Travis County, Texas will bring back in-person visits that were replaced with video visits in 2013

by Bernadette Rabuy, September 30, 2015

We are excited to share another victory in the struggle to protect traditional in-person visits from the exploitative video visitation industry. Yesterday, thanks to the hard work of families of incarcerated people, Grassroots Leadership, and other allies, Travis County, Texas legislators voted to bring back in-person visits that were completely eliminated from Austin jails in 2013.

Our January 2015 report, Screening Out Family Time: The for-profit video visitation industry in prisons and jails, found that not only did visits decrease by 28% after the sheriff banned in-person visits, but also that most families could not afford the high cost of remote video chats:

Graph showing that when Travis County offered remote video chats at a lower price, usage went upThrough an open records request, we collected the video visitation usage data of Travis County, Texas from September 2013 to September 2014, finding that when Securus and the county charged the typical rate of $1 per minute, families barely used remote video visits. When promotional rates were offered, usage went up. But overall video visitation remained unpopular even when offered at approximately $0.20 per minute.

Our research found that Texas is one of the states with the greatest use of video visitation in the country, but fortunately families and advocates have been quick to stand up for the right of families to keep in touch and support their incarcerated loved ones. Last fall, thanks to community pressure, Dallas County, Texas rejected a Securus video visitation contract that would have required the elimination of in-person visits. And just last month a statewide law went into effect that protects in-person family visits by clarifying that the Texas Commission on Jail Standard’s requirement of at least two visits per week refers to in-person visits, not computer chats.

While the Texas law is a major step forward in rejecting the use of video as a replacement to in-person visits, more than 30 counties have applied to be exempted. We hope that these counties will follow in the footsteps of Travis County and listen to families who have long been saying video chats are simply not the same as in-person visits.

What would effective state executive or legislative action for prison and jail telephone justice look like?

by Peter Wagner, September 29, 2015

Tomorrow, I’ll be speaking by telephone to the Iowa Governor’s Working Group on Justice Policy Reform about how the state can bring down the the cost of calling home from prisons and jails. The Working Group was announced at the Iowa Summit on Justice & Disparities, organized by the Iowa and Nebraska NAACP where I gave the keynote address.

I thought my notes about what the executive and legislative branches in state governments can do might be useful to advocates in other states, especially while we wait for the Federal Communications Commission to issue their next ruling.

Executive Branch:

  1. Renegotiate the state’s contract with the phone vendor. At a minimum, you should be able to waive your commission and have the vendor reduce the prices proportionally. However, advances in technology (namely cheaper bandwidth) and the industry’s growing understanding that states are becoming more adept at recognizing how some vendors shortchange consumers (such as the costly ancillary fees) may give you even greater leverage. (Note: My understanding is that Iowa controls its phone system more than in most states. Iowa could abandon its goal of turning a profit on the phone system and instantly reduce the rates charged to families of people in state prison.)
  2. Determine if inappropriate or excessive fees are being charged for telephone calls or related accounts. If so, seek redress from the state’s vendor. These can include excessive credit card fees, or fees for retrieving unspent account balances. For a roadmap to this investigation, see
  3. Order the State Treasurer to investigate whether phone companies active in the state are turning over unclaimed customer funds as required by state law. If no, seek redress. For a roadmap to this kind of investigation, see

Legislative branch:

Require the state and its counties to negotiate for phone calls and video visitation services for people in their custody on the basis of the lowest cost to the consumer.

The strongest legislation:

  • Applies to the state correctional system and any facilities operated by counties. (New York’s statute is extremely strong, but it does not apply to counties. The regulations in both Alabama and New Mexico are notable for applying to both the state prisons and the county jails. New Jersey‘s approach is interesting as the state negotiated to allow counties to opt-in to the state’s low-cost contract.)
  • Prohibits commissions and other forms of profit sharing between vendors and the facilities including percentage payments, up-front signing bonuses, inflated “rent payments” or supplying technologies unrelated to the actual telephone service. For more examples of illicit profit sharing, see our August 1, 2013 letter to the FCC.
  • Takes effect immediately and applies to existing contracts. (Bill drafters should be aware that vendors may rush to sign long-term contracts before the law’s effective date.)
  • Requires the disclosure of all ancillary fees in the contracts and seeks to minimize these fees, which have historically doubled the price of a call but do not produce commissionable revenue.
  • Prohibits the vendor from engaging in revenue sharing with third party payment processing and money transfer service providers.
  • Ensures that customers’ leftover account balances be turned over to the state unclaimed funds program, as required by state law.
  • Prohibits vendors from charging “single call fees” to people who do not have accounts with that vendor. These fees should be banned outright, but can also be replaced with a reasonable maximum credit card charge and a maximum call charge — as done by Alabama, where a non-account single call is now capped at $6; considerably less than the $14.99 that some of these vendors previously charged.
  • Addresses video visitation services — the industry may use video visitation to circumvent regulation of phone services. Legislation should prohibit the state or any county from replacing traditional in-person visitation with video visitation. (Many jails nationwide are experimenting with video visitation. There is no charge to use the technology at the jail; but it is inferior to traditional contact or in-person visitation, and it is designed to drive consumers to use expensive video visitation from their homes. The typical rate is $20 for a 20-minute remote visit.)
  • Ensures strong enforcement capability by clarifying the enforcing agency’s jurisdiction in the arena of inmate calling services. And explicitly confirms or strengthens the regulatory authority (perhaps the Iowa Utilities Board or other relevant agency) in this area to ensure that the legislation’s goal of reasonable phone costs remains intact as companies evolve their products to exploit any loopholes in the legislation.

James Kilgore's book Understanding Mass Incarceration: An Introduction to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Time is available now.

by Peter Wagner, September 24, 2015

cover photo of James Kilgore

My copy of James Kilgore’s Understanding Mass Incarceration: A People’s Guide to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Time has arrived!

The publisher offers this summary:

“We all know that orange is the new black and mass incarceration is the new Jim Crow, but how much do we actually know about the structure, goals, and impact of our criminal justice system? Understanding Mass Incarceration offers the first comprehensive overview of the incarceration apparatus put in place by the world’s largest jailer: the United States.”

I was fortunate to be asked to review the book back in April and I provided this blurb:

“The movement for justice has been waiting for an accessible yet authoritative and extensively-researched guide to the systems of over-criminalization and mass incarceration. With this ambitious book, James Kilgore has delivered.”

Congratulations, James! Readers should order the book today, and while they are waiting for it to arrive, read James’ newest article on CounterPunch where he explains that at the current slow pace of reform, the polar icecaps will all be gone long before we end mass incarceration. And, as always, James’ article explains what conversations we as activists need to be having to keep the movement against mass incarceration moving.

Check out our 2014-2015 Annual Report for an overview of our year of leading campaigns and strengthening the movement

by Peter Wagner, September 22, 2015

We just released our 2014-2015 Prison Policy Initiative Annual Report, and I’m thrilled to share some highlights of our work. We had another great year of leading innovative campaigns while also strengthening the movement with long-absent data and resources.

PPI Annual Report 2014-2015 collage

Part of what makes the Prison Policy Initiative unique is that we can identify the data gaps that are stalling the movement against mass incarceration, and we have the creativity to answer the questions that are commonly considered unanswerable. For example, a few months ago, we released, Prisons of Poverty, which made use of a government dataset hiding in plain sight: we updated decades-old pre-incarceration incomes for men in prison and published this data for women for the very first time.

We did all of this while continuing to achieve real change on our focused campaigns:

And as our work has diversified, so has our funding. We’ve brought in new foundation partners, and our individual donors have increased in both number and generosity. If you are able to join our donors in making a tax-deductible investment in our work, your support will now go twice as far thanks to a generous match.

Thank you for your partnership! Please celebrate with me.

John Oliver takes on the under-funding of the public defender system

by Peter Wagner, September 18, 2015

In case you missed it, Last Week Tonight’s John Oliver took on the problems caused by under-funding of the public defender system that defend people accused of crimes but are too poor to hire their own attorneys. This basic constitutional right is being undermined.

(As usual, for this late night HBO show, there is some strong language):

Prison phone companies are sneaky but we've learned how to uncover their tricks. Will you help us stay one step ahead?

by Peter Wagner, September 11, 2015

Three years ago today, the Prison Policy Initiative released our first report exposing the dirty prison and jail telephone industry that seeks to charge children of incarcerated parents $1 per minute for a simple phone call. Almost overnight, we caught the attention of the press and got more people talking.

illustration showing the Securus piggybank gaining money from family funds intended for food, rent and other billsThe Prison Policy Initiative operates on a shoestring budget, but, even for us, this first phones report was special. The author of The Price To Call Home: State-Sanctioned Monopolization In The Prison Phone Industry, Drew Kukorowski, volunteered his time to do the in-depth research that was required to uncover this previously hidden industry, and we managed to pull together the gifts of our individual donors to cover the rest.

The continued support of these donors then allowed us to dig deeper in a second report less than 8 months later, Please Deposit All of Your Money:
Kickbacks, Rates, and Hidden Fees in the Jail Phone Industry
. We exposed:

  • Industry contracts with local jails, which charge even more for calls than in prisons
  • The hidden fees that can double the cost of each call

And because these companies have shown great skill at exploiting loopholes to retain their monopoly profits, our work continues. In January, we exposed that many of these phone companies have expanded their services to video visitation, in which they ban in-person visits to spur demand for expensive video chats.

I’m thrilled to say that our research and advocacy are making a difference, and the Federal Communications Commission is set to protect all families of incarcerated people. These wins are also having huge side effects: the debate over phones is helping this country finally realize how our criminal justice policies often reach outside the prison walls to punish entire families and communities.

I’m expecting the FCC to issue a robust ruling, but this billion dollar industry is going to fight back. These companies are sneaky, and they’ll surely go running to the courts again. But, over the last three years, with the support of our donors, we’ve learned how to follow the money and uncover their dirtiest tricks.

Neither we, nor the 2.7 million children with an incarcerated parent, would ever have gotten this far without a small group of individual donors. Now, we need to continue to stay one step ahead of this exploitative industry. Can you join our supporters and make a gift today?

by Aleks Kajstura, September 10, 2015

image of front page of the comment letterA couple of weeks ago, we wrote about the Bureau of Prisons’ newly proposed rule, which attempts to circumvent financial privacy protections for people who send money to their incarcerated loved ones.

The BOP solicited comments on the proposed rule, and the Prison Policy Initiative, along with Dēmos, Human Rights Defense Center, and the National Consumer Law Center, sent them a 7-page letter explaining why the proposal was a bad idea.

If you’d like to skip over the details, however, our conclusion gives a quick summary of the problem:

Congress enacted the RFPA [Right to Financial Privacy Act] to provide customers of financial institutions with protections against government intrusion into their financial privacy. Although the statute does allow customers to voluntarily disclose their financial information to the government, it is carefully drafted to ensure that such consent is narrowly-tailored and not coerced. The Bureau’s proposed rule runs roughshod over these statutory protections and should not be adopted in its present form.

Moreover, in the rapidly-changing world of prison-based financial services, there are numerous consumer protection problems that are in acute need of attention. It is, therefore, disappointing that the Bureau has chosen to focus its efforts on eroding privacy protections instead of proposing regulatory changes that would benefit incarcerated people and their families by curbing financially abusive practices.

The comment period ended two days ago, but there’s no word yet on when a final decision will be made.

Meet PPI board member and associate professor of political science, Khalilah L. Brown-Dean

by Bernadette Rabuy, September 9, 2015

We are very excited to introduce a member of the Prison Policy Initiative board: Khalilah L. Brown-Dean. Khalilah L. Brown-Dean is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Quinnipiac University. Check out the interview below to learn why Khalilah was drawn to the PPI board:

Khalilah L. Brown-Dean headshot

Why did you decide to join the PPI board?

Khalilah L. Brown-Dean: Academics tend to work in silos. We focus in on a particular problem or set of problems and are rarely in conversation with those beyond our discipline. Joining the PPI Board provides a meaningful opportunity to learn from and work with others who are committed to dismantling our reliance on punishment. I envision my role as helping to bridge the gap between scholars, activists, philanthropists, and legislators.

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

KBD: My work is driven by a central question: How can we make the democratic experience more meaningful? I address this question through the lens of American Politics with a particular emphasis on mass political behavior, public policy, and law. I recently co-authored a report for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies on the contemporary status of voting rights in the United States entitled “Fifty Years of the Voting Rights Act: The State of Race in Politics.” I had the opportunity to present the key findings during the 50th Anniversary of the Bloody Sunday March in Selma, Alabama. Our research addressed how issues such as disenfranchisement, gerrymandering, and hyperincarceration pose monumental challenges to sustaining voting rights and representation. It’s a perfect fit with the work of PPI.

I’m currently completing a project that centers the experiences of African Americans and murder victims’ families within the death penalty repeal movement; two groups disproportionately affected yet grossly underrepresented within this policy space. I advance a concept called “authentic power” to explain how those detrimentally impacted by a policy can get policymakers and other government officials to change the policy in question to their benefit. The work grows out of my experience advocating on behalf of victims’ families whose needs often go overlooked in the realm of criminal justice reform. I also serve on the Board of the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven. This year we launched two major funding initiatives to support community-based re-entry and immigration.

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

KBD: My Graduate School mentor, Dr. William E. Nelson, Jr., once told me that research is only meaningful if it helps address a deceptively simple question, “So what?” PPI’s work directly addresses that question by using data to tell a complex story about the myriad ways punishment policies widen the gap between the principle and the practice of American democracy. I greatly admire PPI’s ability to make its work timely, relevant, and accessible to multiple audiences.

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

KBD: I wish people knew that PPI is a small organization with a big mission and an even bigger commitment to advancing the cause of justice. Before I joined the Board I assumed PPI had a massive staff with unlimited resources given the many cutting-edge and widely-cited reports it produces. I was wrong!

Blaming the 1990s public for mass incarceration is too simple of an answer.

by Peter Wagner, September 3, 2015

For an essay about the Democratic presidential candidates reversing their previous support for tough on crime measures, German Lopez pulls up some fascinating data, although I’m not quite sure he puts the emphasis in the right spot.

First, Lopez is absolutely right that private prisons aren’t why we have mass incarceration. And he’s correct on his main point that “liberals like Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, and Bernie Sanders supported the 1994 crime law that contributed to mass incarceration” simply because, well, they were politicians in the 1990s. At that time, “all politicians — liberal and conservative — t[ook] a tough stance on crime.”

And he’s spot-on about how political power works and why the people powerful enough to run for president in the present typically had to be on the winning side in the past:

Popular demand for tough-on-crime laws in the past doesn’t in any way excuse the devastation lawmakers inflicted on millions of people through mass incarceration and other policies. But based on voters’ concerns in the 1990s, if a politician didn’t contribute to the problem back then, he or she may not be prominent enough to run for president today. That’s how America ended up with mass incarceration — and the seemingly contradictory Democratic presidential candidates for 2016.

However, the article offers an overly simple answer to “the simple truth about why mass incarceration happened.” By concluding that “the public wanted mass incarceration”, Lopez stops one step too short.

Lopez relies on this chart showing the portion of the country that considered crime “the most important problem”:

graph made by German Lopez on Vox showing the percentage of Americans who told Gallup crime was the most important problem from 1966 to 2015

What could possibly be responsible for the number of people identifying crime as “the most important problem” jumping from almost nothing in 1991 to more than half the population in 1993? (And a related question that I’ll address later is: Did the public really want Congress to double down on cops, courts, and cages?)

To be sure, crime was higher than it is now and was rising in the 1980s and early 1990s, but the crime rise on its own was far too subtle to cause that spike in public concern. As the opening to the video that Lopez embeds so brilliantly demonstrates, the media (and ideologues manipulating the media) created that crime focus.

Joel Dyer has a whole chapter in his now-dated book about the rise of what he calls the Perpetual Prisoner Machine focusing on how the television news of that era manipulated public fear of crime because it got good ratings and because crime reporting was inexpensive to produce.

As David Mendoza brilliantly showed last year, Americans are consistently bad at knowing whether the national crime rate is going up or down. Most years, most Americans think crime is rising even though it’s been in decline for years. Of course, it’s hard for a single American to know from personal experience whether crime is rising or falling, so the media has a big influence there. Similar public opinion polling that asks whether crime is rising or falling in your neighborhood shows a much smaller disconnect with actual crime rates, offering clear evidence that Americans aren’t stupid but they are (or were) being lied to.

Now despite that, I think there are reasons in a different set of Gallup data to be optimistic: In contrast to the actions of elected officials, Americans have long favored attacking social and economic problems as a crime control strategy over spending more on law enforcement. Even at the low point in 1994, a clear majority of Americans (51%) supported attacking social and economic problems and only 42% favored using more police and prisons to deter crime:

table from Gallup showing the portion of people who supporting, as an anti-crime strategy, attacking social problems vs more spending on law enforcement from 1989 to 2010

So that gets back to the original question about the presidential candidates who created this problem with their rush to pander to the television cameras: What do the candidates think is the best way to undo the harm their policies caused?

Massachusetts top court says a city can't bar people on the sex offender registry from living in the city.

by Peter Wagner, September 2, 2015

On Friday, Massachusetts’ highest court unanimously struck down a city ordinance that made virtually the entire city off-limits to people on the state’s sex offender registry.

As the ACLU summarized:

In 2012, the ACLU of Massachusetts and the Committee for Public Counsel Services sued to challenge the restrictions, in a case now known as Doe v. City of Lynn. The Court found these restrictions unlawful, unsafe and ineffective. Their ruling will have the effect of invalidating about 40 similar ordinances in communities across the state.

“The Supreme Judicial Court has unanimously recognized that local ordinances seeking to banish sex offenders are incompatible with state law and, in all likelihood, make the public less safe,” says Jessie Rossman, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Massachusetts. “The Court also wrote that ‘the days are long since past’–citing the internment of Americans of Japanese descent and the forced migration of Native Americans–when entire groups of people ‘may be lawfully banished from our midst.'”

map showing Lynn's exclusion zones barring people on the sex offender registry from living in 95% of the city's residential propertiesIn its ruling, the court cited my maps and expert report showing that the city’s ordinance rendered at least 95% of the residential properties in the city off limits to people on the registry. My map of the city’s exclusion zones demonstrated that by making all areas within 1,000 feet or schools, parks and day care centers off-limits to people on the registry, the ordinance made virtually the entire city off-limits.

Like the 2013 decision of a Federal Judge in a Colorado case that I testified in, the Massachusetts court found that the city’s ordinance undermined effective state regulation. As the ACLU explained:

The Court recognized, too, that when lawmakers created the state sex offender registry, the Legislature chose a path meant to protect the public. Ordinances like Lynn’s stand in the way of that intent. “Local residency restrictions undermine the state system by forcing sex offenders into homelessness, which makes them harder to find and destabilizes rehabilitation,” Rossman says.

Ordinances like this also fail to create safe communities. “Our image of the sex offender lurking on the edges of our school playground and parks is simply not true,” explains Dr. Laura Guidry, president of the Massachusetts Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers. Dr. Guidry cites figures from the Justice Department, which show that 93 percent of children who are sexually abused are harmed by family members, close friends or acquaintances. This means that residence restrictions will do nothing to stop the most common situations in which children are sexually abused. “What does work are restrictions based upon a careful risk assessment that looks at the risks posed by each individual adult or adolescent in question,” Guidry says.

The Massachusetts ruling comes as part of a growing national trend, in which high courts and officials in states such as New York (link no longer available) and California have rejected similar restrictions.

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