet on these diseases, and 3) the much lower cost of food compared to medical treatment, it is irresponsible and shortsighted of correctional agencies to prioritize cost-cutting over nutrition.

The most problematic correlations between prison food and health include:

  • Weight: The most obvious link between food services and health is weight. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that three quarters of people incarcerated in state and federal prisons are overweight or obese. Other researchers have found that each period of incarceration increases an individual’s Body Mass Index, which is a measure of overweight and obesity. Prison food is part of the reason why: as we’ve seen, menu analyses have found that prisons and jails serve highly processed, unwholesome food, and offer primarily high-fat and sugary options for purchase. Even when the menu fits nutritional guidelines on paper, it is often prepared in ways that make it less healthy: Prison Voice Washington reports that food service workers “attempt to fry” ingredients, so entrees like meatloaf end up “literally soaked in oil and margarine.”
  • Chronic diseases: In addition to excess weight, incarcerated people suffer disproportionately from chronic health conditions. 30% of incarcerated people have hypertension, 10% heart problems, and 9% diabetes — all higher rates than the general population. As the American Heart Association’s diets for heart disease and hypertension make clear, conditions like these can be prevented or even reversed to some extent by a nutritious diet. Instead, they are made worse by menus with too much sodium and fat and not enough fiber and essential nutrients from fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
  • Racial health disparities: African Americans are more likely to suffer from hypertension and diabetes, and research points to disproportionate incarceration of African American men as a cause of these health disparities. “Incarceration may help structure obesity disparities,” according to one study, and “part of the reason African American men suffer worse health is that they spend more time on average in prison, a place that undermines health,” concludes another. By ignoring the negative effects of the unhealthy prison diet on this vulnerable population, states are willingly putting them at greater risk for premature death. Each year of incarceration reduces life expectancy by two years, and this is especially true for black men.

To be sure, prisons do provide “therapeutic” or “medical” diets, prescribed by health services staff. Unfortunately, the Washington study reveals that even the “lighter fare” diet would do little to help someone with a chronic illness; it includes an extra serving of vegetables, but even less protein. In any case, when half of the incarcerated population has a chronic illness, it would make sense for a nutritious, health-services-approved diet to be the norm, not the exception. (Thankfully, some agencies have figured this out for themselves: Pennsylvania uses the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ diabetic diet for its regular menu standards, and Massachusetts has created a healthier menu to minimize the number of special dietary menus needed.)

The budget is no excuse

The fact is, serving decent food is cheaper than serving unhealthy and unappetizing food in the long run. Considering the additional costs associated with poor food quality, the cost-cutting measures correctional agencies have taken around food services are fiscally short-sighted. For one thing, deteriorating food quality causes frequent security problems: when incarcerated people see that they are getting worse — or less — food than before, they protest in various ways — from dumping bad potatoes on the floor to strikes. Additional guards may be required to manage food service, not to mention the risks associated with large-scale protests like the coordinated prison strikes in the fall of 2016.

health care costs correctional agencies $12.3 billion while food costs $2.1 billionFood costs are also dwarfed by healthcare costs in prisons, so improving the nutritional quality of prison food would be a cost-effective way to improve inmate health. In our recent analysis of criminal justice costs, we found that correctional agencies spend almost six times more on health care than on food. Prison Voice Washington found that food costs make up less than 4% of the daily cost of incarcerating a prisoner — compared with healthcare, which accounts for 19% of the cost.

As the Washington authors note, even doubling the state food budget wouldn’t cost very much for the total budget and would be well worth it considering the additional healthcare costs related to chronic illness. The American Diabetes Association, for example, estimates that healthcare costs are 2.3 times higher for incarcerated people with diabetes. And overall, 86% of healthcare spending is for people with at least one chronic condition. As Prison Voice Washington concludes, “In the short run, healthy food does cost a little more — but unhealthy people cost a great deal more.”

Moreover, some states have begun to recognize that even “cost saving” moves toward industrialization and privatization aren’t worth the problems with food quality, security, and long-term health consequences. An audit of Florida’s Aramark contract found that its food costs were lower, quality was better, and more inmates actually ate the food when the Department operated its own food services program. And after struggling with a private contractor, Minnesota decided to return food services to in-house control in 2015, “providing real food for inmates even if it costs more money.”

Before long, incarcerated people’s health problems become community health problems

People who believe prison should be as punishing as possible may see little reason for facilities to serve much more than bread and water. But there is a practical reason to care about the food served in prisons: people incarcerated in state prison return to our communities sooner than you might think. As we found in an analysis last year, the median time served in state prison is 16 months and the average is 29 months. That’s more than enough time for a poor diet to cause long-term health effects. Research shows just four weeks of eating an unhealthy, high-calorie diet can lead to long-term increases in cholesterol and body fat.

When people are released from prison, their health problems become community health problems — and a financial burden on the local public health system. Preventing and helping treat chronic illnesses by serving nutritious food is cheaper than medical treatment, both during incarceration and after release.

As the Washington report demonstrates, prison food has managed to get even worse over time — and more and more people have been forced to subsist on it as the prison populations have exploded. And now, states and communities must face the long-term health consequences — and resulting healthcare costs — of feeding large numbers of incarcerated people unhealthy food. Far from a frivolous complaint, unhealthy prison food is actually a public health concern likely costing states and taxpayers far more than it saves.


by Aleks Kajstura, January 19, 2017

Two recent submissions to the FCC shed new light on the high cost of in-state phone calls from jails. While the campaign to make phone calls from prison and jail more affordable for family and friends of incarcerated people has made significant progress, the new filings underscore how private companies continue to avoid regulation while charging unconscionable rates.

These submissions present new research which reveals that some in-state calls cost over $1.50 a minute, and finds pricing structures that “bear a remarkable similarity” to practices prohibited by the FCC.

In order to “highlight the current ICS [Inmate Calling Service] landscape” for the FCC, Lee Petro, counsel for the Wright Petitioners, and the Prison Policy Initiative (thanks to members of our Young Professionals Network) conducted a survey of jails served by the major ICS providers.

The most significant discovery made from reviewing the current pricing policies of the ICS providers was that several ICS providers have imposed a rate structure for intrastate ICS calls that bear a remarkable similarity to the now-prohibited “connection fee” which was prohibited in the 2015 Second Report and Order, and memorialized in Section 64.6080 of the Commission’s rules.

These pricing schemes have resulted in 15 minute calls that would cost $24.95 from the Arkansas County Jail via Securus and $17.77 from the Douglas County jail in Oregon via Global Tel*Link.

You can find the summary of the Comments submission findings in the Ex-Parte submission, and the rates for all of the jails surveyed in exhibits B and C of the Comments submission (starting on page 82), and exhibits A and D in an updated filing reflecting Legacy’s correction of their advertised rates.


by Peter Wagner and Wendy Sawyer, December 30, 2016

2016 was another big year for powerful data visualizations from the Prison Policy Initiative. These are 10 of our favorites:

1. The “whole pie”

We updated our most famous data visualization for 2016, 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 2016.

This year’s report included four slideshows of additional detail on different parts of the carceral system and some of the state-to-state comparisons.

Perhaps the most exciting addition was the report’s detailed dive into the population of people confined in jails, most of whom are legally innocent:

Pie chart showing the number of people locked up on a given day in the United States in jails, by convicted and not convicted status, and by the underlying offense, using the newest data available in March 2016.

In a major update to our graph first produced last year, we powerfully illustrated that virtually all of the growth in the jail population has been in the number of legally innocent people who are detained in jails:

Animated image showing the growth of the unconvicted population in jails compared to those convicted.


2. Every U.S. state is out step with the rest of the world

The Governors of 49 states can look at Louisiana and feel like their state is an enlightened bastion of moderation, at least on incarceration. But how do each of the 50 states compare to the countries of the world? Badly.

Preview of interactive chart showing rates of incarceration for U.S. states and nations of the world

On the theory that comparing Iowa to El Salvador (a country that recently endured a civil war and now has one of the highest homicide rates in the world) might not be fair, the report includes a graphical comparison of the U.S. incarceration rate to that of its closest allies, the founding members of NATO:

graph showing the incarceration rate per 100,000 in 2016 or the most recent year available for founding members of NATO


3. Looking at probation

Some of the seemingly less punitive states are actually the most likely to put their residents under some other form of correctional control, finds our report Correctional Control: Incarceration and supervision by state. The report builds off Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie, to provide the big picture of mass incarceration to produce versions of the pie chart for each state.

The centerpiece of the report is an interactive chart that ranks each state and D.C. by rate of total correctional control, which includes incarceration, probation, and parole.

Preview of interactive chart showing rates of correctional control for each state and D.C.

The report also includes an animation that illustrates just how dramatic the differences are between the states:

This gif shows that focusing on the national figures can obscure huge state variations. States vary in their use of probation.Thinking of the U.S. criminal justice system as one system can be a mistake. There are 50 state systems, plus one in each of the approximately 3,000 counties and often separate systems in the approximately 30,000 municipalities. These differences matter a great deal.


4. Bail perpetuates poverty

In May, Bernadette and Dan unlocked rare government data to show that the ability to pay money bail is impossible for too many defendants because it represents eight months of a typical defendant’s income. Detaining the Poor also showed how much harder it is for women and people of color to afford bail.

distribution of annual pre-incarceration incomes for people unable to meet bail and non-incarcerated people, 2015 dollars, 23-39 years oldPeople in local jails unable to meet bail are concentrated at the lowest ends of the national income distribution, especially in comparison to non-incarcerated people. As this graph shows, 37% had no chance of being able to afford the typical amount of money bail ($10,000) since their annual income is less than the median bail amount.

The report also includes a very helpful illustration of the path from arrest to pretrial detention:

This chart illustrates the possible paths from arrest to pretrial detention. Thirty-four percent of felony defendants were detained pretrial for the inability to post money bail in 2009. This report focuses on this important population: those who are detained pretrial because they could not afford money bail.Since the 1980s, there has been a significant, nationwide move away from courts allowing non-financial forms of pretrial release (such as release on own recognizance) to money bail, although this does vary substantially depending on jurisdiction. This chart illustrates the possible paths from arrest to pretrial detention. Almost all defendants will have the opportunity to be released pretrial if they meet certain conditions, and only a very small number of defendants will be denied a bail bond, mainly because a court finds that individual to be dangerous or a flight risk. The only national data on pretrial detention that we are aware of comes from the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ Felony Defendants in Large Urban Counties series. Nationally, in 2009, 34% of defendants were detained pretrial for the inability to post money bail. This report focuses on this important population: those who are detained pretrial because they could not afford money bail.


5. Probation fees

Court-ordered fines and fees have expanded dramatically as states have realized their revenue potential. But for the low-income people who are caught up in the system, these costs mean a greater risk of financial strain and even incarceration. In December, Wendy compared probation rates and incomes across Massachusetts and found that low-income communities are hit hardest by probation fees:

A graph of probation rates by income in MassachusettsThe District Court locations were grouped by the per capita income of the towns and cities they each serve. Probation rates are higher in court locations that serve populations with lower incomes.

In the appendix of the report, we created a interactive scatterplot comparing each District Court’s probation caseloads and per capita income:

screenshot of interactive graphic comparing probation rates with community income in Massachusetts
District Court locations (sized by probation caseloads)


6. Shining a light on jail suicides

To cast light on the avoidable epidemic of jail suicides, we updated last year’s graph with a new article:

Graph charts the suicide rates for local jails, state prisons, and the general American population from 2000 to 2014. The jail suicide rate is out of step with the nation and prisons.

Bernadette’s article on the life-threatening reality of short jail stays also includes a graph illustrating groundbreaking data collected by the Huffington Post showing that most suicides occur in just the first few days of detention in jail.


7. A crime wave?

The President-elect says there is a crime wave. Is there? We looked:

Graph showing the number of murders per year from 1985 to 2015 for the largest cities in the United States. The number of murders is much lower now -- and relatively constant -- compared to during the early 1990s when murder was much higher. For most cities, murder is much lower now than during the 1980s or 1990s. The data for 1985-2014 comes from the FBI. The FBI has not published the 2015 full year data yet, so we relied on data from the Major Cities Chiefs Association, which historically is very similar if slightly higher than the FBI’s figures. For that reason, this graph may overstate the increase in murder in 2015 in these cities.

For more on the need for city-specific crime data, see Wendy Sawyer’s analysis Making a mountain out of a molehill.


8. Public vs. private prisons

We’ve long argued that prisons owned and run by corporations that contract with state governments get far more attention than they deserve. But another huge provider of contractual prison services gets almost no attention whatsoever: local jails.

Graph showing the number of people incarcerates under state and federal jurisdiction by facility type, 1999-2014 Since 1999, private prisons and local jails have housed roughly the same number of those serving state and federal prison sentences. But when those interested in justice reform talk about profiting off of mass incarceration, they almost always leave local jails out of the conversation.

For more on this topic, see our article: Some private prisons are, um, public.


9. Beyond the crime bill

During the Democratic primary, many people blamed the Clintons for mass incarceration by pointing to the 1994 crime bill. But that was perhaps the least important of seven major bills. One of the most harmful, and the least discussed, was the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. In May, we made this data visualization of data collected by law professor Margo Schlanger for her article Trends in Prisoner Litigation, as the PLRA Enters Adulthood to make the magnitude of this change clear:

Graph showing the court filing rate for incarcerated people
The filing rate by incarcerated people dropped significantly after the passage of the Prison Litigation Reform Act. And ironically, despite Congress’ fears of a prison lawsuits flooding the courts, this data that controls for the size of the prison population shows that in 1996, when the Prison Litigation Reform Act was passed, fewer lawsuits per 1,000 incarcerated people were being filed than during the ten year period of 1979-1988.


10. The Crippling Effect of Incarceration on Wealth

A fascinating study by Khaing Zaw, Darrick Hamilton, and William Darity Jr. shows that incarceration has a staggering effect on the accumulation of wealth over the course of a lifetime. To accompany our blog post on the original article, we made a data visualization of the data — including detail by racial group — published in the original article:

Graph showing the increasing wealth disparity by race and ethnicity between incarcerated and non-incarcerated young men starting at age 14. Whites who have never been incarcerated have the highest incomes, followed by Hispanic never incarcerated, Whites who have been incarcerated, Blacks who have never been incarcerated, Hispanics who have been incarcerated and Blacks who have been incarcerated.


by Wendy Sawyer, December 29, 2016

As 2016 comes to a close, the Prison Policy Initiative wanted to highlight some of our colleagues’ research that we thought was the most useful and the most under-exposed and contributed to our movement’s understanding of key issues in criminal justice:

  • Growing Up Locked Down
    ACLU of Nebraska
    January 2016
    The psychological and physical harms of solitary confinement are so much worse for children who are still developing. The ACLU of Nebraska finds that the state overuses “the most inhumane correctional practices” of solitary confinement in every one of its juvenile justice facilities. Children there were placed alone in cells as punishment for minor offenses, like talking back or having too many books. The report calls attention to the “serious mental health impacts of solitary confinement for vulnerable youth” and the pressing need for policy reform.
  • The Gavel Gap: Who Sits in Judgment on State Courts?
    by Tracey E. George and Albert H. Yoon for the American Constitution Society
    June 2016
    In a democratic society, the courts should reflect the communities they serve. This report is the first to give a crystal clear picture of just how un-representative state court judges are by gender, race and ethnicity. To support further research and advocacy, it provides a new dataset of biographical information about state court judges. The report makes the case that if courts’ want to increase both their understanding of the communities they serve and public confidence in their decisions, courts must close these wide gender and racial “gavel gaps.”
  • America’s Top Five Deadliest Prosecutors: How Overzealous Personalities Drive the Death Penalty
    Fair Punishment Project
    How is it possible that five prosecutors were responsible for 440 death sentences? The Fair Punishment Project details the bloodlust, racism and willful misconduct that made it possible for each of these notorious prosecutors to win scores of death penalty sentences. This report shows that the death penalty is an unusual punishment sought by a small number of zealots in just a few parts of the country.
  • Paying the Price: Failure to Deliver HIV Services in Louisiana Parish Jails
    Human Rights Watch
    March 29, 2016
    Recognizing that the populations at risk of HIV and the incarcerated populations overlap, this report illustrates the urgent need for reform in Louisiana, which it describes as “‘ground zero’ for the dual epidemics of HIV and incarceration.” An accompanying video on the website gives voice to stakeholders by including interviews with formerly incarcerated people, HIV and health services providers, and representatives of the criminal justice system.
  • Punishment Rate Measures Prison Use Relative to Crime
    Pew Charitable Trusts
    March 23, 2016
    This report looks beyond imprisonment to offer a new metric, “the punishment rate,” with which to gauge punitiveness. By comparing the size of prison populations to the frequency and severity of crime reported, rather than to the number of residents, Pew shows that the U.S. has become more punitive than traditional analysis suggests. Extending this analysis to individual states, Pew finds that Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming are all significantly more punitive than their imprisonment rates suggest.
  • Race, Wealth and Incarceration: Results from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, Race and Social Problems
    Originally published in Race and Social Problems, Vol. 8, Issue 1, 2016. The final publication is available at Springer Link
    By Khaing Zaw, Darrick Hamilton, and William Darity, Jr.
    March 2016
    The authors of this study examine the wealth disparity between young men who experience prison and those who never do, using a survey that follows a group of young men for 27 years. They find that the men who are incarcerated have less wealth to begin with and, over time, accumulate only a small fraction of the wealth accumulated by their peers who are never incarcerated. (This is consistent with our findings that pre-incarceration incomes of incarcerated people are 41% lower than their peers.) We blogged about this report and produced two graphics based on it: The Crippling Effect of Incarceration on Wealth.
  • Get To Work or Go To Jail
    By Noah Zatz, Tia Koonse, Theresa Zhen, Lucero Herrera, Han Lu, Steven Shafer, and Black Valenta at UCLA Labor Center
    March 2016
    Work at a terrible job, or go to jail. Those are the two choices for many people on probation and parole, as outlined by this research brief. Probation and parole conditions, as well as court orders to find work to pay court debts or child support, can force people to choose between bad (or unpaid) jobs and jail time. The threat of jail depresses labor standards and legal protections, which create cascading effects on all workers. The report provides estimates of incarceration for “failure to work” and links this threat to the practice of incarcerating people who fail to pay court fines and fees – something we discussed in our report on probation fees.
  • Roadblocks to reform: District Attorneys, Elections, and the Criminal Justice Status Quo
    ACLU of Oregon
    April 2016
    District Attorneys have the power to make the justice system more progressive. But this report concludes that uncontested elections and appointments in Oregon lead DAs to block progressive criminal justice reform and maintain the status quo for their own self-interest. The ACLU makes a powerful case for why the national movement needs to pay more attention to DA races.
  • Unlicensed & Untapped: Removing Barriers to State Occupational Licenses for People with Records
    by Michelle Natividad Rodriguez and Beth Avery with the National Employment Law Project
    April 2016
    Not only do people with criminal records face discrimination from employers, they also often face barriers in obtaining occupational licenses to work as a barber, hairdresser, health care worker, or teacher – even decades after their sentence ends. This report evaluates the effectiveness of state laws intended to ensure fairness for applicants with records and it provides recommendations for states, including a model law.
  • Louisiana Death Sentence Cases and Their Reversals, 1976-2015
    Originally published in The Southern University Law Center Journal of Race, Gender, and Poverty, Vol. 7, 2016.
    by Frank R. Baumgartner and Tim Lyman
    April 26, 2016
    An analysis of 241 death sentence cases in Louisiana since Gregg v. Georgia reinstated the death penalty in 1976 finds that the death penalty is still applied in discriminatory ways, and the frequency of reversals suggests the death penalty process is rife with errors and ultimately arbitrary in application.
  • Correcting Food Policy in Washington Prisons: How the DOC Makes Healthy Food Choices Impossible for Incarcerated People & What Can Be Done
    Prison Voice Washington
    From Washington state, a troubling example of how incarcerated people suffer when states try to cut costs. By eliminating all fresh, natural food in favor of processed products from a single prison food factory, the state has created “food deserts” in its prisons, failing to provide food that meet minimum standards for nutrition and increasing healthcare expenditures. This report shows how a nation that recognizes nutrition as a public health issue continues to neglect its incarcerated population.
  • Incarceration Trends
    Vera Institute of Justice
    December 2015
    Vera’s Incarceration Trends project was technically launched in 2015, but it came out after we wrote last year’s list of best reports and it is too useful to ignore. A combination of two written reports and an interactive data tool, Vera’s research involved aggregating county-level data from 1970 to the present so that local incarceration rates can be compared over time and across jurisdictions. While also calling attention to racial and gender disparities, Vera’s Trends project is an incomparable resource that sheds historical light on the local face of mass incarceration.

by Kim Cerullo, December 23, 2016

2016 was a year of big victories for the Prison Policy Initiative. Our campaigns took some big steps forward and, in some cases, those victories culminated in major policy changes.

Here are some of the biggest wins in our campaigns this year:

Prison Gerrymandering

  • A federal Judge declared prison gerrymandering in rural Jefferson County, Florida to be an unconstitutional violation of the principle of “one person one vote.” Our staff were expert witnesses in the case.
  • In April, Tennessee passed legislation to allow rural counties to avoid prison gerrymandering.
  • We organized 100,000 people to submit comments to the Census Bureau demanding an end to prison gerrymandering. This movement was also supported by a letter from 13 U.S. Senators. We are awaiting a decision from the Census Bureau about where incarcerated people will be counted in the 2020 Census.

Driver’s License Suspensions

Protecting Letters from Home

  • We followed up on our previous report on postcard-only mail policies in jails this year with Protecting Written Family Communication in Jails, A 50-State Survey.
  • Supported by our reports, the movement to end letter bans grew this year. Sheriffs in Macomb County, Michigan and Flagler County, Florida agreed to lift postcard-only policies, and lawsuits are underway to challenge postcard-only policies in Knox County, Tennessee and Wilson County, Kansas.

Other research

We also published a record number of ground-breaking reports to push the national conversation about mass incarceration and over-criminalization. Our most notable reports include:

  • Correctional Control: Incarceration and supervision by state
    Prison is just one piece of the correctional pie, and we often overlook the leading type of correctional control: probation. This report is the first of its kind and aggregates data on all of the types of correctional control: federal prisons, state prisons, local jails, juvenile incarceration, civil commitment, Indian Country jails, parole, and probation.
  • States of Incarceration: The Global Context 2016
    Our report and infographic directly situate individual U.S. states in the global context. This updated version reveals that the use of incarceration in every state – even those with relatively progressive policies – is out of step with the international community.
  • Detaining the Poor: How money bail perpetuates an endless cycle of poverty and jail time
    Detaining people because they are poor is an offensive idea, but until this year it was difficult to prove that this is exactly what the American system of cash bail does. This report uses an obscure and underutilized government dataset to show that the typical bail amount in the U.S. is equivalent to eight months of income for the typical defendant. Our report not only proved the obvious, but we helped reframe the debate to show why modest changes in bail amounts won’t be enough to reverse the tremendous rise in the population of people detained before trial.
  • Punishing Poverty: The high cost of probation fees in Massachusetts
    In Massachusetts, probation is a much bigger part of the correctional control pie than incarceration. Our new report reveals that being on probation comes at a price: probation service fees in the state cost probationers more than $20 million every year, a cost that largely falls on those who are too poor to pay.

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