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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, September 30, 2014

Daniel Wagner and Eleanor Bell of the nonprofit investigative news organization, the Center for Public Integrity, have recently released “Prison bankers cash in on captive customers” and the video Time is Money, part one of a two-part series on the growing web of prison bankers, private vendors, and corrections agencies that profit off the backs of families of the incarcerated.

The Center for Public Integrity’s six-month investigation found plenty of families making necessary sacrifices in order to support and maintain contact with their incarcerated loved one. In order to send money to their incarcerated loved one, family members would sometimes be forced to forego medical care, skip utility bills, and even limit visits with their loved one. Meanwhile, corporations such as JPay, which handles deposits into incarcerated individuals’ accounts, generated well over $50 million in revenue in 2013. Vincent Townsend, president of prison phone company, Pay-Tel Communications, agrees that there’s something wrong with this, telling the Center for Public Integrity, “My industry has abused the public and I’m willing to admit that.” And beyond prison vendors’ profits, there is still the share of profits that gets returned to corrections agencies, often called commissions or kickbacks.

Stay tuned for part two, which will run this Thursday!


by Peter Wagner, September 29, 2014

We just released our 2013-2014 Prison Policy Initiative Annual Report, which I’m thrilled to say details greater progress on more fronts than ever before. A combination of new and ongoing partnerships has allowed us to win solid victories on our ongoing campaigns, step up to the plate on new issues, and also work on strengthening the reform movement by filling in some major national data gaps.

thumbnails of Prison Policy Initiative annual report for 2013-2014

Here are just a few campaign highlights:

  • We made headway towards a national solution to prison gerrymandering, joined with our allies in a lawsuit to protect the voting rights of the citizens of Cranston, RI, supported the new Massachusetts resolution urging the Census Bureau to count incarcerated people at home, and continued to build momentum in state-based campaigns around the country.
  • Our research and advocacy urging the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to protect the families of incarcerated people from the predatory prison and jail phone industry helped to win historic FCC regulation. We’ve continued to generate public support for further reform, including a petition with our partners at SumOfUs that collected 23,585 signatures.
  • We expanded our research on overreaching geography-based penalties to release an in-depth report on sentencing enhancement zones in Connecticut, which helped rally support for reform in the state’s legislature.
  • We took on additional issues, including releasing the first-ever report to document the problem of driver’s license suspensions for drug offenses unrelated to driving, and helping Massachusetts to become the 21st state to ban practice of unnecessarily shackling women who are giving birth while incarcerated.

Generous individual donors’ support also allowed us to bring in new allies to the criminal justice reform movement and fill major data gaps that had been holding the movement back. For example:

Other highlights from the past year include hiring our new Policy & Communications Associate Bernadette Rabuy and bringing several accomplished new board members on board.

While the most recent national statistics on prison population increases were sobering, our accomplishments over the past year are a testament to the collective strength of the national movement for criminal justice reform. I’m so grateful to the partners and supporters who make our work possible. If you are able to join them in making a tax-deductible contribution to our work, your support will go twice as far thanks to a match commitment from a small group of other donors like you.

Thank you! We can’t wait to see what this coming year will bring!


by Peter Wagner, September 28, 2014

A draconian new policy in Michigan’s Ionia County Jail that would ban letters from home is scheduled to take effect today. I just got word that my letter to the editor about this appeared in Friday’s Ionia Sentinel-Standard:

Postcard-only jail mail policy should be canceled

Dear Editor,

The Ionia County Jail’s plan to ban letters from home and instead restrict correspondence to postcards should be canceled. [“Postcards only to jail inmates“, Sept 22]

My organization’s report released last year, “Return to Sender: Postcard-only Policies in Jail,” found that banning letters interrupts the reentry process and increases the chances that people will reoffend in the future. Such policies also present a significant burden to the disproportionately low-income families of people in jail.

All major corrections professional associations know that the social science research is clear: Communication between people in jail and their families and communities should be encouraged, not stifled. No state prison bans all letters, and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s national standards explicitly prohibit postcard-only mail restrictions in jails that hold their detainees.

Banning letters is not just bad policy. It’s also unconstitutional. In March, a federal judge in Oregon declared a jail mail letter ban unconstitutional and ordered the county to pay $802,000 in legal fees to the publisher who brought the lawsuit.

Ionia County Sheriff’s Department should honor their commitment to public safety by canceling its postcard-only policy before it goes into effect on Sunday and does real damage.

Peter Wagner
Executive Director
Prison Policy Initiative


by Bernadette Rabuy, September 26, 2014

Yesterday, Governor Jerry Brown signed SB 1135 (Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson), putting an end to sterilization abuse in California prisons. This is a well-earned victory for our friends at Justice Now, whose hard work allowed the bill to pass unanimously out of both the Senate and Assembly.

“This bill not only affects those still inside prisons and the thousands of women who will go through prisons and jails in the near future; but most importantly it protects generations of children to come who otherwise might not have had an opportunity to exist” says Kelli Dillon who was sterilized in her early 20’s while incarcerated at Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla. Kelli, however, goes on to say “we still need an apology and acknowledgement of what was done to us.” While this bill comes a long way in addressing the abusive and coercive conditions under which sterilizations were happening it is a reminder that work still needs to be done to properly address those who had their ability to have children so callously and egregiously taken away.

We are glad that Governor Brown has taken a step toward reversing California’s shameful legacy of eugenics, and we are hopeful that this bill will support California prisons in more effectively protecting the human rights of the incarcerated.


by Aleks Kajstura, September 26, 2014

Yesterday, Chairman Wheeler and Commissioner Clyburn issued the following joint statement regarding the circulation to their fellow commissioners of proposals for further reform of the inmate calling regime:

The wheels of justice turn slowly, but today we prepare to take the next critical step toward reducing the high price paid by inmates and their families to communicate.

Our recent reforms have reduced interstate long-distance inmate calling rates by nearly 40%, and that is a very positive development. But many families of inmates still face exorbitant rates for in-state calls, not to mention punitive and irrational fees—all of which make the simple act of staying in touch unaffordable.

The Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking we are circulating today proposes a simple, market-based solution to address all these problems. It proposes rules that will ensure that ALL Americans – including inmates and their families – have access to phone service at rates that are just, reasonable and fair. We look forward to working with our colleagues to adopt permanent reform as soon as possible.


by Peter Wagner, September 25, 2014

Federal Communications Commissioner Clyburn and Chairman Wheeler are circulating to their colleagues a new proposal to regulate the prison and jail telephone industry.

There aren’t a lot of details in the Commission’s press release, but it appears the Commissioners want extend their earlier progress to:

  • Extend the regulation and price caps on interstate calls to the vast majority of calls home from prisons and jails that are to numbers within the same state.
  • Further restrict the industry’s payments that can be made to the facilities as these payments drive up the cost of a call.
  • Fully address the ancillary charges for opening, having, funding and closing accounts. Beyond the actual costs of the call, ancillary charges consume an estimated 400 million dollars per year.

The draft isn’t available yet, but when it is, we’ll have a full analysis and be working with our friends to encourage public comment on it. For background, see our phones page.


by Aleks Kajstura, September 23, 2014

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has been seeking information on the interstate rates charged by the prison phone companies, but the companies have been stalling. Now the FCC is considering regulation of intrastate rates as well. Martha Wright and her fellow petitioners don’t expect the companies to cooperate here either, so the petitioners took the task up themselves and submitted the companies’ publicly disclosed rates to the FCC:

While the provided information is not exhaustive, it does illustrate the widely-divergent rates for the three classes of Intrastate ICS calls. The wide range of rates cannot be explained solely by looking at whether a call is local, IntraLATA, or InterLATA. Moreover, since most every ICS call is routed to calling centers outside the originating state, the artificial differences in rates among Local, IntraLATA and InterLATA calls are simply unnecessary. While ICS providers have previously attempted to divert the FCC’s attention from reviewing their tariffed rates, in light of the ICS providers’ past refusal to provide this information, and the fact that these providers went to the extreme measure of obtaining a court order staying the effectiveness of [the FCC’s request for information published in] 47 C.F.R. §64.6060 so that they would not have to provide this information, the ICS providers cannot now argue that the FCC should merely ignore the publically-available information.

The full filing with the attached rates is available in 7 parts on the FCC’s website — take a look at the companies’ disclosures yourself:


by Peter Wagner, September 22, 2014

Next up in our blog series introducing several accomplished new members of the Prison Policy Initiative board: Rachel Bloom. Rachel is Director of Membership and Special Projects at the Funders’ Committee for Civic Participation. We are so glad to have her on our team here at PPI.

Rachel Bloom

Why did you decide to join the PPI board?

Rachel Bloom: I have long been an admirer (and colleague of PPI) and have worked with them over the years. I was working on state criminal justice reform for several years at the national office of the ACLU. As I transitioned to a new job I wanted to continue to work on criminal justice reform. Joining the PPI board seemed like the perfect step.


What does your work focus on? And what’s the connection between that work and PPI?

RB: I work at the Funders’ Committee for Civic Participation, a philanthropic network for foundations that support civic engagement work. Two of the issues I focus on supporting our membership with are the census and redistricting. I find it fitting that the issues that first introduced me to PPI — felony disfranchisement and prison gerrymandering — are still ones that I work on now 8 years later.


What do you think is most unique about the Prison Policy Initiative and the projects it takes on?

RB: I think that PPI has taken on some very distinct projects that no one else was willing to step up to the plate on. I am so proud of PPI for working on such important issues and moving the needle forward on them.

What’s something that you wish more people knew about the Prison Policy Initiative?

RB: I wish that people understood just how broad of a reach PPI has, how many issues we work on and how impactful we are – especially considering the size of our staff and budget. I was first introduced to PPI while working on felony disfranchisement and prison gerrymandering and thought that was the sum total of PPI, little did I know how wrong I was.


by Peter Wagner, September 19, 2014

A check from Charity Sub

In March, we were honored to be one of the three charities chosen by CharitySub as one of three organizations addressing the prison epidemic.

CharitySub is an innovative new approach to online giving. CharitySub members pledge $5 a month, and each month CharitySub picks a new cause and identifies three non-profits making a difference on that cause. Each month, CharitySub members get to pick which of the three organizations receives their $5. Most recently, Charity Sub members have supported organizations addressing STEM education, wildlife welfare, beach conservation, drug free youth, and — this month’s topic — body image.

You can join today to support this month’s organizations and learn about other organizations doing great work in the future.

Thank you, Charity Sub members, for supporting our work. With your help, we won a big victory two weeks ago, convincing Dallas County Texas to reject a video visitation contract that was going to replace the usual visiting hours for families with expensive video visitation. This is the first time the public was able to stop one of these anti-family contracts, so we expect it will have a national effect. Thank you for making this victory for families possible.


by Bernadette Rabuy, September 18, 2014

bjs violent crime 1993-2013This morning, two days after releasing, Prisoners in 2013 the Bureau of Justice Statistics released, Criminal Victimization, 2013. Once again, the BJS released criminal justice figures that reverse the trend of the past few years. After two years of slight increases in the nation’s violent crime rate, the violent crime rate declined slightly from 26.1 victimizations per 1,000 persons in 2012 to 23.2 per 1,000 in 2013. (The crime rate is now re-approaching the record low it hit in 2010 and is far lower than it was two decades ago.)

While there were no statistically significant changes in most other types of crime, the slight drop in the crime rate was mostly the result of a decline in simple assault, which is violence that doesn’t include a weapon or serious injury. The decline in simple assault accounted for about 80% of the change in total violence. The rate of property crime also fell from 155.8 victimizations per 1,000 households in 2012 to 131.4 per 1,000 in 2013.

These figures led to an interesting discussion on Twitter among those of us who have been closely following BJS’ recent releases. In BJS’ Prisoners in 2013, we learned that the state and federal prison population increased slightly from 2012 to 2013, the first overall increase since 2009. Although these figures may point out that it is too early to be celebrating the end of mass incarceration, it is safe to say that the state and federal prison population has held fairly steady compared to the rapid rise of earlier decades.

As Mariame Kaba of Project NIA tweeted, it is extremely difficult to draw a relationship between the imprisonment rate and the crime rate. In Ted Gest’s analysis of Criminal Victimization, 2013, he wrote for The Crime Report,

Critics question why more people should be behind bars while crime is dropping. The basic answer is that there is not necessarily a connection between the two sets of numbers.

The Pew Public Safety Performance Project recently released a data visualization trying to illustrate the complex link between prison and crime. While the BJS’ releases looked at the change in incarceration and crime over the last year, the Pew Public Safety Performance Project recently analyzed state incarceration and crime rates from over the last two decades. They found that the five states with the largest decreases in their imprisonment rates were able to reduce their crime rates. Overall, there isn’t a clear-cut trend, but one thing is clear: locking more people up doesn’t necessarily lead to less crime.

prison and crime

The visualization is a reminder of what we found in our report, Tracking State Prison Growth in 50 States: State policy drives mass incarceration. States with high rates of incarceration have very little to show for it.

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