Jail churn and pre-trial detention are even more important than a quick look at the data suggests. Here, we correct for the fact that a sizable number of people are housed in jails for other agencies.

by Peter Wagner, December 8, 2015

In August, I wrote a piece called Jails Matter. But Who is Listening? about the importance of focusing on jails, given their locus as the place where most of the people who go to prison or jail in a year are initially locked up.

In that piece, I talked about the tremendous churn of people through our jail system (11 million people a year) and about how 99% of the growth in the jail population in the last 15 years has been in the “unconvicted” or pretrial population. Only a minority of people in jails have been convicted and are serving a typically short misdemeanor sentence. Of the larger, unconvicted group, I wrote:

These people are legally considered innocent until proven otherwise in court. But if they don’t have the money to post bail, the principle that they are legally innocent is not enough to keep them from being locked up until trial.


getting to the bottom of this country’s jail problem is going to depend on both reducing the number of people we send to jail each year and making it far easier for those who have been arrested to resume their lives while the judicial process proceeds.

Holding people in jail for even a few days has been demonstrated to do permanent harm, so this should be an obvious priority. If you are, at this point, fully convinced of that point, you can stop reading now. If you needed to know that more than 99% of the jail population growth is pretrial detainees, or if you are really interested in jail data calculations, keep reading.

We just connected the dots on an interesting quirk in how the data for convicted/unconvicted is calculated for jails that makes focusing on the flawed policies that send people to jails and keep them there even more important.

Jails, as we know, house people for other agencies, with the two largest groups being for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at about 2% of their population, and also for state and federal prisons.

As the Bureau of Justice Statistics shows in Prisoners in 2014, 81,738 people were held in jails on behalf of federal or state prisons. The numbers of people held for federal authorities is small, but the number held for state authorities constitutes 6% of the total state prison population. Some states don’t do this at all, but in Kentucky, Mississippi, and Tennessee, more than a quarter of the state prison population is in local jails, and in Louisiana more than half of the state prison population is in the local jails.

So what’s important here is that there are a lot of people reported as convicted in jails who aren’t serving short misdemeanor sentences after being convicted in local courts but are serving state or federal prison sentences and just housed in local jails.

Of course, this isn’t the Bureau of Justice Statistics’s fault. They are asking a very useful question and getting useful data that answers their question. It just so happens that their data needs some adjustment to answer the slightly different question of: How important is it for local officials to focus on pretrial/unconvicted populations?

The answer: It’s very important that we get local officials to focus on the policies that impact the size of their pretrial populations because that’s the overwhelming majority of the people in jail on a given day. Excluding people confined under contract with ICE from the unconvicted population and excluding people confined under contract with state or federal prisons from the convicted population leaves us with this breakdown:

graphic showing the portion of the jails population that is convicted and unconvicted with and without including the tens of thousands of immigration detainees and state/federal prisoners who are also housed in jails

Can you make a gift today to fuel the movement to end mass incarceration?

by Peter Wagner, November 30, 2015

The Prison Policy Initiative has celebrated some huge victories recently: historic prison and jail phone industry regulation, making strides towards a national end to prison gerrymandering, and reversing bans on in-person family visitation in Oregon and Texas jails.

Here at the Prison Policy Initiative, we know that in order to keep winning victories for fairness and justice, the movement to end mass incarceration needs compelling and up-to-date information about the U.S. incarceration crisis. This year, we’ve continued to fill critical gaps in the movement’s knowledge with exciting reports that:

  • Show that each state’s rate of incarcerating women is far out of step with the rest of the world. Compared to other countries, most U.S. states lock up proportionally more women than any other country in the world.
  • Uncover the data to show that even before their incarceration, the people in prison are much poorer than Americans of similar ages, race/ethnicity and gender. This report was also the first to provide the pre-incarceration incomes of women in prison.
  • Reframe the entire debate about visitation and reentry with new data that demonstrates that incarcerating people far from home actively discourages family visits.
  • Provide critical new data to demonstrate the degree to which mass incarceration transfers people of color to predominantly white communities.
  • Demonstrate that jails, not just prisons, matter in policy discussions because 11 million people cycle through jails, and the dramatic growth in the jail population is the direct result of policies that increasingly detain people awaiting trial.

These reports were made possible by the generosity of a small group of individual donors. Can you make a gift today so we can both advance specific campaigns for justice and produce critical research?

To encourage you to give generously, some of our existing donors will match the first $19,000 that we receive in this appeal.

We thank you for standing by our side in the fight for fairer and safer communities for everyone.

How do the campaign contributions of the prison phone industry compare to those of the private prison industry?

by Peter Wagner, November 25, 2015

The Voice of OC has revealed that $85,000 in campaign contributions to two Orange County, California county supervisors by Global Tel*Link flipped the two supervisors from being opponents of charging families high phone rates into supporters.

The Voice of OC articles are a must-read (first article, second article), and they have a video showing the dramatic change in positions:

We’re thrilled to see more investigation of the phone companies using campaign contributions to purchase influence. We broke the first story of this type in August, with our exposé that found that Securus was one of the largest contributors to the sheriff’s reelection campaign in Sacramento, California. Notably, this is a county where Securus did not have the contract, but clearly wanted to be the winning bidder when the contract was next put out for bid.

How big is $85,000 in campaign contributions, exactly? To be sure, it pales in comparison to the $4 million/year in kickbacks that the contract would give to the Orange County slush fund called the “Inmate Welfare Fund”. (Despite the name, the funds can be used for almost anything, and as the Voice of OC article says, most of it is spent on staff salaries.)

On the other hand, $85,000 was apparently enough to change these two votes in this one county. And it’s a massive sum when you compare it to the outrage that was aimed at Hillary Clinton after The Intercept reported that bundlers associated with the private prison industry were supporting her presidential campaign with similar amounts of money. (ColorOfChange says that the total received by the Clinton campaign from the industry was $133,000.)

It’s stories like this that illustrate two points we’ve been making a lot lately:

  • Jails matter. Their policies might be set by 3,000 local governments, which can make them hard to follow and understand. But we need to look at jails, which are literally mass incarceration’s front door.
  • Private prisons get all the attention, but other kinds of prison profiteers like the prison phone industry and the California guard union are just as successful — if not more so — at buying the outcomes they want.

Report reveals that every US state incarcerates women at higher rate than most countries, shows growth of women's incarceration in the US over the last century.

November 18, 2015

report thumbnailEasthampton MA — How does your state compare to the international community when it comes to incarcerating women? Not very well, says a new infographic and report from the Prison Policy Initiative.

The report, “States of Women’s Incarceration: The Global Context,” shows that every American state is out of step with the rest of the world.

While there are important differences in the extent and rate at which different U.S. states incarcerate women, there are also differences between how American states, and the country as a whole, compare with most other nations in their propensity to incarcerate women.

“Our analysis shows that even states which seem to incarcerate women less than others in the U.S. are in fact incredibly punitive once that isolationist worldview is broadened,” said Aleks Kajstura, Legal Director of the Prison Policy Initiative. “Every single state incarcerates women at a rate that far exceeds international norms.”

This report is the first to directly put individual U.S. states’ rates of incarcerating women in the global context. The report draws on international statistics from the London-based Institute for Criminal Policy Research, state-level data from the U.S. Census Bureau for interstate and international incarceration comparisons, and historical data from various sources for a detailed look at the U.S.’s past record on women’s incarceration.

The Prison Policy Initiative found that nearly 30% of the world’s incarcerated women are imprisoned in the U.S. even though only 5% of the world’s women live here. Overall, with the exception of Thailand and the U.S. itself, the top 44 jurisdictions throughout the world with the highest rate of incarcerating women are individual American states.

In Illinois, the incarceration rate for women is on par with El Salvador, where abortion is illegal and women are jailed for having miscarriages. New Hampshire is on the same level as Russia, and New York with Rwanda.

“The statistics revealed by this report are simple and staggering” the report concludes. “They suggest that states cannot remain complacent about how many women they incarcerate. Women should be a mainstay of any state policy discussions on the economical and effective use of incarceration if we hope to incarcerate fewer women.”

The non-profit, non-partisan Prison Policy Initiative produces cutting edge research to expose the broader harm of mass incarceration, and then sparks advocacy campaigns to create a more just society. This report was prepared by Aleks Kajstura, Legal Director of the Prison Policy Initiative, and Russ Immarigeon, an independent researcher and editor of the two-volume set, Women and Girls in the Criminal Justice System: Policy Strategies and Program Options (Civic Research Institute, 2006, 2011).

For further information, contact Aleks Kajstura at akajstura [at] prisonpolicy.org.


– 30 –

by Aleks Kajstura, November 17, 2015

Last month James Kilgore published a new report evaluating the use of electronic monitoring as an alternative to incarceration. Drawing on an impressively wide range of sources, “Electronic Monitoring Is Not the Answer: Critical reflections on a flawed alternative” tackles the use of electronic monitoring in the context of mass incarceration and the expanding surveillance state.

The report recommends 14 guiding principles for re-framing the U.S.’s approach to electronic monitoring, concluding that:

In the present context, there is little evidence to support EM as a genuine alternative to incarceration. At the same time, EM is not going to go away, especially with the constantly expanding capacity of devices to track and gather other data. If decarceration gathers steam, EM will become an important option. Before that happens, the debate around its use and implications needs to sharpen. Any useful framing must open up a dialog around the rights of the monitored and link EM to state and corporate surveillance. Otherwise, we run the risk of hundreds of thousands of people being virtually incarcerated in their homes and of the net widening to track many more who have not even had an encounter with law enforcement.

A point by point summary and full report are available here.

Oliver illustrates the various ways that we set formerly incarcerated people up to fail and says we're all responsible

by Bernadette Rabuy, November 11, 2015

John Oliver explains another broken aspect of the criminal justice system, re-entry. Oliver illustrates the various ways that we set formerly incarcerated people up to fail, from restrictions on housing and employment to the rolling back of Pell grants. According to Oliver, because of the resounding and bipartisan support for enacting barriers to re-entry during the tough-on-crime era, we should all feel responsible for the lack of opportunity available to people trying to turn their lives around.

Sam Durant's installation "Labyrinth" in Philadelphia uses our research

by Peter Wagner, October 30, 2015

image of Sam Durant's Labyrinth installation

Prison Policy Initiative reseach used in Sam Durant's Labyrinth installationFor the month of October, some of our research is hanging in a public art installation about mass incarceration just outside of Philadelphia City Hall. The central element of artist Sam Durant’s installation “Labyrinth”, designed in collaboration with men incarcerated at Graterford State prison, is a large maze made of chain-link fencing.

Within and around the maze are some facts about mass incarceration and the public is invited to leave their comments.

While we often collaborate with artists, that our research was used in this show was a pleasant surprise. We intend our work to be used in new and exciting ways to advance the movement against mass incarceration, and we are thrilled that Sam Durant found a way to do so.

For more on this exhibition, see these two great articles with more pictures of the entire exhibition:

And thanks to Patrick Griffin and Angus Love for sending us these photos of our work in action!

Sam Durant's Labyrinth installationPrison Policy Initiative research used in Sam Durant's Labyrinth installation


The Federal Communications Commission today approved a new order regulating the prison and jail telephone industry and reducing the cost of calling home from prisons and jails

by Peter Wagner, October 22, 2015

The Federal Communications Commission today approved a new order regulating the prison and jail telephone industry and reducing the cost of calling home from prisons and jails.

You can read the FCC’s press release and summary of the decision and see our October 1 analysis of the FCC’s “fact sheet” that compares the proposed order to the exploitative status quo.

We’ll have a detailed analysis after the full text of the FCC’s order is publicly available, but for now we note only one possible change from our October 1 post: The FCC is proposing to give the industry an additional 3 months to bring their contracts in jails into compliance with the new rules. That means that people with loved ones in state prisons should see the impact in about February, and with those in jails in about May 2016.

Thank you Commissioner Clyburn, Chairman Wheeler, and Commissioner Rosenworcel for taking such strong action to protect the most vulnerable families in this country from this exploitative industry.

We're hiring for a Policy & Communications Associate! Please apply and spread the word.

by Bernadette Rabuy, October 22, 2015

job description thumbnailAre you interested in joining our dedicated team to produce cutting edge research to expose the broader harm of mass criminalization? Do you want to shape innovative advocacy campaigns and spark critical discourse to create a more just society?

If so, our new employment opportunity Policy & Communications Associate might be for you. Please spread the word, and if you think the position is for you, please apply.

by Peter Wagner, October 21, 2015

Yesterday, the top judge in Massachusetts cited our research in his “State of the Judiciary” address.

Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants made a strong argument for sentencing reform and used our report States of Incarceration: The Global Context to argue that Massachusetts, a state with one of the lowest rates of incarceration in the nation, should and can do so much more:

If we believe that the vast majority of the 46 percent of prisoners currently being released from state prison without any post-release supervision should have post-release supervision, how are we to pay for it? One alternative is to redirect the money that would be saved by reducing the length, and therefore the rate, of incarceration. How can we do that? After all, are we not among the states with the lowest rate of incarceration? It is true that in a nation that has gone mad with mass incarceration, we have maintained some semblance of sanity; our rate of incarceration is less than one-half of the national average. But our rate of incarceration is three times what it was when I graduated from law school in 1980, even though our rate of violent crime today is roughly 22 percent lower than in 1980 and our rate of property crime is nearly 57 percent lower. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, if Massachusetts were a separate nation, our rate of incarceration would be the eighth highest in the world, exceeded only by the United States (which ranks first), Russia, Cuba, El Salvador, Thailand, Azerbaijan, and Rwanda; it is 2 1/2 times higher than the rate in the United Kingdom. There is certainly room in Massachusetts for justice reinvestment and I am confident we can find common ground with the Legislature and the Governor on ways to be smarter on sentencing so that we can reduce both the rate of incarceration and the rate of recidivism.

We were also thrilled to see the Judge draw attention to what should be a common sense reform: criminal justice fees. Chief Justice Gants said:

And if we are truly committed to reducing recidivism, should we not take a fresh look at the various fees we impose on criminal defendants that go to the state’s general fund? Indigent counsel fee: $150. Probation supervision fee: $780 for one year of supervised probation and $600 per year for administrative probation. Victim-witness fee: $90 for a felony, $50 for a misdemeanor. For an indigent defendant convicted of one felony and sentenced to one year of supervised probation, the fees total $1,020, more if a GPS bracelet is a condition of probation, because the defendant is required to pay for that, too. A judge may waive payment where the judge finds it would cause undue hardship, but judges must then require community service in lieu of payment, and the probation department must find the defendant an appropriate community service opportunity.

I know that Massachusetts is not unique in the imposition of these fees. At least 44 states impose a probation supervision fee; at least 43 impose an indigent counsel fee. I also know that the revenue yielded by these fees in Massachusetts is not insubstantial: $21 million in probation supervision fees; $7 million in indigent counsel fees; about $2.4 million in victim-witness fees, in all more than $30 million per year. But should we not stop and ask: who are we asking to pay these fees? Most are dead broke, or nearly broke. Approximately 75 percent of criminal defendants are indigent. Collection is difficult, and we are asking probation officers to take charge of this collection, and to allege a violation of probation where a defendant fails to pay. And the law requires yet another payment of a $50 fee when a default warrant is issued because of a defendant’s failure to pay.

We want probationers to succeed on probation, and we want probation officers focused like a laser beam on the elements that will help probationers succeed: finding a job, getting an education, dealing with drug addiction and mental health problems, ending the cycle of domestic violence. Should we not ask whether the financial burden of these fees is making it more difficult for probationers to succeed? Is it increasing the rate of violation? Does it make sense to transform probation officers into debt collectors and community service coordinators, to burden our courts with the obligation to collect these debts, and to use the threat of a violation of probation as a means to induce payment? Are we, in the immortal words of MBA President Bob Harnais, “spending dollars to collect nickels,” and are we collecting those nickels from a population who can least afford to pay?

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