by Chandra Bozelko, December 30, 2015

In its new report, “Policing for Profit,” the Institute for Justice (IJ) details exactly how law enforcement and prosecutors snatch “…hundreds of millions in cash, cars homes and other property – regardless of the owner’s guilt or innocence.”

While forfeiture is hardly a new proceeding, its use has clearly become overuse in the last 30 years if the IJ’s numbers are any indication. Annual deposits from forfeiture reached $4.5 billion, an amount almost 50 times higher than it was three decades ago.

Here’s a quick overview of how it works:

Civil forfeiture accounts for 87% of all government seizure, according to the IJ’s analysis. This fact is much more disturbing than the sheer amount of money and property involved. It means that criminal forfeiture accounts for only 13% of all government seizure of property. So almost 90% of forfeiture proceeds come from situations where citizens may have done nothing wrong: we’ve legalized plunder.

Calling civil forfeiture “one of the most controversial practices in the American criminal justice system” seems appropriate in light of the stories of victims of civil forfeiture told through the report.

  • In 2014, Charles Clarke had his life savings – $11,000 – confiscated at the Ciincinnatti/Northern Kentucky Airport when security officials thought his luggage smelled like marijuana. No drugs were ever found in his property and the mere suspicion as to why Clarke was traveling with such a large amount of cash (his bank had no local branches and his family was moving so he understandably wanted to keep his money with him) justified the seizure of every dollar the man had to his name.
  • Also in 2014, the IRS cleaned out Fairmount, North Carolina convenience store owner Lyndon McLellan’s entire business account – $107,000 – because the deposits to the account were less than $10,000 and the tax agency suspected him of “structuring” his deposits so as to evade certain reporting requirements. McLellan was not the person making the deposits – that was his niece – and she was only following the bank teller’s instructions because the smaller deposits meant less paperwork for the bank.
  • The same happened to Carole Hinders of Iowa, who deposited the proceeds of her cash only restaurant faithfully and honestly. The IRS saw a number of cash deposits and assumed that Hinders was somehow committing a crime, so the federal government’s tax arm seized $33,000 from her account.
  • Chris Sourovelis of Philadelphia almost lost his house when his son sold $40 of drugs outside his home. Sourovelis had to appear nine times in forfeiture court to keep his rightfully owned property when he hadn’t even been charged with, much less committed, any crime.

And, if these stores weren’t bad enough, the report exposes another level of insidious incentives in our forfeiture laws: equitable sharing. A program of ‘equitable sharing’ allows local and state law enforcement agencies to use federal laws to collect property for the federal government with the understanding that they will get a kick-back from the collective forfeiture pie.

There is hope that things are turning around and improving; just last week, the New York Times reported that the Department of Justice has placed the sharing program on hold because Congress took $1.2 billion dollars from the asset forfeiture program to cover budget shortfalls.

The biggest revelation of the Institute for Justice’s “Policing for Profit” report is that our justice system is no longer about public safety and stopping people who break the law. The United States has allowed justice to careen so out of control that it’s now unabashedly grabbing up the innocent and bankrupting them for the sake of government revenue.

2015 was a year of big victories for the Prison Policy Initiative. Beyond a record number of ground-breaking reports, our campaigns won major policy changes.

by Peter Wagner and Bernadette Rabuy, December 29, 2015

2015 was a year of big victories for the Prison Policy Initiative. Beyond a record number of ground-breaking reports, our campaigns took some very big steps forward and, in some cases, those victories culminated in major policy changes.

Here are some of the biggest wins in our campaigns this year:

Telephone justice

  • The Federal Communications Commission extended their regulation of inter-state calls to also apply to in-state calls, and further lowered the maximum rates and fees that can be charged. The FCC is also now requesting comments on closing the last of the loopholes, which include video visitation, email, etc.

Video visitation industry

    thumbnails of press coverage and editorial support on reining in the video visitation industry

  • Our report Screening Out Family Time: The for-profit video visitation industry in prisons and jails exposed county jails and private companies working together to replace traditional in-person visits with expensive video chats and grainy computer images.
  • Our report, combined with investigative reporting by Portland, Oregon’s Street Roots, led the Multnomah County Sheriff to announce that he would amend the county’s Securus video visitation contract to bring back in-person visits. This was the first time that a video visitation contract was ever amended to bring back in-person visits.
  • We collaborated with comedians to produce four hilarious short videos that take on the video visitation industry’s offensive claim that expensive, glitchy video visitation is just like Skype.
  • We shamed the largest provider of video visitation, Securus, into changing its policy of explicitly requiring, right in its contracts, that correctional facilities using its service ban in-person visitation. Because Securus has shifted responsibility for this repugnant decision to elected sheriffs, we now have more political leverage to encourage the use of video visitation as a supplement to in-person visitation and never as a replacement.
  • Thanks in part to our research and advocacy, a new law in Texas recognizes that virtual visits are not the same as in-person visits and mandates that each county jail provide a minimum of two in-person visits each week.
  • The Federal Communications Commission has requested comments on video visitation, due January 19, 2016.

Prison gerrymandering

Sentencing enhancement zones

Driver’s Licenses

  • Supported by our Suspending Common Sense report, the Massachusetts Senate unanimously voted to repeal a law which automatically suspends the driver’s licenses of people convicted of drug offenses unrelated to driving. This law, a relic of the War on Drugs, makes it harder for people with drug convictions to rebuild their lives. The unanimous support of the Senate and the strong state-wide editorial support from the Boston Herald to the Boston Globe to the Berkshire Eagle has us feeling good about our chances in the House.

Thank you for helping us do all of this work. Here’s to an even more successful 2016!

For more on these and other victories, be sure to see our most recent annual report.

2015 was another big year for ground-breaking data visualizations from the Prison Policy Initiative. These are our 10 favorites.

by Peter Wagner and Bernadette Rabuy, December 29, 2015

2015 was another big year for ground-breaking data visualizations from the Prison Policy Initiative. These are our 10 favorites:

pie chart showing the number of people locked up on a given day in the United States by facility type and the underlying offense using the newest data available in December 2015
From: Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2015 where we offer some much needed clarity on the size and scope of mass incarceration by piecing together this country’s disparate systems of confinement.


graph showing the incarceration rate for women per 100,000 women of founding members of NATO with the United States having a far higher rate than the other countries

We made this graph comparing the United States’ use of prisons and jails for women with its international peers for our report States of Women’s Incarceration: The Global Context.


We made this interactive graphic of “World Women’s Incarceration Rates If Every U.S. State Were A Country” for our collaboration States of Women’s Incarceration: The Global Context with Russ Immarigeon. See also, in the full report, our graph of the growth in women’s incarceration in prisons and jails from 1910 to last year.


As part of our collaboration with the Justice Policy Institute on The Right Investment? Corrections Spending in Baltimore City we made an interactive map showing how much the state of Maryland spends each year to lock up residents of each community in Baltimore and suggesting better investments.


Travis County, Texas video visitation price vs. usage
That price-gouging of families of incarcerated people reduces use of video visitation is just one of the findings from Screening Out Family Time: The for-profit video visitation industry in prisons and jails. (And don’t miss the full report for graphical illustrations of how video visitation works and why grainy video chats are not the same as in-person visitation.)


distribution of annual incomes for incarcerated men prior to incarceration and non-incarcerated men, ages 27-42

distribution of annual incomes for incarcerated women prior to incarceration and non-incarcerated women, ages 27-42

These two graphs were produced for our report uncovering the pre-incarceration incomes of the imprisoned by gender, race, and ethnicity and comparing them to people of similar ages of people on the outside. For the whole report, see Prisons of Poverty: Uncovering the pre-incarceration incomes of the imprisoned


So how large is 1,500 feet? That distance isn’t just a number; it’s taller than the Eiffel Tower, longer than 5 football fields, and it’s more than enough to blanket all of Connecticut’s urban areas in overlapping sentencing enhancement zones. With the help of two of our interns, Elydah Joyce and Arielle Sharma, and a member of our Young Professionals Network, Jacob Mitchell, we produced an animation that we expect will help other states follow Connecticut’s lead in rolling back the worst laws passed at the height of the anti-drug hysteria of the 1980s.


chart showing how many counties are overrepresented with Black people in prison compared to portion of Black people in free population

This chart from The Racial Geography of Mass Incarceration shows that in many counties Black people in prison are overrepresented compared to the portion of Black people in the free population. Notably, many of these counties are concentrated in the far left of the graph, where Blacks make up 20% to 60% of the prison populations yet less than 5% of the free population.


Two of the four maps provided show the large numbers of facilities dispersed widely across the nation that lacked racial or ethnic parity between incarcerated people and correctional staff in 2005. The final two maps show far fewer facilities that have achieved racial or ethnic parity. Facilities with parity are concentrated primarily in states or parts of states with large Black and Latino populations.
These maps from In prisons, Blacks and Latinos do the time while Whites get the jobs show that most correctional facilities with more than 100 incarcerated Blacks or Latinos are located in places where hiring Black and Latino staff in proportional numbers to the incarcerated population is extremely difficult. The small number of facilities that have such parity are, unsurprisingly, located in parts of the country with large populations of Black or Latino residents.

Our colleagues helped build momentum for criminal justice reform by providing key research and proposing reforms that could help our nation reduce its overuse of incarceration. Our favorites from 2015.

by Peter Wagner and Bernadette Rabuy, December 29, 2015

2015 was another year of growing momentum for ending mass incarceration. Our colleagues helped build that momentum by providing key research and proposing reforms that could help our nation reduce its overuse of incarceration. These are some of our favorite reports produced by our colleagues in 2015:

And don’t forget to check out our reports page for this year’s original Prison Policy Initiative research.

by Peter Wagner and Bernadette Rabuy, December 28, 2015

Earlier today, we published our list of the best investigative criminal justice journalism of 2015. Here at the Prison Policy Initiative we enjoy seeing journalists, artists, advocates, the public, etc. use our research in new, clever ways. Today, we share some of our favorite stories of 2015 featuring our work and staff:

  • Editorial: F.C.C. Makes Telephone Calls for Inmates Cheaper
    by The New York Times Editorial Board
    The New York Times, October 26, 2015
    Recognizing the FCC for its important step capping the rates of all calls home from prisons and jails, The New York Times Editorial Board calls for the FCC to do more to prevent future abuses:

    There’s one big task left: to apply similar rules to newer technologies — like email, voice mail and person-to-person video — which are subject to the same kinds of abuses found in the telephone industry.

    If you haven’t already, be sure to check out our January 2015 report on video visitation in prisons and jails, which was referenced in the editorial.

  • Editorial: Women Behind Bars
    by The New York Times Editorial Board
    The New York Times, November 30, 2015
    This editorial highlights our report States of Women’s Incarceration: The Global Context, calling for public scrutiny of our nation’s overuse of incarceration for women.
  • Screening visitors
    The Economist, January 24, 2015
    Spurred by our report on video visitation, The Economist explains why the growth in video visitation isn’t necessarily a happy development for families:

    Most jails let relatives make a few free video calls if these are conducted within the prison itself. But travelling a long way, only to sit behind a computer screen, is time-consuming and frustrating.

  • Technical difficulty: Sheriff Staton’s move to replace in-person visits at Multnomah County jails with video visiting raises questions
    by Emily Green
    Street Roots, January 21, 2015
    Breaking the story on Multnomah County, Oregon’s video visitation plans, this Street Roots article helped get the Multnomah County Sheriff to reverse his ban on in-person visits.
  • America’s Horrifying Mass-Incarceration System, In 1 Chart
    by Nick Wing
    Huffington Post, December 9, 2015
    This article uses our recent report, Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2015, to explain why ending mass incarceration will require an ambitious, comprehensive effort.
  • An offense that should come off the books
    by The Boston Globe Editorial Board
    The Boston Globe, September 21, 2015
    Referring to our 2014 report, Suspending Common Sense in Massachusetts, The Boston Globe calls for the immediate repeal of automatic driver’s license suspensions for drug offenses unrelated to driving, an outdated law from the tough-on-crime era of the 1980s and 1990s.
  • The Persuasiveness of a Chart Depends on the Reader, Not Just the Chart
    by Scott Berinato
    Harvard Business Review, May 27, 2015
    Berinato highlights our chart comparing the incarceration rate of the U.S. to those of other founding NATO members as a good example of a chart that creates an “immediate, visceral reaction.”
  • Video: Who profits from the billion-dollar prison phone business?
    Al Jazeera, September 30, 2015
    In this 5-minute video, hear from loved ones of incarcerated people and Executive Director Peter Wagner about how $1 per minute phone calls home from prisons and jails keep families apart.
  • Prison Vendors See Continued Signs of a Captive Market
    by David Segal
    The New York Times, August 29, 2015
    Columnist David Segal travels to the American Correctional Association conference to meet the companies who provide products and services to prisons to inquire whether the companies are worried about how “prison reform” might impact their bottom lines. (Spoiler: They aren’t scared, but for why, you’ll need to read the article.)
  • West Baltimore offers vivid reminder of failed mass incarceration policy
    by Amadou Diallo
    Al Jazeera, April 30, 2015
    Diallo uses our report, The Right Investment?, to provide some context about Sandtown-Winchester, the Baltimore neighborhood that Freddie Gray called home:

    Abandoned row houses and vacant lots dot this area, which is marked by high unemployment and low-performing schools — yet Maryland’s state budget allocates $17 million each year just to this single neighborhood. That money goes not to job training, family services or education, but solely to incarceration.

  • How Does Prison Gerrymandering Work?
    by Alex Mayyasi
    Priceonomics, October 20, 2015
    New to prison gerrymandering? Read this thorough article on how prison populations can distort political representation and then find out what solutions are out there.
  • Family visits make prisoners less likely to reoffend. But some states make visiting hard.
    by German Lopez
    Vox, October 22, 2015
    In response to our report that found that extreme distances actively discourage family visits, Lopez writes:

    Part of the visitation problem is also caused by mass incarceration itself. As states have struggled with overcrowding in their facilities, they’ve been more likely to turn to remote or out-of-state prisons to house inmates. But these far-off locations make it much more difficult for friends and family to reach inmates.

    Lopez then goes on to explain that making prison visits difficult for families of the incarcerated is shortsighted:

    The point of the criminal justice system is to keep us safe, and taking research-backed steps to prevent inmates from reoffending achieves that goal.

As 2015 winds to a close, the Prison Policy Initiative wanted to recognize eight investigative news stories that brought public attention to key issues in criminal justice reform.

by Peter Wagner and Bernadette Rabuy, December 28, 2015

As 2015 winds to a close, the Prison Policy Initiative wanted to recognize eight investigative news stories that brought public attention to key issues in criminal justice reform. In no particular order:

  • Hundreds of South Carolina Inmates Sent to Solitary Confinement Over Facebook
    by Dave Maass
    Electronic Frontier Foundation
    An exposé finding that in some states incarcerated people are sent to solitary confinement for years for having Facebook accounts, even if family members on the outside are the ones accessing the accounts. In response to the original exposé, Facebook has taken steps to reform its policy of taking down incarcerated people’s Facebook accounts for state Departments of Corrections.
  • Prison Born
    by Sarah Yager
    The Atlantic
    Shining light on the rarely talked about experience of women in prison, this article focuses on the 1 in 25 women who are pregnant behind bars.
  • Probation May Sound Light, but Punishments Can Land Hard
    by Shaila Dewan
    The New York Times
    Probation can sound infinitely better than a jail sentence, but this article describes how too often probation sets people up to fail.
  • Chain Gang 2.0: If You Can’t Afford This GPS Ankle Bracelet, You Get Thrown in Jail
    by Eric Markowitz
    International Business Times
    Electronic monitoring is often seen as an “alternative to incarceration,” but Markowitz’s special report finds that for-profit GPS tracking ends up being a perfect recipe for sending people back to jail.
  • Amid Backlash Against Isolating Inmates, New Mexico Moves Toward Change
    by Natasha Haverty
    The second in a three-part series on solitary confinement in the U.S., this 6-minute story covers growing interest in curbing the use of isolation in prisons and the challenges that come with implementing reforms.
  • For Men in Prison, Child Support Becomes a Crushing Debt
    by Eli Hager
    The Marshall Project
    Is it reasonable to expect men in prison to pay child support? Is exempting incarcerated fathers fair? This Marshall Project feature finds that many incarcerated fathers are racking up hundreds of dollars in child support debt each month.
  • Should Prison Sentences Be Based on Crimes That Haven’t Been Committed Yet?
    by Anna Maria Barry-Jester, Ben Casselman and Dana Goldstein
    It’s becoming increasingly common to hear talk of “risk assessments” and “evidence-based” tools in criminal justice. This story and interactive tool unpack how risk assessments work and describe what makes Pennsylvania’s plans different: it would be the first to use risk assessment in sentencing rather than, for example, at the pretrial phase.
  • An Inmate Dies, and No One is Punished
    by Michael Winerip and Michael Schwirtz
    The New York Times
    This article chronicles the brutal death of Leonard Strickland, one in a larger trend of troubling beatings by corrections officers in New York State prisons. This recent New York Times article details the steps New York State prisons are now taking to better track complaints about corrections officers.

Note: The purpose of this list is to highlight journalists who filled critical gaps in the public’s knowledge about criminal justice issues. To keep things fair, we excluded from consideration any articles that we are quoted in and articles that we consulted on in any way.

The Iowa Governor's Working Group On Justice Policy takes up our recommendations on phone justice.

by Peter Wagner, December 28, 2015

In August, I gave the keynote address at the Iowa-Nebraska NAACP’s
Iowa Summit on Justice & Disparities and a major topic was the need for prison phone justice. At that meeting, Governor Brandstad announced a Governor’s Working Group On Justice Policy to address several problems, including the need for phone justice.

In September, I testified by phone to the Working Group about steps Iowa could take.

In November, Governor Brandstad announced the Working Group’s recommendations (summary | details ) which he wanted introduced in the next legislative session. The proposed phone reforms include:

  • Renegotiate contracts with the Iowa Communications Network and seek bids from other vendors with the goal of reducing rates paid by prison inmates and their families.
  • Transition to a per minute calculation for call costs rather than a flat fee.
  • Enable and encourage counties to partner with one another or the Department of Corrections to negotiate more favorable rates with phone vendors.

Eleven ideas for criminal justice reforms that are ripe for legislative victory.

by Bernadette Rabuy and Peter Wagner, December 21, 2015

With the 2016 legislative sessions about to start, it’s time to unveil our third annual list of under-discussed but winnable criminal justice reforms.

The list is published as a briefing with links to more information and model bills, and it was recently sent to reform-minded state legislators across the country. The reform topics we think are ripe for legislative victory are:

  • Ending prison gerrymandering
  • Lowering the cost of calls home from prison or jail
  • Repealing or reforming ineffective and harmful sentencing enhancement zones
  • Protecting in-person family visits from the video visitation industry
  • Stopping automatic driver’s license suspensions for drug offenses unrelated to driving
  • Protecting letters from home in local jails
  • Requiring racial impact statements for criminal justice bills
  • Repealing “Truth in Sentencing”
  • Creating a safety valve for mandatory minimum sentences
  • Immediately eliminating “pay only” probation and regulating privatized probation services
  • Reducing pretrial detention

Let us know what you think of this year’s list. We look forward to working together to make 2016 a year of great progress for justice reform!

On Friday, the FCC's latest order was published in the Federal Register.

by Aleks Kajstura, December 21, 2015

FCC Order

On Friday, the FCC’s latest order was published in the federal register.

The new fee limits and rate cap of 11¢ per minute for prepaid calls from prison is effective March 17, 2016 and the fee limits and tiered rates (14¢-22¢) for calls from jail go into effect on June 20, 2016.

(For a detailed summary of the new fee and rate caps, check out the FCC’s October 22 press release.)

FCC Seeks Comment

The FCC also published a call for comments on “ways to promote competition for Inmate Calling Services (ICS), video visitation, rates for international calls, and considers an array of solutions to further address areas of concern in the (ICS) industry.”

Comments can be submitted online for docket number 12-375; comments are due January 19, 2016, followed by reply comments two weeks later.

U.S. locks up more than 2.3 million people in prisons, jails, and other facilities on any given day. New report provides foundation for long overdue conversation about criminal justice reform.

December 8, 2015


Bernadette Rabuy
brabuy [at]

Easthampton, MA — With 2.3 million people locked up in more than 7,000 correctional facilities operated by thousands of agencies, getting the big picture is anything but easy. Today, with the publication of Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2015, the Prison Policy Initiative provides the answer to how many people are locked up in the U.S., where, and why. Building upon our groundbreaking 2014 report that, for the first time, aggregated the disparate systems of confinement, this updated version contains further detail on why people are locked up:

pie chart showing the number of people locked up on a given day in the United States by facility type and the underlying offense using the newest data available in December 2015

As we discuss in our report, looking at the “whole pie” allows us to cut through the fog to answer key questions such as:

  • After state prisons, what is the next biggest slice of confinement?
  • How does the number of people that cycle through correctional facilities in a year differ from the number of people locked up on a particular day?
  • How important is it to ending mass incarceration that we reform the policies that increasingly detain people pretrial?
  • How many people nationwide are imprisoned because their most serious offense was a drug offense?
  • How does the number of people in correctional facilities compare to the even larger number of people on probation and parole?

Armed with the big picture, Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2015, gives the public and policymakers the foundation to now consider the types of changes that would end the country’s reign as the number one incarcerator in the world.

The report is available at:


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