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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 17 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

December 11, 2018

When it comes to ranking U.S. states on the harshness of their criminal justice systems, incarceration rates only tell half of the story. 4.5 million people nationwide are on probation and parole, and several of the seemingly “less punitive” states put vast numbers of their residents under these other, deeply flawed forms of supervision.

Pie chart breaking down U.S. corrections into populations in confinement, probation and parole

In Correctional Control: Incarceration and supervision by state, the Prison Policy Initiative calculates each state’s rate of correctional control, which includes incarceration (in all types of facilities) as well as community supervision (probation and parole). The report includes over 100 easy-to-read charts breaking down each state’s correctional population.

The report also includes an interactive chart that ranks states on their use of correctional control, with surprising findings including:

  • Ohio and Idaho surpass Oklahoma – the global leader in incarceration – in correctional control overall.
  • Graph showing states with highest rates of incarceration vs those with highest rates of correctional control
  • Pennsylvania – which famously revoked Meek Mill’s probation last year – has the second-highest rate of correctional control in the nation.
  • Rhode Island and Minnesota have some of the lowest incarceration rates in the country, but are among the most punitive when community supervision is accounted for.

Many of the highest rates of correctional control are in states with high rates of probation. “All too often,” says report author Alexi Jones, “probation serves not as a true alternative to incarceration but as the last stop before prison.” Jones proposes specific reforms and highlights the flaws in current probation systems:

  • Probation imposes time-consuming conditions and fees that people struggle to meet, and which can paradoxically hold them back from turning their lives around.
  • Violating even the most minor of these requirements (such as missing a meeting) can result in incarceration.
  • Probation terms can go on for years after the original offense, meaning even model probationers can serve decades under state scrutiny.

But probation is malfunctioning in even more fundamental ways, explains Jones: “States are putting people on probation when a fine, warning, or community treatment program would suffice,” thereby putting more people at risk of incarceration.

“It’s obviously better to keep people in the community than to incarcerate them,” says Jones. “But states need to ask the hard questions about their supervision systems: Whether probation and parole are truly helping people get their lives back on track, and whether everyone who is under supervision really needs to be.”


Treatment programs offer promising results for recently incarcerated people, but prisons aren’t using them.

by Maddy Troilo, December 7, 2018

The national opioid epidemic is killing formerly incarcerated people at shocking rates. Recent research from North Carolina, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island reveals the extent of this crisis and points towards possible solutions. Despite a growing body of evidence that specific treatments work effectively, most prisons are refusing to offer those treatments to incarcerated people, vastly worsening the overdose rate among people in and recently released from prison. Last month, the President signed into law the SUPPORT for Patients and Communities Act, which aims to combat the national epidemic but will likely have mixed results. States, departments of corrections, and the federal government can and must do more to help.

Continue reading →


When jails cut family visits in the name of security, advocates should demand evidence.

by Jorge Renaud, December 6, 2018

Sheriffs are increasingly welcoming video calling technology into their jails, with more than 500 local jails now contracting with video calling providers like GTL and Securus. Usually, sheriffs simultaneously do away with in-person visits, despite studies showing that they are crucial for maintaining family bonds.

To ward off claims that this is just a money-grubbing scheme, sheriffs invoke the argument that doing away with face-to-face visits “increase[s] the safety and security of our facilities,” presumably by stopping contraband brought in by jail visitors.

This argument is demonstrably false, and yet jail administrators repeat it at every possible opportunity. Sheriffs raise the specter of visitors loaded down with drugs, somehow passing them through physical searches and through body scanners and through glass partitions, with the only solution being a move to remote technology. For one thing, this scenario is implausible, given that in-person jail visitors are virtually always separated from their loved ones by a glass window. But more importantly, by blaming contraband on in-person visitors, sheriffs distract from a far more likely source: jail staff.

I reviewed news stories of arrests made in 2018 of individuals caught bringing contraband into jails and prisons. What I found wouldn’t surprise any person in jail, but it’s a truth that sheriffs prefer to avoid: Almost all contraband introduced to any local jail comes through staff. This year alone, 20 jail staff members in 12 separate county jails were arrested, indicted, or convicted on charges of bringing in or planning to bring in contraband.

State Facility Details of incident
Alabama Marshall County Jail Sheriff fires, arrests, and charges four jail staff for “promoting prison contraband.” (more)
Florida Lake County Correctional Center Jail staff charged with smuggling marijuana and phone. (more)
Maryland Jessup Correctional Institution Two staff indicted for conspiring to bring in drugs. (more)
Mississippi Bolivar County Regional Correctional Facility Jail staff arrested for smuggling contraband. (more)
Missouri Jackson County Detention Center Jail staff sentenced for bringing in contraband phones, cigarettes, and drugs. (more)
Ohio Lucas County Correctional Center Two staff indicted for conspiring to bring in drugs. (more)
Pennsylvania Lebanon County Correctional Facility Jail staff arrested for smuggling meth, suboxone, and naloxone. (more)
Pennsylvania Philadelphia House of Corrections, Detention Center, and Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility Six staff at four Philadelphia facilities arrested for smuggling drugs and phones into jail. (more)
Texas Bexar County Jail Two staff indicted for conspiring to smuggle meth into jail. (more)

In fact, most of the jails in question had recently eliminated in-person visits in favor of video calls – a technology which, again, is supposed to reduce contraband.

Moving to video calling has financial benefits for jails, and those benefits have convinced sheriffs to overlook the importance of in-person visits for incarcerated individuals and their families. While rates charged for video calls vary, almost every jail that offers video calling receives commissions from the provider. Video calling also reduces the number of jailers necessary to monitor visitation, allowing sheriffs to cut their payroll.

In order to realize those financial benefits, sheriffs have to justify taking away children’s right to see their parents in person. And that means blaming families for contraband, even when that claim has no legs to stand on.

If any sheriff has ever commissioned a study to back up their claim that banning in-person visits makes jails safer, they’ve never cited one. However, multiple studies (including one we assisted with) do suggest that banning in-person visits makes jails less safe overall, with no reduction in contraband.

Advocates for in-person visits should demand that sheriffs provide proof of their claims. Banning in-person visits means more money for jails at the expense of family connections. We can’t let the sheriffs’ baseless assertions to the contrary go unchallenged.


We've had an incredibly productive year. In our new annual report, we share the highlights.

by Peter Wagner, November 29, 2018

We just released our 2017-2018 Annual Report, and I’m thrilled to share some highlights of our work with you. We’ve had an incredibly productive year, releasing 11 major national reports, exposés, legislative briefings, and guides for advocates and journalists.

There are a few successes I’m particularly proud of:

thumbnail showing some pages from the Prison Policy Initiative 2017-2018 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 Peter Wagner, November 21, 2018

Mujahid Farid, the founding organizer of a campaign to reduce the number of elderly and infirm people in New York State prisons, died yesterday at 69. His Release Aging People in Prison campaign in New York State – known as the RAPP Campaign – was critical:

Release Aging People in Prison/RAPP works to end mass incarceration and promote racial justice by getting elderly and infirm people out of prison. The number of people aged 50 and older in New York State, where RAPP was founded, has doubled since 2000; it now exceeds 10,000—about 20% of the total incarcerated population. This reflects a national crisis in the prison system and the extension of a culture of revenge and punishment into all areas of our society.

I got to spend some time with Farid at a conference in 2014, and offered to use our knowledge of the New York State prison system’s data to help visualize what Farid already knew: that New York’s much-heralded prison population decline was confined solely to the population of people under 50 and the elderly were being left behind. We’ve updated that graph and analysis a few times, most recently just three weeks ago:

Graph of changes in the New York state prison population by age group, showing that the number of incarcerated people age 50 and older has increased steadily since 1992, while the populations of all younger age groups have declinedSince 1992, the number of people age 50 and older incarcerated in New York state prisons has steadily increased, while the populations of every other age group have declined dramatically.

And at that same conference in 2014, Leah Sakala and I shot a short interview with Farid when the RAPP Campaign was just starting:

Each summer since, I’d see Farid at that same conference, and checking in with him was always a highlight. He’ll be greatly missed. Thank you for your work, Mujahid Farid.


Clemency isn't the only way for governors and legislators to show mercy. Our report provides a roadmap with several options.

November 15, 2018

More than 200,000 people in state prisons today have been there for a decade or more. But even when governors and legislators want to give these individuals a “second chance,” they’ve had no handbook for doing so – until now.

Graph showing growth in the number of people who have served 10 or more years in prison

In a new report, the Prison Policy Initiative presents eight ways for states to help people serving excessive prison sentences finally go home. “Clemency is far from the only option,” said author Jorge Renaud. “We don’t have to invent new strategies – there are many out there that are vastly underused.”

His report Eight Keys to Mercy gathers examples of innovations from around the country, and presents these strategies as a slate of options, including:

  • Ways to fix broken state parole systems, such as presumptive parole;
  • Solutions for states where few people are eligible for parole, such as second-look sentencing;
  • Common-sense reforms, such as expanding good time, to support people already working hard to get out (and stay out) of prison.

The report’s eight recommendations also include:

  • Visual aids and explainers, including a detailed guide to present-day parole systems;
  • Instructions for implementing reforms while avoiding common pitfalls;
  • Fact sheets for all 50 states, meant to help policymakers and journalists quickly assess the problem where they live.

Mercy doesn’t begin and end with the governor. But in most states, the systems designed to help people leave prison – such as parole, good time and compassionate release – are skewed towards keeping them inside. “This can’t continue to be the norm,” said Renaud. “People should not spend decades in prison without meaningful opportunities for their release.”

Read the full report and recommendations here: https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/longsentences.html


The report includes a new, data-rich visualization of women in jails, highlighting a critical area for criminal justice reform.

November 13, 2018

Women in the U.S. experience a starkly different criminal justice system than men do, but data on their experiences is difficult to find and put into context. In a new report produced in collaboration with the ACLU’s Campaign for Smart Justice, the Prison Policy Initiative fills this gap in the data with a rich visual snapshot of how many women are locked up in the U.S., where, and why.

In Women’s Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2018 (a detailed update to the inaugural 2017 version), Legal Director Aleks Kajstura pieces together data from the country’s fragmented systems of confinement, producing a detailed “big picture” visualization as well as a separate close-up view of women in local jails.

Preview of pie chart showing how many women are locked up on a given day in the U.S. by facility and offense type.

Kajstura’s analysis reveals that:

  • 56% of women in prisons or jails are there for drug or property offenses, compared with approximately 40% of the general incarcerated population (which is almost entirely male).
  • 7,000 immigrant women are in confinement every day awaiting deportation or an immigration hearing.
  • 54,000 women are behind bars every day without a conviction, typically because they cannot afford money bail.
  • While 219,000 women are behind bars every day, over 1 million are on probation, suggesting that probation reform is also a women’s issue.

“With this big-picture view, it’s easier to see why many state-level reforms unintentionally leave women behind,” Kajstura said. Her analysis particularly underscores the need for local reforms to county jails:

preview of infographic about women in jails

  • Incarcerated women are far more likely than men to be held in local jails, both before trial and while serving their sentences.
  • Of all immigrant women held for ICE, 4,700 are not in detention centers, but “rented” beds in local jails.
  • 80% of women in jail are mothers, and most are the primary caretakers of their children.
  • Mental health care is notoriously bad in jails, where suicide rates are literally off the charts.

While states vary widely in how many women they put behind bars, every single U.S. state outranks most independent countries on women’s incarceration, as we found in June 2018 – making reform a moral necessity in every state. Kajstura calls her analysis “the foundation for reforming the policies that lead to incarcerating women in the first place.”

See the full data visualization and report: https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie2018women.html


Despite recent positive reforms, New York's elderly prison population continues to grow.

by Maddy Troilo, November 1, 2018

Several years ago, we reported on the elderly prison boom in New York; I thought it was time to update our analysis to examine the impact of recent reforms to the state’s Parole Board.

First, for context, a brief summary of New York’s parole reforms: After sustained effort by advocacy groups, the New York State Board of Parole revised the guidelines that shape their practices–long documented to be harmful to incarcerated people and their families–in September 2016. In June of that year, a campaign to change the composition of the Parole Board was successful, and Governor Cuomo appointed new Parole Commissioners with more diverse backgrounds and no history of abusing the position.

Advocates hoped these changes would increase the rate at which aging and elderly people in New York prisons are granted parole, and alleviate some of the “graying” of the state’s prisons. That happened, to a degree: this year, Release Aging People in Prison (RAPP) found that the Parole Board’s release rates have increased for people 50 or older from 24% to 40%. That change marks meaningful progress, but was it enough to reverse the growth in New York’s aging and elderly prison population?

Unfortunately, no. I found that even as the incarceration rate for all other age groups declines, the number of people age 50 and over incarcerated in New York continues to rise rapidly:

Graph of changes in the New York state prison population by age group, showing that the number of incarcerated people age 50 and older has increased steadily since 1992, while the populations of all younger age groups have declinedSince 1992, the number of people age 50 and older incarcerated in New York state prisons has steadily increased, while the populations of every other age group have declined dramatically.

As we showed in 2015, this rapid increase must be the result of decisions about release, because the number of aging and elderly people admitted to New York prisons only increased slightly. That’s certainly still the case, but I can’t update our graph of the commitment data because the New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision hasn’t published any new data on people’s age at admission since 2014.

New York needs to do better; aging and elderly people shouldn’t be left behind as younger people continue to benefit from the state’s overall decline in incarceration. The state can begin by making these further changes:

  • Seat more people on the board to combat understaffing and dismissing those who abuse and misuse their positions
  • End the use of the “nature of the crime” as a factor in parole decisions
  • Give more weight to people’s accomplishments while incarcerated
  • Institute a meaningful presumption of release at first eligibility
  • Acknowledge the fact that elderly people pose no substantial risk to public safety.

The new reforms are important progress, but much more needs to be done. For more information on the campaign to improve the New York Parole Board, see RAPP’s report New York State Parole Board: Failures in Staffing and Performance.


In some counties - like Multnomah County, Oregon - auditors are joining the movement to hold jails accountable.

by Wanda Bertram, October 31, 2018

Jail reform is on the ballot next week in Multnomah County, Oregon, but it isn’t part of a popular initiative or gubernatorial campaign. It’s a key issue at stake in an unlikely, historically “boring” race: the race for County Auditor.

What could a County Auditor possibly do to reform criminal justice policy? Five years ago, the same question might have been asked about district attorneys or sheriffs. But as the public comes to understand the role that prosecutors, sheriffs and other local electeds can play in reversing mass incarceration, those offices are becoming centers of reform in some areas. The Auditor’s office could be next.

If you think of auditors as glorified bookkeepers, both of the candidates in Multnomah County’s runoff election would disagree. Candidate Scott Learn’s website says the Audit Office “needs to focus far less on informational reports…and far more on helping to improve the effectiveness of crucial county services.” He’s interested in auditing probation and parole services, the local juvenile detention center, and mental health services at the county jail.

Learn’s opponent, Jennifer McGuirk, says that “one of the Auditor’s most important responsibilities is deciding which programs to audit.” McGuirk, too, plans to audit the county’s jails. She was inspired to run after reports emerged of racist abuse in the jails, reports that the previous County Auditor declined to look into.

To be sure, Learn and McGuirk are departing from how auditors have traditionally done their jobs. County Auditors are mainly tasked with rooting out local agencies’ mismanagement of funds.

But to be clear: Abusive, inhumane treatment by criminal justice agencies is a misuse of funds. Jails receive public money (and quite a lot of it) for the purpose of “providing effective detention, rehabilitation, and transition services,” as the Multnomah County Sheriff’s website puts it. Human rights violations fall somewhat outside of this mission, so it’s logical that the County Auditor’s office should investigate.

With two reform-minded candidates neck-and-neck in this race, it’s clear that Multnomah County voters agree that justice reform should be a priority. Will your city or county be next?


Our criminal justice system isn’t just sending people from school to prison – it’s locking them out of education altogether.

October 30, 2018

It’s common knowledge that the U.S. criminal justice system funnels youth from schools to prisons – but what happens after that? How many people, for instance, are able to finish high school during or after prison? A new report from the Prison Policy Initiative breaks down the most recent data, revealing that incarcerated people rarely get the chance to make up the education they’ve missed.

The data shows how incarceration, rather than helping people turn their lives around, cements their place at the bottom of the educational ladder:

Graph breaking down educational attainment among formerly incarcerated people compared to the general public
  • 25% of formerly incarcerated people have no high school credential at all – twice as many as in the general public.
  • Formerly incarcerated people are most likely to finish high school by way of GED programs, missing the benefits of a traditional four-year education.
  • Less than 4% of formerly incarcerated people have a college degree, compared to 29% of the general public.

The unemployment rate for formerly incarcerated people is a staggering 27%, the Prison Policy Initiative previously found. This rate differs by education level. For those returning home from prison without educational credentials, it is “nearly impossible” to find a job:

  • Formerly incarcerated people without a high school diploma or GED face unemployment rates 2 to 5 times higher than their peers in the general public. These rates differ by race and gender, ranging from 25% for white men to 60% for Black women.
  • The number of “low-skill” jobs requiring only a high school credential has dropped since 1970, leaving many formerly incarcerated people with even fewer job prospects than ever before.
  • Even as college degrees become critical to finding a job, most incarcerated people cannot access degree-granting programs, Pell Grants and federal student loans.

“We need a new and evidence-based policy framework that addresses K-12 schooling, prison education programs, and reentry systems,” report author Lucius Couloute concludes. He offers four far-reaching recommendations aimed at increasing access to educational opportunities, for both incarcerated people and youth at risk.

Today’s report is the third and final part of a new series from the Prison Policy Initiative, focusing on the struggles of formerly incarcerated people to access employment, housing, and education. Utilizing data from a little-known and little-used government survey, Couloute and other analysts describe these problems with unprecedented clarity. In these reports, the Prison Policy Initiative recommends reforms to ensure that formerly incarcerated people – already punished by a harsh justice system – are no longer punished for life by an unforgiving economy.









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