by Lucius Couloute, July 24, 2017

Last week Senator Tammy Duckworth introduced the Video Visitation and Inmate Calling in Prisons Act of 2017. This piece of legislation is an important step in the fight against exploitation in prisons and jails, and we encourage lawmakers, criminal justice professionals, and the general public to support its passing.

Although purportedly designed to help people communicate with incarcerated loved ones, video calling technology has typically been used in correctional facilities to replace – not supplement – in-person visits. In fact, 74% of jails banned in-person visits when they implemented video visitation, preventing incarcerated people from maintaining important ties with their loved ones.

The Video Visitation and Inmate Calling in Prisons Act of 2017 would require the FCC to regulate the use of video visitation and inmate calling services in correctional facilities (which it has moved away from under the new Chairman); protecting incarcerated people from the elimination of in-person visits, the high costs of calling services, and substandard video calling technologies.

Earlier this year, the Prison Policy Initiative, along with a coalition of concerned organizations, came together to support a previous version of this bill. With the number of facilities switching to video-only visits growing quickly, regulating the exploitive video visitation industry has become an urgent concern.

For incarcerated people who rely upon the support of loved ones, and for the millions of children who need to connect with their parents behind bars, it is crucial that we continue to support common-sense legislation like the Video Visitation and Inmate Calling in Prisons Act of 2017.


by Elliot Oberholtzer, July 18, 2017

A new report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) sheds light on the treatment of disabled people in our society. This report, which compiles nationally representative data from 2011-2015 based on the National Crime Victimization Survey, shows that disabled people experience violent victimization at over twice the rate of people without disabilities. (On average 32 per 1,000 disabled people experience violent victimization annually, compared to 13 per 1,000 non-disabled people.)

Key findings include:

  • Disabled people experience significantly higher rates of rape/sexual assault, robbery, aggravated assault and simple assault than non-disabled people.
  • Disabled youth ages 12-15 are victims of violent crime at over four times the rate of their non-disabled peers: 144 out of every 1,000 disabled youth experiences violent victimization each year.
  • 40% of the violence against disabled people was committed by someone they knew, and 10% of that was by a relative (not including romantic partners). Both of these numbers are significantly higher than for non-disabled people, who are more often victimized by a stranger.
  • 16% of violent crime victims with disabilities believed they were targeted due to their disability. (For more details see the BJS Hate Crime Victimization Report.)

Disabled people, particularly disabled youth, are often in the position of needing to rely on the people around them for support and to accomplish necessary tasks. As this data suggests, the position of power that non-disabled people have over the disabled people around them can lead to victimization and abuse.

The difference between disabled and non-disabled rates of violent victimization may be even more stark than this data suggests, because this data does not include institutionalized disabled people (including those in jails, prisons, residential care facilities, and assisted living facilities). Roughly 95% of people 65 and older in elder care institutions report at least one disability, and people in state and federal prisons are nearly three times as likely to report having a disability, both major populations that this study does not include.

The Human Rights Watch suggests that use of force abuses against disabled people in prisons is “widespread and may be increasing”. Ongoing studies of police violence also suggest that disabled people are a disproportionate percentage of those killed by police. Though this new study is an important addition, the picture of societal violence against disabled people is far from complete.


by Wendy Sawyer and Alex Clark, July 13, 2017

Jeff Sessions has famously parlayed his reputation as a zealous and harshly punitive prosecutor into a powerful political career; but among the elite, is his background really so unusual? And to what extent do political ambitions influence prosecutors’ decisions?

It’s now possible to examine the scale of prosecutors’ influence on American politics and justice, thanks to Fordham University historian Jed Shugerman. On Friday, Shugerman announced a new project exploring the emergence and impact of “prosecutor politicians” in recent U.S. history. He also made his extensive database publicly available, which will be invaluable for those of us looking at the role of prosecutors in shaping our criminal justice system.

As part of his research into politicians who began their careers as prosecutors, Shugerman and a team of research assistants looked into the prosecutorial backgrounds of Supreme Court justices, circuit judges, state attorneys general, governors, and senators from each state since the 1880s. The result is a groundbreaking database of American public officials and their legal and political background, impressive in its historical and geographical scope and detail. (Shugerman is quick to point out that the database is a work in progress, one that he hopes will benefit from crowdsourcing additional documentation and analysis.)

This research offers a new perspective – and critical new data – on the connections between prosecution and politics. In our initial look at the data, we focused on just public officials who have held office in the past ten years, and found examples of Shugerman’s “prosecutor politican” in 38 states. Of those in office at any point between 2007 and 2017, 38% of state attorneys general, 19% of governors, and 10% of U.S. senators had prosecutorial backgrounds.

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

According to Shugerman, the “prosecutor politician” has emerged as a political force in recent history, having a detrimental impact on our criminal justice system. Shugerman argues that the prosecutor’s office has become a “stepping stone for higher office… with dramatic consequences in American criminal law and mass incarceration.” This hypothesis dovetails with the work of John Pfaff, who argues that prosecutorial decisions explain much of mass incarceration.

Shugerman’s inspiration for the project was his observation that in recent history, prosecutors with political aspirations appear to have prioritized public opinion and personal gain over justice. Their decisions have, in turn, made justice outcomes more punitive for millions of civilians, and noticeably more lax for police. Shugerman hypothesizes that ambitious politicians are drawn to the prosecutor’s office, where they prosecute more arrests and develop a reputation for being “tough on crime.” Yet while they prosecute many defendants too aggressively, such prosecutors also fail to adequately prosecute police officers who have killed Black men: “Suburban/rural prosecutors generally underperform, and perhaps even sabotage, their prosecutions of police in these cases because of their own political ambitions.”

John Pfaff’s work turned the attention of criminal justice reformers to prosecutors earlier this year; and now Shugerman has offered us a tool to further gauge the scope of the problem. If Shugerman’s theory is correct, and prosecutors are subverting justice out of political ambition and fear of public reproach, changing justice outcomes will require greater scrutiny of prosecutors and their decisions.


by Lucius Couloute, July 11, 2017

On April 6th our Senior Policy Analyst Bernadette Rabuy took part in a panel discussion on overcriminalization and indigent legal care at Georgia State University. Along with other leaders in the field, Bernadette addressed how overcriminalization not only affects incarcerated people and those under community supervision, but their families and communities as well. Check out the video above!


by Stephen Raher, July 6, 2017

Illustration depicting faces behind bars within tablet screens

In 2010, Apple made waves when it introduced the iPad. Over the last seven years, consumers have been busy trying out ever-more-powerful mobile devices; meanwhile, correctional facilities have been quietly experimenting with letting incarcerated people use limited-function electronic tablets inside prisons and jails. Correctional administrators are often resistant to change, but after a few tentative forays, some prison systems are beginning to adopt tablet programs on a larger scale.

A recent Denver Post article reports that the Colorado state prison system has awarded a contract to prison communications giant GTL (formerly Global Tel*Link) for a tablet program that will eventually be deployed in all the state’s prisons.

The Colorado Department of Corrections (DOC) is somewhat of an early adopter of emerging communications technology. For several years it has offered electronic messaging, an email-like service that allows people in prison to send and receive messages using a proprietary, fee-based platform operated by a contractor. Colorado DOC’s electronic messaging program isn’t perfect, but its rollout was notable for giving people a new communication option. The tablet program, on the other hand, foreshadows a potential new paradigm in corrections, shifting numerous communications, educational, and recreational functions to a for-profit contractor; and, at the same time, making incarcerated people and their families pay for services, some of which are now commonly funded by the state.

What makes the Colorado/GTL contract especially frustrating is that it could have been an innovative step toward providing incarcerated people with useful technology. Experts who have studied government technology contracting warn that projects often fail because details are not sufficiently thought through. The Colorado DOC seems to have walked down this familiar path by focusing largely on its own financial interest without giving much thought to the user experience or the financial impact on incarcerated people and their families.

Continue reading →


by Lucius Couloute, June 28, 2017

Across the country jails are replacing in-person visits with video chats that can cost over $1 per minute; and as our national research on the 600+ facilities that have implemented video visitation illustrates, the collusion between local jails and telecom companies ignores the needs of incarcerated people and their loved ones in favor of profits.

In a new segment that aired on HBO last night, Vice News Tonight examined the growth of the exploitive video visitation industry in California; speaking with jail administrators, FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, and the families themselves in order to highlight the human toll of switching from the real thing to an artificial – and costly – substitute. Check out the piece above!


by Wendy Sawyer, June 28, 2017

BJS report coverA new Bureau of Justice report released yesterday reveals that 21% of sentenced people in state prisons and local jails are incarcerated for crimes committed to obtain drugs or money for drugs. Almost 40% of people locked up for property crimes and 14% of those incarcerated for violent crimes reported that they had committed their most serious offense for drug-related reasons. If these figures hold for the entire prison and jail population, that means over 473,000 people are behind bars for seeking drugs.

“Drug Use, Dependence, and Abuse Among State Prisoners and Jail Inmates, 2007-2009” details past drug use of incarcerated people surveyed in the National Inmate Surveys. Some of its other major findings include:

  • More than half of the state prison population and two-thirds of the sentenced jail population report drug dependence or abuse, compared to just 5% of the adult general population.
  • About 40% of the state prison population and sentenced jail population report using drugs at the time of the offense for which they were incarcerated.
  • Drug use varied by gender and race, as reported in past studies: Women were more likely than men, and whites more likely than Blacks, Hispanics, and “other” racial or ethnic groups to report drug dependence or abuse, to report drug use at the time of their offense, and to have ever regularly used cocaine or crack, methamphetamine, or heroin or other opiates.
  • Only about a quarter of those reporting drug dependence or abuse had received treatment since admission.

We already know that overcriminalization of drug use and possession contributes to mass incarceration, resulting in 1 million arrests each year. Responding to substance use as as an individual failure to be punished, rather than as a public health problem, is just as harmful. The widespread drug use and dependence among incarcerated people underscores the urgent need to redirect people and resources away from prisons and jails and toward more effective treatment. Treating underlying issues in a therapeutic setting is more cost effective and has better results when it comes to health and public safety. And as the new BJS report suggests, it’s also essential for reducing the incarcerated population.


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, June 22, 2017

Today, a new Bureau of Justice Statistics report offers another grim view of mental health problems in America’s prisons and jails. Indicators of Mental Health Problems Reported by Prisoners and Jail Inmates 2011-12 is the first government update on the mental health of incarcerated populations since 2006. BJS has made some changes to its data collection, making comparisons to earlier reports difficult,1 but the takeaway is the same, ten years later: U.S. prisons and jails are filled with people who have a current or past mental health problem, and facilities are still not meeting the demand for treatment.

Half of people incarcerated in prisons and two-thirds of people in jails had either current “serious psychological distress”2 or a history of mental health problems. Yet only about a third of those reporting serious psychological distress were currently receiving treatment, and only a slightly greater share of people with a history of mental health problems was currently being treated. So while correctional facilities are warehousing people with mental health problems, they lack the capacity to adequately meet the needs of those in their care.

Graph showing rates of serious psychological distress is higher in prisons and jails than among the general population.1 in 4 people incarcerated in jails reported experiences that met the threshold for serious psychological distress. This makes people in jail six times more likely to experience serious psychological distress than people with no criminal justice involvement in the past year.

People in prisons and jails experience serious psychological distress at much greater rates than the general public. This difference is especially pronounced among jail inmates – and especially in the first 30 days of incarceration – which is consistent with other reports of mental illness prevalence and the danger of even short stays in local jails. It’s unclear whether the high rates of psychological distress in jails is due to the stressful experience of incarceration or is a result of jailing people in crisis. But these statistics underscore the need to divert people at risk away from jail and connect them to more appropriate services in the community. Policymakers in some places seem to be catching on, but as this report reminds us, the need for more widespread reforms is urgent.

Women in jails, in particular, report high rates of mental health problems compared to men. The findings from this report are consistent with the 2006 report and others that find incarcerated women are more likely than men to have a history of mental health problems. But the new measure of serious psychological distress shows that women are also more likely to report current mental health problems – especially in jails, where as many as 1 in 3 women experiences serious psychological distress.

Graph showing that women in prison and jails are more likely than men to have a history of mental health problems.Consistent with previous reports, female respondents in prisons and jails reported a history of mental health problems more frequently than male respondents.

Graph showing women in prisons and jails experience serious psychological distress at higher rates than men.1 in 3 female respondents in jails reported experiencing symptoms of serious psychological distress – more than twice the rate of men in prisons.

A final noteworthy finding from the new BJS report is the danger to others posed by people struggling with mental health problems. In prisons, people experiencing serious psychological distress are three times more likely to be written up for physical or verbal assault of correctional officers, staff, or other incarcerated people, compared to those without any mental health problems. In jails, people experiencing serious psychological distress are about 2.5 times more likely to assault others.

Again, we are reminded that appropriate treatment of health problems is essential for the health, safety, and well-being of not only affected individuals, but everyone around them, both while incarcerated and upon their return to the community.

 

Footnotes

  1. The new report is based on data from the 2011-2012 National Inmate Survey, and includes two mental health indicators: current “serious psychological distress” and any history of a mental health problem. The new measure of serious psychological distress (see footnote 2) gives a clearer picture of current mental health than the 2006 report, which asked about symptoms over the past year. Conversely, the measure of mental health history is broader than the one used in 2006; it asks respondents whether a mental health professional has ever told them they had a mental or emotional condition instead of limiting responses to just the past year.  ↩
  2. “Serious psychological distress” was measured using the Kessler 6 scale, a tool used to screen for serious mental illness among adults. It asks how frequently in the past 30 days the respondent felt: nervous, hopeless, restless or fidgety, so depressed nothing could cheer them up, everything was an effort, and worthless.  ↩

by Aleks Kajstura, June 21, 2017

The Prison Policy Initiative joined the Wright Petitioners, as well as other advocates in requesting that the FCC block the latest sale of Securus and investigate the company’s continued flouting of FCC regulations.

The filing highlights some of Securus’ most egregious rule-breaking, including predatory practices going back at least a decade. For example,

In short, per-call, per-connection and flat-rate charges have been prohibited for more than a year now. Securus fought the prohibition, and when it lost the fight, Securus it nevertheless continued the practice of charging the fees, but under a different name.

[W]hen the Commission adopted rules to prohibit per-call connection and flat-rate fees, Securus simply renamed its connection fees as “first-minute rates” and began charging even more money for the same prohibited charge.

And the last time Securus was sold, in 2013, the sale was allowed to go through because Securus promised to “not make any ‘changes in rates, terms, or conditions of service as a result of the transaction.’ … Securus failed to comply with that commitment by actually raising [in-state phone] rates across the country.”

If this sale goes through, Securus will ultimately be owned in part by Tom Gores; a curious acquisition for someone who owns the Detroit Pistons. You see, Securus’ shenanigans with the connection charges hit Michigan residents hardest. Gores’ own ties to the state, as well as the Detroit Piston’s own focus on commitment to their community, make one wonder why Gores would be interested in a company that charges some Michigan residents as much as $8.20 for just a single minute of a call from an incarcerated loved one.

Securus continues to fight regulations so that it can continue to exploit the country’s poorest families. While Securus went to court to fight caps on how much it could charge for calls, it re-jiggered its in-state rates to compensate for regulations banning exploitative charges for interstate calls. “As a result, a 15-minute [in-state] call from sixteen (16) county jails in Michigan, and twentyeight (28!) county jails overall, costs more than $20, entirely due to the fact that the first-minute rate at these correctional facilities is at least $5.00 higher than the charge for each additional minute.”

All this is even more distressing in light of what the Washington Post calls “A crushing court decision for prison inmates and their families.” The US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia recently vacated the FCC’s in-state rate caps, and while the courts sort through some remaining questions, they leave families at Securus’ mercy for those calls, as we explained in February.

Securus fights against regulations and then flouts the ones that survive. This is a company that should be investigated, not sold off to the next owner who can stomach it.







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