I need your help. 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 be matched by other donors and go twice as far.

Thank you.
—Peter Wagner, Executive DirectorDonate

by Bernadette Rabuy, January 29, 2015

Yesterday we received some very exciting news! Multnomah County Sheriff Dan Staton is reversing the ban on in-person visits in Portland jails and announced that families will now have the opportunity to visit incarcerated loved ones via video or in-person.

This is a tremendous victory that was made possible by powerful and consistent investigative reporting done by Street Roots — which first broke the story about video visitation in Portland earlier this month — as well as pressure from the public and county legislators who asked the sheriff to reconsider the elimination of in-person visits.

As we explain in our new report, Screening Out Family Time: The for-profit video visitation industry in prisons and jails, families have been extremely unhappy when video visits are implemented to take away traditional visits. Unfortunately, some of the biggest companies in the industry like Securus claim that they must ban in-person visits in order to be profitable. In our report, we found that another company TurnKey Corrections has actually had the opposite experience: if facilities give families more visitation options, they will be more likely to use the paid, remote video visits. Preserving in-person visits can be better for not only incarcerated people and their families, but also for facilities and companies.

The Portland victory is so important because:

  • Multnomah County is amending a contract it had already signed with Securus that explicitly banned in-person visits. According to the sheriff’s press release, “The contract amendment has been verbally agreed to and will be completed by the end of the week.” Apparently, correctional facilities can bring back in-person visits if they really want to.
  • Just like we saw in Dallas County, we have further proof that if the public is activated, we can protect families by beating back harmful visitation policies!

Hopefully, the following Oregon counties will follow Multnomah County’s lead and reverse their bans on in-person visits:

  • Clackamas County
  • Deschutes County
  • Josephine County
  • Lincoln County
  • Northern Oregon Regional Correctional (NORCOR) Facility (serves Gilliam, Hood River, Sherman, and Wasco counties)

Other facilities that have Securus video visitation should also take note and reconsider whether restricting traditional visits is necessary or, rather, unnecessarily punitive.


by Bernadette Rabuy, January 28, 2015

In the busy days following the release of our newest report, Screening Out Family Time: The for-profit video visitation industry in prisons and jails, we stumbled upon another report on video visitation by the Department of Justice’s National Institute of Corrections, Video Visiting in Corrections: Benefits, Limitations, and Implementation Considerations. While we were unable to include the study’s findings in our report, I wanted to point out what I found to be particularly valuable.

Like our report, the DOJ breaks the industry’s products down into three categories depending on where the technology is used: home-based video visiting, facility-based video visiting, and community-based video visiting. We find this terminology to be very helpful and are thinking about using it instead of the terms we use in our report: offsite visits, onsite visits, and regional visitation centers.

I also found the benefits and limitations section to be extremely important as the study presents creative uses for video visitation systems as well as spells out why “video visiting is not for all families.”

Video visitation can:

  • Expand communication options for child welfare-involved families, which can then prevent the termination of incarcerated parents’ parental rights.
  • Connect incarcerated youth and their incarcerated parents who are confined in separate facilities.
  • Help families stay connected when travel conditions are poor. For example, the Oregon Department of Corrections found that in-person visitation declined during the winter months.

Video visitation also has limitations:

  • Families dislike facility-based video visiting because it requires the same time and expenses as traveling to a facility for an in-person visit, with none of the benefits of an in-person visit.
  • Video visitation can be difficult for individuals with visual or hearing impairments or developmental delays as well as for those that that lack computer skills.
  • Illiteracy may make setting up a video visitation account difficult.
  • Video visitation companies’ websites may not provide scheduling instructions or customer service in multiple languages.
  • Some research has found that video visitation is less effective than in-person communication. For example, research has found that an incarcerated individual’s credibility was questioned more often when the individual appeared via video for a bail or immigration hearing than if the individual appeared in-person.

Overall, the study stresses, “the value of video visiting can be maximized when the goals of the facility are balanced with the needs of incarcerated individuals and their families.” The study describes why families are dissatisfied when facility-based video visiting is their only visitation option and establishes, “Traditional in-person visiting is a best practice that should continue in all correctional settings when possible.”

The report is an especially valuable resource for state prisons and county jails considering video visitation as it includes sample checklists and surveys that should be utilized when evaluating video visitation proposals or implementing video systems.

For the report: http://nicic.gov/library/029609
For more on video visitation: http://www.prisonpolicy.org/visitation/


by Sarah Hertel-Fernandez, January 23, 2015

book cover for Arresting CitizenshipOne of the young men interviewed by Amy E. Lerman and Vesla M. Weaver in their new book Arresting Citizenship says that the bias of crime control begins at birth: “we got that bull’s eye on our back as soon as we’re born.”

Lerman and Weaver explore how the criminal justice system warps the social and civic landscape of the United States. The experience of citizenship for an increasingly large group of Americans in this country is being shaped by a criminal justice system that does not necessarily protect them or their access to and expression of the rights that citizenship should guarantee.

“Civil death” has been used to describe felon disenfranchisement, but what the authors describe is much more far-reaching and insidious: a kind of civil purgatory to which a growing portion of our population is banished. In the wake of the protests following the events in Ferguson, Mo., with the extrajudicial killings of unarmed black people by police officers finally getting widespread (if not always sympathetic) news coverage, this book is especially timely.

Arresting Citizenship covers more than just those who pass in and out of correctional institutions, exploring the experiences of what Lerman and Weaver call the “custodial citizen”, a term that encompasses all those in contact with the criminal justice system. This includes anyone deemed a “criminal suspect”, a large proportion of whom “have never been found guilty of any crime in a court of law”, yet who are nonetheless subjected to searches, stops, frisks, detainment, invasions of privacy, and attacks from law enforcement officials. The justifications for such targeting, as evidenced by a study of police stops in New York, are largely circumstantial, but are frequently coded in blatantly racist and classist ways: e.g. “walking in a high crime area”, “wearing clothes commonly used in a crime”, etc. As a result, the overwhelming majority of custodial citizens are poor people of color. As Arresting Citizenship makes clear, the expansion of policing, and the increasing harshness of policing and sentencing, is not correlated with an increase in crimes being committed and in fact has little to do with actual crime rates.

The authors draw on both quantitative and qualitative research, including interviews with “custodial citizens”. The perspectives collected from their interviewees serve as a compelling framework for their quantitative findings; after all, they write, “Citizenship and democratic political standing are most appropriately measured not only by the laws in the books but also how citizens conceptualize their state and their place in it.” The collected stories reveal the way the criminal justice system actively isolates, stigmatizes, and disempowers custodial citizens, fostering alienation and fear.

Lerman and Weaver write that we must “…assess America’s criminal justice institutions by the extent to which their practices unnecessarily violate the democratic principles of voice, responsiveness, and accountability.” As the recent events in Ferguson and around the country offer a vivid, nightmarish example of the lack of accountability for law enforcement, this book offers rigorous and empirical context for why people across the country are expressing such outrage.

Arresting Citizenship is a powerful reminder of the work that needs to be done to preserve and expand the democratic principles of voice, responsiveness, and accountability.


by Leah Sakala, January 20, 2015

Next up in our blog series introducing several accomplished new members of the Prison Policy Initiative board: Amanda Alexander. Amanda is a Soros Justice Fellow and attorney in the University of Michigan Law School Child Advocacy Law Clinic. She directs the U of M Law School Prison & Family Justice Project, which serves families divided by incarceration and the foster care system using a combination of direct representation, know-your-rights education, targeted litigation, and advocacy.

Amanda Alexander headshot

What does your work focus on?

Amanda Alexander: As a lawyer and advocate, my work focuses on helping families thrive by fighting for change in our criminal justice system. Two years ago I moved home to Michigan to start the Prison & Family Justice Project, which serves families impacted by incarceration. A single arrest can trigger all sorts of consequences for a family—it might cause a mother to lose her job or housing, or cause children to enter foster care. The Prison & Family Justice Project represents incarcerated parents who may be at risk of losing their parental rights, and offers family law workshops in jails, prisons, and re-entry centers to help parents maintain ties with their children and provide for their care. The project also trains Department of Human Services workers and other child welfare professionals on how to engage incarcerated parents. My work also involves systemic advocacy around several of the issues PPI tackles, such as removing barriers to communication and visitation for families with incarcerated loved ones.

Why did you decide to join the PPI board?

AA: I admire PPI’s work. Whenever they put out a new report, I’m eager to read it and share it with friends and colleagues who I know will find it useful in their own work. Spreading the word about PPI comes naturally, so I’m honored to support its work as a board member.

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

AA: PPI is about results. It takes on very targeted projects, does excellent research, and puts out a bold message—the result is often concrete policy change within a short period of time. PPI shaped the conversation about prison gerrymandering, and won victories in Maryland and New York that it’s now replicating around the country. PPI’s role in the Prison Phone Justice campaign can’t be overstated—they played a key role in capping the cost of inter-state prison phone calls. Now they have their sights set on capping the cost of in-state calls, which will be a huge victory for families. PPI takes on ambitious fights — and wins.

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

AA: It’s amazing to me that Peter and the PPI staff are so clued in to what’s happening at the federal level and at very local levels. They manage to stay on top of what’s happening in county jails around the country, and to support local partners in struggles at the city level. I wish more people knew the breadth of PPI’s network, and what a great partner it is to organizations at the local and national levels.

Amanda also chatted with us on camera recently about how she uses PPI’s work and why she joined our board:


January 14, 2015

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: January 14, 2015

Contact:
Bernadette Rabuy
(413) 527-0845

Easthampton, MA — New technology that is supposed to make it easier for families to stay in touch with incarcerated loved ones is actually doing harm, charges a new report by the non-profit Prison Policy Initiative.

While prison and jail video visitation is often described as similar to well-known free services such as Skype or FaceTime, these pay-to-visit video systems are often being used to replace essential human contact. The report, Screening Out Family Time: The for-profit video visitation industry in prisons and jails, finds that most county jails are implementing video visitation with an approach that is a step backwards for families and correctional best practices: video visitation actually punishes families.

Rather than offering video visitation as a supplement to traditional visitation, county jails and video visitation companies are replacing free, in-person visits with free but restricted onsite video visits and low-quality, remote video visits that cost up to $1.50 per minute. “Families are unhappy with video visitation because it replaces the real living person on the other side of the glass with a grainy computer image,” explains Bernadette Rabuy of the Prison Policy Initiative.

“While this technology goes back to the 1990s, this report provides what has before now been entirely lacking: a comprehensive national survey of the video visitation industry starting at its promised benefits and analyzing how it works in the real world,” says Peter Wagner, Executive Director of the Prison Policy Initiative.

The Prison Policy Initiative analyzed over a quarter of the industry’s contracts with state prisons and county jails to describe the trends and contrast the industry’s marketing claims with the evidence. The report finds that, with some notable exceptions, this technology is poorly designed, does not work well, and makes a trying time for families even more challenging.

The report offers 23 recommendations for federal and state regulators, legislators, correctional facilities, and the video visitation companies, all with an eye towards making video visitation into a positive, rather than negative, communication option.

For the executive summary, see: http://www.prisonpolicy.org/visitation/exec_summary.html
For the report, see: http://www.prisonpolicy.org/visitation/report.html

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by Peter Wagner, January 14, 2015

On Monday evening, we submitted 6 major briefings on the need to regulate the prison and jail telephone industry to the Federal Communications Commission:

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