by Leah Sakala, June 29, 2013

It’s really exciting to see our work being used in creative and compelling ways. For example:

The Prison Index

A new Forbes piece reveals that major international corporations are buying products, such as in-flight airline headphones, manufactured in inhumane Chinese work prisons.

While most people would rightly conclude that profiting from abusive forced labor is unconscionable, the author points out that this might also be a good time for some self-reflection. U.S. consumers regularly buy products from private U.S. corporations that capitalize on prison labor, and there’s a frightening push in this country to cut costs by replacing public sector jobs with work crews of incarcerated people. Citing to the “Prison Labor” section of our publication, The Prison Index, the author warns:

It’s not clear… whether U.S. citizens would feel comfortable using products that were made by prisoners making $0.13 cents per hour. But if U.S. citizens for some reason do become comfortable with it, there are plenty of companies and prison administrators worldwide who would be happy to oblige them.

We released the The Prison Index over ten years ago in order to give a broad overview of the criminal justice system by compiling reliable data on a wide array of criminal justice topics. We anticipated that it would have a shelf life of about two years, but, lo and behold, we’re thrilled that it’s still regularly cited by journalists, activists, and policymakers more than a decade later.

We’re working on raising the funds we need to update and expand The Prison Index. But in the meantime, check it out!


by Leah Sakala, June 28, 2013

Our Executive Director, Peter Wagner, was featured in a Northampton Community TV segment about the Western Mass Hackathon’s Unlocking Prison Phone Data project, along with team member Jake Mitchell:

The project’s website will be launched shortly. Stay tuned!


by Leah Sakala, June 24, 2013

We’re very excited to see that the National Institute of Corrections homepage is featuring our newest prison phone industry report:

NIC website screenshot


by Leah Sakala, June 19, 2013

At sundown 60 years ago today, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were wrongfully executed by the U.S. Government after courts found them guilty of espionage. Now, six decades later, we know that their execution was a direct result of the mass hysteria about the dangers of communism at the beginning of the Cold War.

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg

But what have we learned in the six decades since the Rosenbergs’s wrongful execution? Thanks to the tireless work of organizations like the Innocence Project and pro bono law clinics, the list of innocent people who have been exonerated from death row is steadily growing.

But, as the below graph shows, the struggle to abolish the death penalty still has a long ways to go:

Executions in the United States 1950


by Leah Sakala, June 18, 2013

We just submitted a letter to the Massachusetts Joint Committee on the Judiciary in support of Bill H. 1638, “An Act to establish the Massachusetts innocence commission.”

We wrote:

The experience of incarceration has a profound and lasting negative impact on any person’s life. Passing H. 1638 would be an important step to ensure that innocent people are kept out of the Massachusetts justice system. Furthermore, conviction errors not only destroy lives, but they also waste precious tax dollars that should instead be used to invest in the future by keeping communities safe and healthy.

There is no question that the criminal justice system will make mistakes. The question is whether Massachusetts will put in place a system to ensure that we learn from those mistakes and make wrongful convictions less likely in the future.

Want to get involved? The Massachusetts Conference of United Church of Christ Innocence Commission Task Team is doing great organizing to support this important bill.


by Peter Wagner, June 18, 2013

On Sunday, some families had to choose between wishing dad a Happy Father’s Day on the telephone and putting food on the table. These days, most telephone calls are practically free, but for the 2.7 million kids in the United States who have an incarcerated parent, a call home can break the bank.

Most prisons and jails give their telephone contract to a single company that charges up to $17 for a 15 minute call. Phone bills are high in part because the prisons and jails demand that the phone companies kick back up to 84% of the revenue to the facility, and in part because the Federal Communications Commission has stalled on regulating the industry for more than a decade.

Continue reading →


by Leah Sakala, June 13, 2013

The Mississippi Sun Herald printed my letter to the editor about why the Harrison County Sheriff’s Department’s plan to ban all non-legal letter correspondence to or from the jail is a bad idea:

Starting Monday, the Harrison County Sheriff’s Department plans to prohibit all non-legal mail except postcards. Such a policy would both decrease public safety and place an enormous burden on the families of incarcerated people. Also, as the courts have ruled, other jails have found that banning letters to and from home doesn’t actually cut costs.

My Prison Policy Initiative report, “Return to Sender: Postcard-only Policies in Jail,” finds postcard-only policies jeopardize critical social ties to families and friends, hindering re-entry and increasing the chances that people will commit more crime in the future. These policies also stifle important family communication and raise the price kids and other family members must pay to stay in touch.

If the sheriff’s department wants to increase public safety, it should immediately cancel the proposed postcard-only mail policy. The friends and loved ones of incarcerated people need to be allowed to maintain the connections that keep communities safe and families intact.

Check out our page on postcard-only policies in jails for more information on this harmful trend, and to learn how people around the country are fighting for the right to write letters.


by Leah Sakala, June 11, 2013

Yet another phone company is recognizing the broken nature of the prison phone industry, and this time it’s a big one.

In a letter filed yesterday with the FCC, the second-largest phone company in the prison phone industry, Securus, has agreed that, “certain practices, which serve to artificially inflate the cost of prison phone calls, are egregious and should be eliminated.”

Which practices? For example, Securus writes, charging customers extra fees to refund their money is “restrictive and unwarranted.”

The fact that Securus officials are speaking out against exploitative industry practices is great news. But will they take their own advice and stop charging customers $4.95 just to get their own money back? Only time will tell.


by Peter Wagner, June 3, 2013

Challenge representative Peter Wagner of the Prison Policy Initiative explaining how the FCC organizes data by separate “proceedings”. (Photo: Stephen Brewer)

Sondra Morin, Gyepi Sam, and Al Nutile exploring the name space of the FCC’s database structure. (Photo: Stephen Brewer)

Al Nutile (center) sharing an idea with Gyepi Sam (left) and Peter Wagner (right).

Al Nutile (center) sharing an idea with Gyepi Sam (left) and Peter Wagner (right). (Photo: Stephen Brewer)

John Tobey and daughter weigh in on the database structure. (Photo: Stephen Brewer)

Jake Mitchell reviewing the project plan. (Photo: Stephen Brewer)

The team listening to the ideas of Aaron Smith (rear, left) about his discoveries on how the FCC was organizing their data.

The team listening to the ideas of Aaron Smith (rear, left) about his discoveries on how the FCC was organizing their data. (Photo: Molly McLeod)

Gyepi Sam explains the team's code to the Hack for Western Mass participants at the end of the weekend.

Gyepi Sam explains the team’s code to the Hack for Western Mass group. (Photo: Molly McLeod)

A team of civic-minded hackers in Western Massachusetts have built a tool to make it easier for advocates, policymakers and journalists to access documents and weigh in on telecommunications debates currently before the Federal Communications Commission.

Critical debates about telecommunications policy are archived in plain sight on the FCC’s website, but they are organized in a way that’s extremely difficult to use. Focusing on just one issue currently before the FCC — the possible creation of price caps to reduce the $1/minute cost of phone calls from prisons and jails — the team created an alternative interface for the FCC’s data. This dataset was particularly challenging because it includes the comments of about 100,000 people in approximately 7,000 pdf files, and the content ranged from well-formatted pdf files to bad scans of handwritten letters from incarcerated people.

On the first morning of Hack for Western Mass, I made a short pitch about the prison phone industry and the need to make the data more accessible. A team was formed to make this data searchable and to add some basic tag support so that journalists and others could more easily find relevant filings.

The software written by the team scrapes the FCC website for new comments, downloads the pdf files, extracts or OCRs any text, and stores that text in a database so that it can be searched. When someone finds a document of interest we then link back to the original PDF on the FCC’s website.

Our software also imports all of the meta data currently available on the FCC website (submitter, date, address etc.) and contains a tagging system so that documents can have metadata added that is useful to the people interested in a specific proceeding. For example, the FCC scans in all letters that come in to proceeding in batches and labels them all with the author “numerous”. To fix this, our system allows users to manually tag each page with two pieces of meta data: the state of origin and one of a number of different content types: whether the document or page is from telephone companies, correctional system administrators, state regulators, incarcerated people or the people who aren’t incarcerated and have to pay the high rates required by the monopolistic contracts. With these tags, users can search for keywords and filter by the existing tags. In this way, a journalist or a member of Congress could quickly find the comments of people from their particular area.

Current progress

The basic structure of the site and tool is done, but the data is still being processed. The scraper was written in Python, and a series of Python scripts then convert PDFs to the portable network map format, clean the images using OnPaper, and perform the optical character recognition using GOCR. Rails manages the database and ActiveAdmin GEM provides an interface to manage content for authenticated users. Solr is setup as well for fast search results. The scripts to download and process PDFs from the FCC website work, and thousands of documents are currently being processed. Tagging has already begun in a spreadsheet, and when the data is fully imported, we’ll set it up to add new FCC entries nightly and we’ll make an interface so that the tagging can be crowdsourced.

Future work and adaptability of the code

This project was conceived to empower people concerned about prison telephone regulation to have better access to this data. But it could be readily adapted to other issues of concern at the FCC. (And could, perhaps, inspire some improvements in how the FCC manages and publishes public comments.)

One idea we didn’t get to — and can’t until the text importation is complete — is to use our database of the text of the filings to perform various kinds of statistical analyses about who is making which arguments.

A final website with the data will be unveiled soon after the data processing is complete. The team’s code is available now on Github.

Many thanks to this weekend’s team:

  • Jennie D’Ambroise
  • Sam Duncan
  • Jonathan Hills
  • Jake Mitchell
  • Sondra Morin
  • Alfred Nutile
  • Gyepi Sam
  • Aaron Smith
  • John Tobey

Stay tuned for the public launch of the FCC tool!

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