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I co-founded the Prison Policy Initiative to put the problem of mass incarceration — and the perverse incentives that fuel it — on the national agenda. Over the last 16 years, our campaigns have protected our democracy from the prison system and protected the poorest families in this country from the predatory prison telephone industry. Our reports untangle the statistics and recruit new allies.

But now, more than ever, we need your help to put data & compassion into the conversation. Any gift you can make today will be matched by other donors and go twice as far.

Thank you.
—Peter Wagner, Executive DirectorDonate

by Bernadette Rabuy, November 20, 2017

Policy work sometimes requires tough choices. For example, our campaign to protect in-person family visits in jails has won some major victories at the price of accepting legislation that does not apply to counties that had already replaced in-person visits with inadequate video calls.

In both Texas and California, state bills were successful in protecting in-person visits in a majority of counties but exempted some counties from restoring in-person visits. (This practice of creating an exemption in a law is sometimes called a “grandfather clause” or “grandfathering.”) Our coalitions struggled with these compromises, and I want to share some of the considerations we confronted in the hopes that it might guide similar decisions:

  1. What is the main goal of the legislation?

    At the Prison Policy Initiative, we often work in coalitions. One challenge of working in coalitions is that it can be hard to make fast-paced decisions. Planning ahead, creating a structure, and agreeing in advance on the purpose of the legislation can make all the difference. In California, we used a few approaches. We had regular conversations among the coalition members about the purpose of the legislation. This was almost like creating a ranking of the most important purposes of the legislation to the least important purposes. We also elected a smaller group of the coalition that was entrusted to make fast-paced decisions if getting in touch with all of the coalition members didn’t work out. Another approach, which is similar to what we did in Texas, is to alert coalition members to be on stand-by for a last-minute conference call as soon as there is reason to believe that a fast-paced decision is likely.

  2. Is the compromise the right size?

    Passing legislation often requires compromise, so the first question, after whether compromise is necessary, is whether it’s the right one. For example, we’ve found it helpful to focus on the extent of that compromise. We’ve thought about whether the compromise is limited to what’s necessary or, on the other hand, takes the teeth out of a bill. For example, for legislation on video calls, we ask ourselves, if a grandfather clause is necessary, how many counties exactly does it make sense to include? Unfortunately, the California bill has an expansive grandfather clause. It not only exempts jails that were built without physical space designated for in-person visitation, but it also exempts jails that are in early stages of construction.

  3. Can we effectively address, at the local level, what the state legislative compromise left out?

    When we considered the expansive California exemption, we thought about the feasibility of follow-up campaigns in the counties that would be exempted. In other words, we asked, “Can we fix it later?”

    When working with a coalition, it can be helpful to poll members’ capacity to do follow-up work. For example, is the campaign a part of that coalition member’s one-year plan or five-year plan? If most of the coalition is located in a couple of cities, would it be practical to launch a campaign outside of those cities? How difficult would it be to track local policymaking? (For example, are county government meeting agendas posted online regularly and in advance?)

  4. How likely is future reform? Is there opposition and how strong or widespread is it?

    We’ve also assessed the political climate. For example, when we were working to protect in-person visits in Texas, it didn’t seem like the opposition would waver if we decided to reject the offered compromise and waited for the next legislative session. In particular, Bexar County was resistant to the bill we were working on because it was building a visitation center in order to replace in-person visits with video calls. Bexar County wasn’t showing any sign of rethinking its plans, and, as home to San Antonio, it seemed to be an influential county.

    On the other hand, the initial California bill that would have protected in-person visits in California jails had a long list of supporters and just one opponent (the California State Sheriffs Association). While the Legislature approved the bill with bipartisan support, Governor Brown ultimately vetoed the bill. With just one opponent (and one who conceded that “in-person visitation can bring positive outcomes”), we knew we had momentum to keep the campaign going. We also thought we might have more success at a later moment that wasn’t so close to an election heavy with criminal justice reforms. Ultimately, we were right; we were successful with a second bill.

  5. Are there alternative strategies for reform?

    We’ve weighed the potential harm of an exemption with the likelihood that we could adopt alternative strategies for reform. For example, in Texas, some of the counties that had already banned in-person visits were still subject to the law’s requirement to provide in-person visits because they had not in fact incurred “significant expense” to adopt video calls. We knew from our research that it was common for predatory video call companies to install video call systems in jails at no cost to the county. Upon closer investigation, Woods and Hays hadn’t paid for their video systems so they were required to provide in-person jail visits. In Travis County, advocates like Grassroots Leadership, which is based in the County, organized and successfully persuaded the Travis County Sheriff to bring back in-person visits even though he received an exemption.

    In California, the coalition that sponsored the initial bill responded to the Governor’s veto by partnering with supportive legislators and family members of incarcerated people. The Senate and Assembly Budget Subcommittee 5 on Corrections, Public Safety and the Judiciary along with the Senate Public Safety Committee hosted an informational hearing on video calls at the State Capitol where members of our coalition testified to raise further awareness of the harm of banning in-person visits. We also organized family members of incarcerated people to share the positive impact that in-person visitation has had on them through public comment or written testimony. As one man who has visited his father in various California jails put it, “Human beings need in person visits. Our minds need it and our hearts need it.” The support of legislators and the public helped us keep our campaign in the spotlight until we were able to protect in-person visits through a second bill.

Legislative compromises are never easy questions. Without a doubt, legislative compromises require assessing factors that vary from one place to another. But our experience working to protect in-person visits in certain states has reminded us that anticipating opposition and brainstorming potential responses in advance can make the decision easier.

by Peter Wagner, November 13, 2017

We just released our 2016-2017 Annual Report, and I’m thrilled to share some highlights of our work with you. Despite the new challenges posed by the White House, we had a number of big successes, including:

thumbnail showing some pages from the Prison Policy Initiative 2016-2017 annual report

But that’s not all. In our highly-skimmable annual report, we review our work on all of our issues over the last year. Thank you for being a part of our successes over the last year. We are looking forward to working with you in the year to come.

by Elliot Oberholtzer, November 8, 2017

In the summer of 2013, Chelsea Manning’s high-profile incarceration and subsequent pardon brought the existence of trans women in prison into the mainstream discourse. Activists like Janet Mock and CeCe McDonald have courageously spoken out about their experiences while incarcerated. But while their high-profile cases have resulted in greater awareness about the criminalization of trans people — particularly trans women of color — and the abuses the mass incarceration system heaps upon them, there is very little discussion of actual policies. Advocacy groups and departments of corrections alike are operating with almost no information in this area, leaving incarcerated trans people without resources and at the mercy of widespread ignorance.

To begin to bridge this research gap, the Prison Policy Initiative has conducted a review of the current transgender/gender non-conforming policies1 of 21 states.2

Continue reading →

by Wendy Sawyer, October 25, 2017

Wanda BertramPlease welcome our new Communications Strategist, Wanda Bertram.

Wanda is a graduate of the University of Washington, where her focus on national security sparked her interest in prison policy and immigrant detention. She has reported on local criminal justice reform as a Seattle-based freelance writer while producing, managing, and strengthening the communications of area nonprofit organizations.

Welcome, Wanda!

by Aleks Kajstura, October 19, 2017

report thumbnailWith 219,000 women locked up in facilities operated by thousands of agencies, getting the big picture is anything but easy. In our new report, Women’s Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2017, we use our “whole pie” approach to give the public and policymakers the foundation to end mass incarceration without leaving women behind.

Our new report details, for the first time, the number of women who are locked up by various correctional systems and why. Women’s Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2017, released jointly by the Prison Policy Initiative and the ACLUs Campaign for Smart Justice, is a first look at where women fall within our decentralized and overlapping systems of mass incarceration.

For example, we find that a quarter of incarcerated women are unconvicted, highlighting serious questions about how we use incarceration in the United States. And the report finds that “[i]n stark contrast to the total incarcerated population, where the state prison systems hold twice as many people as are held in jails, incarcerated women are nearly evenly split between state prisons and local jails.” These findings reinforce the importance of considering jails, not just prisons, in ending mass incarceration.

The report provides a breakdown of offense types for women incarcerated in local, state, and federal correctional systems. And while the distribution of offenses is different for women than for the general incarcerated population, our analysis confirms that meaningful reform and ending mass incarceration requires looking beyond non-violent drug and property offenses.

Incarcerated women have long been overlooked in criminal justice statistics. Women’s Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2017 starts to fills that void.

by Wendy Sawyer, October 13, 2017

California just took an important step forward in dismantling the War on Drugs’ harmful legacy of excessively punitive sentences. On Wednesday, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law a number of criminal justice reforms, including the Repeal Ineffective Sentencing Enhancements (RISE) Act, repealing the state’s three-year sentence enhancements for prior drug convictions. These enhancements were applied consecutively, so three years were added for each prior conviction for anyone convicted again for a similar offense. In a case that exemplifies the senselessness of the law, one woman took a plea deal for six years when faced with a possible 9-year prison sentence for a $5 sale of cocaine.

As we and other advocates of the bill have pointed out, such severe punishments harm individuals and communities, consume resources that should be directed to more effective community programs and treatment, and fail to improve public safety. At at time when Trump and Sessions threaten a return to the ineffective, costly, and destructive policies of the War on Drugs, policymakers will need to follow California’s example and take decisive action at the state level.

by Aleks Kajstura, October 12, 2017

While we talk a lot about counties getting kick-backs from phone companies in return for granting monopoly contracts, we now have new research about a far more direct prison and jail phone company effort to sway sheriffs: campaign contributions.

As we highlighted two years ago, Securus was donating $10,000 a year to the Sacramento County sheriff, even though it did not have a contract with the county. We recently dug around a little deeper and discovered that Sacramento’s experience is not unique.

We found that GTL and Securus alone have donated over $70,000 to Alameda County Sheriff Greg Ahern’s campaigns in just 4 years (2010-2013):

Year GTL’s
2010 $2,000 $10,000
2011 $400 $10,000
2012 $12,000 $10,000
2013 $15,000 $10,075

As we can see, prison and jail phone companies have been fueling Ahern’s campaign for years. And in 2012, their contributions accounted for nearly 25% of Ahern’s campaign expenditures.

Notably Sheriff Ahern runs the 14th largest jail system in the country; just one of his facilities is larger than the entire state prison system of 8 states. He used his substantial influence to organize and lead jail administrators to fight against jail phone regulation while also raking in at least $1.5 million in kickbacks from the phone companies.

The phone companies are making contributions in other counties too:

Jail phone company Contribution County Year
CenturyLink $1,000 Clark County, NV 2014
Securus $1,675 Contra Costa County, CA 2013
Securus $500 Duval County, FL 2014
Telmate $500 San Francisco County, CA 2015

These contributions may seem small compared to those in Alameda and Sacramento, but the cost of running for sheriff varies, so these contributions might be enough to sway their respective elections. (And of course, phone companies buy other county officials as well.)

Finally, these findings represent just a handful of the country’s 3,163 jails. Much more work needs to be done to uncover the full impact of jail phone companies on sheriff races, and what that means for families trying to keep in touch with incarcerated loved ones.



Special thanks to Sasha Feldstein and Sari Kisilevsky, our Young Professionals Network volunteers, for their hours spent sifting through the data, as well as Alex Clark and Elliot Oberholtzer for their additional research and compilation.

by Bernadette Rabuy, September 26, 2017

The public, the media, and policymakers agree: replacing in-person jail visits with video calls is foolish and needlessly cruel. In an article last week, VC Daily, which describes itself as a niche community of video conferencing enthusiasts, agreed: “Video conferencing technology has come a long way in the past decade, but even in its most experimental current forms it cannot replicate time spent with family and friends in the flesh…”

VC Daily was quick to acknowledge that it may seem like an unlikely supporter of in-person visits, and it explained why video calls are a poor replacement of in-person visits:

As much as we consider ourselves here at VC Daily to be cheerleaders for the technology and use of video conferencing, the bottom line is that video conferencing just isn’t the same as in-person communication. At least, not right now. It is a great substitute when distance and circumstance make sharing the same space impossible, impractical, or just plain expensive.

VC Daily understands that in-person jail visits are far from impossible, impractical, or expensive:

  • In-person jail visits are not impossible. Although this is quickly changing, most jails still provide in-person visits.
  • In-person jail visits are not impractical. In-person visits, not video calls, are the norm in state and federal prisons. Jails can and should provide in-person visits too, especially since families are generally able to visit incarcerated loved ones more easily when they are close by in a local jail than many miles away in a prison.
  • In-person jail visits are not expensive. Traditionally, jails did not charge families to visit their incarcerated loved ones. Charging families to see their incarcerated loved ones is one of the negative consequences of the growth of the video call industry and a practice discouraged by the American Correctional Association. Jails do expend resources to provide in-person visitation, but in-person visitation can lead to a reduction in recidivism so it’s a worthy investment.

VC Daily went on to admit that, even as a community of video conferencing enthusiasts, it believes that denying incarcerated people human contact infringes on basic human needs:

However, as an L.A. Times editorial noted just a few months ago, once you start employing video conferencing to replace human physical interaction, you run the risk of dangerously undermining a person’s basic human needs… We usually end these posts dreaming of a hypothetical future in which video conferencing is the good guy, the tech that can make great things possible. But this certainly takes the fun out of our hypothetical.

VC Daily’s critique gets at the heart of what is so perverse about the way that jails use video calls: it’s a rare example of a technology being used to separate, rather than connect, people. This harmful practice is in part why VC Daily concludes, “[v]ideo conferencing is an addition to our lives, not the venue for them.”

by Emily Widra, September 26, 2017

The high walls that keep incarcerated people in prisons and jails also keep the public – and public oversight — out. One of the key drivers of criminal justice reform is investigative journalism that uncovers injustices and forces our elected officials to pay attention to otherwise hidden institutions.

One of the earliest and most famous investigations of conditions of confinement began 130 years ago today when journalist Nellie Bly was committed to New York City’s insane asylum, Blackwell’s Island. Bly’s goal was to reveal what life was like behind asylum bars in New York City. Despite the rumors of abuses at the asylum, Bly was reluctant to believe that “such an institution could be mismanaged, and that cruelties could exist ‘neath its roof” until she experienced them firsthand. She checked into a rooming house, concocted a story about having lost her luggage and money, was turned over to the police, and quickly declared insane by a judge. The whole process, from story conception to forcible commitment, took only four days.

During her ten days behind bars on Blackwell’s Island in 1887, Bly witnessed numerous instances of physical and emotional abuse, as well as the inability of staff to provide proper care for the patients. To expose these truths, Bly wrote three articles – Behind Asylum Bars, Inside the Madhouse, and Untruths in Every Line – revealing the institutional mismanagement, abuses, and harsh conditions the patients experienced at Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum.

Bly’s investigative journalism had immediate and long-term impacts on the care provided for people with mental illnesses. The asylum made rapid practice and administrative changes following the publication and a Grand Jury was convened to investigate the reported abuses, leading to real transformation in the oversight, practices, and funding of the asylum.

In our view, investigative journalism is a key part of a functioning democracy and is key to criminal justice reform. Much of our research is designed to empower journalists to tell the story of our criminal justice system in new ways, and we make it a point to highlight the most important investigative stories of the year. (See our list for 2015 and 2016.)

What’s interesting about Bly’s book is not just the subject matter, it is also the foundation for a discussion about how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go.


For more on Nellie Bly, see:

For more on mental illness in the criminal justice system, see:

by Emily Widra, September 8, 2017

In a New York Times Magazine article published in June 2017, journalist Linda Villarosa highlighted the “hidden HIV epidemic” among Black gay and bisexual men in the Deep South. The overall decline of HIV rates in the US may give some people a premature sense of victory; this progress obscures the fact that HIV remains a significant problem for a disproportionate number of Black gay and bisexual men in this country, as Villarosa points out:

“Swaziland, a tiny African nation, has the world’s highest rate of H.I.V., at 28.8 percent of the population. If gay and bisexual African-American men made up a country, its rate would surpass that of this impoverished African nation — and all other nations.”

Villarosa mentions the systemic issues impacting HIV rates among southern Black communities, including the “crippled medical infrastructure,” the limited domestic funding and resources dedicated to HIV/AIDS, and the movement of the HIV epidemic from cities like New York and San Francisco to smaller cities with larger Black populations in the Deep South. Along these lines, Dr. Mark Dybul — an infectious diseases researcher and professor — describes HIV, malaria, and tuberculosis as “discriminatory” diseases because they disproportionately impact communities that are already marginalized by poverty, inadequate resources, and discrimination. Villarosa also briefly touches on the history of incarceration of a few of the men she interviewed, but the intersection of HIV, race, and incarceration deserves further investigation, especially considering the high rates of incarceration in the South.

There is little information available about LGBT people of color behind bars, and even less data on the rates of HIV and incarceration among men who have sex with men. In the public health literature that does exist on HIV, the category of men who have sex with men, or MSM, is applied broadly and inconsistently to self-identified gay and bisexual men, men with a lifetime history of male-to-male sexual contact, and/or men who self-report male-to-male sexual contact in the past 6 months, depending on the particular study. The lack of consistency and clarity when we talk about this population only makes it harder to address these issues. As Villarosa puts it, “too many black gay and bisexual men [are] falling through a series of safety nets.”

The existing studies begin to fill in the gaps in literature, but there is more work to be done to understand how the interactions of high rates of HIV and our criminal justice system disproportionately impact Black gay and bisexual men and Black MSM. Recent research suggests an overlap between HIV and incarceration:

  • People at risk for incarceration are more likely than others to be at high risk for HIV infection. These risk factors include a history of drug use, low socioeconomic status, high prevalence of STIs, mental illnesses, and history of assault and/or abuse.
  • An estimated 25% of Americans living with an HIV infection were incarcerated during 2008.

This is much worse for Black men, like the men that Villarosa interviewed. The compounding effects of HIV, incarceration, and discrimination intersect in the lives of Black gay and bisexual men and Black MSM.

  • First, it is clear that the HIV epidemic among Black MSM that Villarosa points out is real. The CDC reported that “if current HIV diagnoses rates persist about 1 in 2 Black men who have sex with men (MSM) will be diagnosed with HIV during their lifetime.”
  • And there are a lot of Black MSM in prison. Using data from the National Inmate Survey, 2011-2012, researchers found that 34.3% of Black men in prison were MSM, while only 8.9% of the total US population of MSM is Black. (The total Black MSM population is unknown, but would be useful for measuring overrepresentation.)
  • These men who are at a heightened risk of HIV are especially vulnerable behind bars, where condoms are typically unavailable. (Male-to-male sexual contact contributes to over 70% of HIV diagnoses among Black men.)
  • Finally, it looks like Black MSM are at high risk for both HIV diagnosis and incarceration. There is limited data on how much of the US Black MSM population has a history of incarceration, but one study found that 58.7% of a sample of 1,385 Black MSM self-reported a history of incarceration.

The bottom line is Black men are overrepresented in the number of people with HIV and in the number of people behind bars. Although Black men made up only 12% of the US male population at the time of the last Census, they accounted for over 40% of all incarcerated men and 42% of all newly reported HIV infections of men in the US.

Graph showing Black men made up 40% of all incarcerated men and 42% of all new HIV diagnoses of men in 2010, despite making up only 12% of the total male U.S. populationThe co-occurrence of high rates of HIV diagnoses and high rates of incarceration among Black men does not necessarily imply a causal relationship, but they work together to specifically burden the lives of Black gay and bisexual men — particularly in the South, where those rates are especially high. In a previous post, I wrote about the overrepresentation of Black women among new HIV infections, which some researchers have attributed to the high rates of incarceration of Black men.

These findings point to an alarming convergence of the population most burdened by HIV/AIDS and the population most disproportionately affected by mass incarceration. This intersection clearly warrants more attention, so I’m frustrated by the small number of studies dedicated to unravelling the connection between HIV, incarceration, and race.

The first analysis of incarceration history among Black MSM was conducted in 2014 and found evidence that there is a heightened lifetime risk of incarceration among Black MSM. Now, we need more nationally representative and rigorous studies to corroborate these findings. Villarosa argues that by incorporating the gay and bisexual Black men (and we would add, Black men who have experienced incarceration) into the literature and the larger understanding of HIV, we can improve outreach and preventative measures, increase the voice and standing of people of color in HIV/AIDS advocacy, and empower communities to demand change.

As Dr. Dybul states, “HIV is itself discriminatory, it preys on people who are left behind or marginalized by society.” Villarosa’s article highlights the stigma and marginalization of Black gay and bisexual men in the South, but it is important to note that this oppression is layered and systemic: Black MSM and Black men with HIV are also incarcerated at high rates, which only adds to the challenges they face when they return home to their communities.

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  • November 29, 2017:
    Legal Director Aleks Kajstura will be in DC speaking at the congressional Democratic Women’s Working Group dinner about women’s mass incarceration.

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