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 Alison Walsh, March 30, 2016

Today in Massachusetts, Governor Charlie Baker signed into law a bill to end driver’s license suspensions for people convicted of drug offenses unrelated to road safety. With the passage of this bill, Massachusetts eliminates a 27-year-old law requiring automatic suspensions, plus a reinstatement fee of $500, for anyone found guilty of a drug offense.

In a statement, Governor Baker acknowledged that access to transportation is critical for people seeking to find gainful employment and fulfill family obligations.

While the new law will not bring relief to people convicted of drug trafficking, others convicted of less serious drug offenses will see their licenses returned within 30 days.


by Bernadette Rabuy, March 24, 2016

Yesterday, March 23, 2016, the federal courts issued a second stay of the Federal Communications Commission’s historic October 2015 order that would have expanded regulations of the prison and jail telephone industry to in-state calls and ancillary fees.

It’s a little complicated because on March 16, the FCC issued a public notice reminding the phone companies that the interim rate caps of $0.21/minute (debit/prepaid) and $0.25/minute (collect) should apply to in-state calls. Just as expected, the companies went running to the courts in response. The bad news is that, for now, the courts have sided with these billion-dollar interests that have been price gouging families for far too long. The good news is that families will benefit from the bans and caps on ancillary fees, which can double the cost of a call.

Barring new court developments, here is what families of incarcerated people can expect to be charged:

For prisons, in effect now:

Inter-state calls will continue to be capped at a maximum of $0.21-$0.25/minute for debit/prepaid or collect, respectively. These are the rate caps that went into effect in February 2014. For now, in-state calls are not subject to rate caps.

The abusive hidden fees that our report Please Deposit All of Your Money: Kickbacks, Rates, and Hidden Fees in the Jail Phone Industry found can easily double the price of a call are now capped at:

  • Payment by phone or website: $3 (previously up to $10)
  • Payment via live operator: $5.95 (previously up to $10)
  • Paper bills: $2 (previously up to $3.49)
  • Markups and hidden fees embedded within Western Union and MoneyGram payments: $0 (previously up to $6.95)
  • Markups and hidden profits on mandatory taxes and regulatory fees: $0 (We’ve seen these markups and hidden profits on “mandatory” taxes be 25% of the cost of the call)
  • All other ancillary fees: $0. (There are many of these charges. Some of the most egregious ones are $10 fees for refunds, $2.50/month for “network infrastructure” and a 4% charge for “validation”.)

For jails, starting June 20, 2016:

Inter-state calls will continue to be capped at a maximum of $0.21-$0.25/minute, depending on whether the call is debit or collect. These are the rate caps that went into effect in February 2014. For now, in-state calls are not subject to rate caps.

The caps on the abusive fees discussed above will go into effect for calls from jails on June 20th.

After the court’s partial stay on the FCC order is lifted

Assuming that the federal court eventually sides with the FCC and allows the October order to go fully into effect, families can expect to see the following results at a later date:

  • The following rate caps will apply to in-state calls:
    • In prisons, the cost of a call will drop to $0.11/minute.
    • In jails, the cost of a debit/prepaid call will fall to $0.14/minute to $0.22/minute, depending on the size of the jail. (Traditional collect calls will initially be higher and then, over a two-year period, fall to the $0.14-$0.22/minute level.)
  • For both prisons and jails, the companies will be prohibited from defying the FCC’s rate caps by steering families to abusive “single call” products like Text2Connect™ and PayNow™ that charge $9.99-$14.99 for a single call.

The court has not set a schedule for the case yet, so we do not know when the partial stay might be lifted.

International calling and advanced communication services

The FCC also sought comments on regulating international calling and advanced communications services like video visitation and email, so the FCC is likely considering regulations of those services as well. The comment period closed in January, and we do not know when the FCC will rule on those issues.

Update March 30, 2016: The FCC has clarified what rules are in effect.


by Alison Walsh, March 23, 2016

The Mississippi Department of Corrections sent me an interesting press release last Friday about the state dropping the cost of prison phone calls from 22 cents to 11 cents per minute. The timing coincides with the FCC’s March 17 deadline, but the low rate is notable – and not just because Mississippi once ranked 48th in the country in call affordability. Under the terms of the Federal courts’ stay, states were only obligated to reduce their prepaid and debit rates to 21 cents per minute.

Now 11 cents isn’t a random figure. It’s the cap the FCC ordered, now stayed by the court. Back in 2015, the FCC concluded that 11 cents was a reasonable maximum rate for prisons to charge. This price limit was set to go into effect before the federal appeals court put certain sections of the FCC’s order on hold. Mississippi opted to go ahead with a rate of 11 cents voluntarily.

What prompted the steep decrease in Mississippi? In the third paragraph, Commissioner Marshall Fisher expresses concern for the families who pay a high price to speak to their loved ones: “We receive constant complaints from inmate family members and others regarding the high cost for phone service…This decision will significantly reduce expenses to the families.”

It looks like Mississippi has turned over a new leaf. The last head of the Mississippi prison system left a very different mark on telephone history. Former Commissioner Christopher B. Epps pled guilty last year to charges stemming from his role in a bribery scandal in which he accepted kickbacks from consultants of private companies, including phone giant Global Tel-Link, in exchange for awarding DOC contracts.

Whatever its motivations are for slashing its rates, Mississippi made an important point. As we reported earlier, a group of nine states came together to argue that the FCC set rate caps too low to account for the costs involved in providing phone service. Mississippi, without stalling or protesting, just proved that the FCC’s rate caps are workable after all.


by Alison Walsh, March 17, 2016

Earlier this week, a Massachusetts conference committee reached a compromise on a bill that would end the state’s practice of automatically suspending driver’s licenses of people convicted of drug offenses. Since 1989, anyone convicted of a drug offense in Massachusetts, even an offense unrelated to driving or road safety, would receive an additional punishment: the loss of his or her license and a $500 fee to reinstate it.

As we documented in our 2014 report, Suspending Common Sense in Massachusetts: Driver’s license suspensions for drug offenses unrelated to driving, this law is not just ineffective, it’s harmful. Instead of deterring criminal activity, license suspensions present another obstacle to steady employment for the estimated 7,000 Massachusetts residents whose driver’s licenses are suspended each year for drug offenses.

The Massachusetts Senate approved a stronger version of the bill last year that would have ended license suspensions for all people convicted of drug offenses, including those convicted of trafficking offenses. The version of the bill that ultimately prevailed will include a House amendment that unfortunately allows suspensions for drug trafficking to continue.

The compromise on trafficking means that this issue is not fully resolved. But the bill’s passage and the broad support it received from law enforcement and Attorney General Maura Healey represent declining public support for the War on Drug’s costly and counterintuitive sentencing policies.

The bill now heads to Governor Baker’s desk.

Update March 24, 2016: We were previously mistaken that the bill would go straight to Governor Baker’s desk following conference committee. After the conference committee reached a compromise, the bill was sent back to the House, which unanimously voted to approve the legislation. The bill will now head to the Senate, which passed a similar version of the bill last year, before reaching the desk of Governor Charlie Baker.


by Peter Wagner, March 17, 2016

March 24, 2016: The federal courts have issued another stay of the FCC’s order. Please see our new blog post for what to expect.

The Federal Communications Commission’s historic October 2015 order expanding its regulations of the prison and jail telephone industry goes into effect today. It’s a little complicated because prisons and jails have different effective dates, and part of the FCC’s order has been stayed by the federal courts. And on March 16, the FCC issued a public notice — which if the companies stay true to form, they are likely to challenge in court — reminding the companies that in-state calls are also to be capped. Barring new rulings from the court, here is what the families of incarcerated people can expect.

For prisons, starting today:

Both in-state and inter-state calls are capped at a maximum of $0.21-$0.25/minute for debit/prepaid or collect, respectively. (A 15-minute collect call that cost $6 in Arizona yesterday will cost only $3.60 today.(*))

The abusive hidden fees that our report Please Deposit All of Your Money: Kickbacks, Rates, and Hidden Fees in the Jail Phone Industry found can easily double the price of a call are now capped:

  • Payment by phone or website: $3 (previously up to $10)
  • Payment via live operator: $5.95 (previously up to $10)
  • Paper bills: $2 (previously up to $3.49)
  • Markups and hidden fees embedded within Western Union and MoneyGram payments: $0 (previously up to $6.95)
  • Markups and hidden profits on mandatory taxes and regulatory fees: $0 (We’ve seen these markups and hidden profits on “mandatory” taxes be 25% of the cost of the call)
  • All other ancillary fees: $0. (There are many of these charges. Some of the most egregious ones are $10 fees for refunds, $2.50/month for “network infrastructure” and a 4% charge for “validation”.)

For jails, starting June 20, 2016:

Both in-state and inter-state calls are capped at a maximum of $0.21-$0.25/minute depending on whether the call is debit or collect. (A 15-minute call that today costs $12.75 in Alameda County, California will cost no more than $3.15 (debit) or $3.75 (collect) on June 20th. A 15-minute call today that costs $14+ in Livingston and Mecosta counties, Michigan and Dodge, Kewaunee, and Walworth counties, Wisconsin will cost no more than $3.15 or $3.75 on June 20th.)

The caps on the abusive fees discussed above will go into effect for calls from jails on June 20th.

After the court’s partial stay on the FCC order is lifted

Assuming that the federal court lifts its partial stay and the FCC’s October order goes fully into effect at a later date, families can expect to see the following results:

  • In prisons, the cost of a call will drop to $0.11 a minute.
  • In jails, the cost of a debit/prepaid call will fall to $0.14 to $0.22 a minute, depending on the size of the jail. (Traditional collect calls will initially be higher and then, over a two year period, fall to the $0.14-0.22 level.)
  • For both prisons and jails, the companies will be prohibited from defying the FCC’s rate caps by steering families to abusive “single call” products like Text2Connect™ and PayNow™ that charge $9.99-$14.99 for a single call.

The Court has not set a schedule for the case yet, so we do not know when the partial stay might be lifted.

International calling and advanced communication services

The FCC also sought comments on regulating international calling and advanced communications services like video visitation and email, so the FCC is likely considering regulations of those services as well. The comment period closed in January, and we do not know when the FCC will rule on those issues.

 

Notes:

* The maximum 15-minute collect call charge allowed under the new rules is $3.75, but Arizona’s in-state collect calls are going to cost $3.60 because of a quirk in how Arizona’s pricing was set up. Previously, Arizona had a high first minute charge and then charged $0.24 a minute. Arizona is choosing to lower the first minute charge to comply with the FCC rules, but isn’t raising the per minute charge. We chose the Arizona example for this post because we knew that that state had in-state collect call rates much higher than the new caps and because Arizona was willing to confirm their then-existing rates. Some other states, like Mississippi, did not respond to repeated requests to confirm the rates charged to families in their state.

Update March 18, 2016: Yesterday, Mississippi finally sent us enough information to determine their new and old rates. Prior to this week, a 15 minute call cost $5.90 ($2.60 to connect plus $0.22/minute). That same call now costs $1.65, because the connect charge was eliminated and Mississippi choose to adopt the $0.11/minute rate required by the FCC but stayed by the court. The press release gives a hint as to why Mississippi made that decision: “‘We receive constant complaints from inmate family members and others regarding the high cost for phone service,’ Commissioner Marshall Fisher said. ‘This decision will significantly reduce expenses to the families.'” The Mississippi Department of Corrections deserves credit for doing the right thing here and we hope other states will follow.

Update March 23, 2016: The FCC has posted a guide to the new rules along with instructions on how to file overcharging complaints.


March 14, 2016

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: March 14, 2016

Contact:
Bernadette Rabuy
brabuy [at] prisonpolicy.org

Easthampton, MA — With 2.3 million people locked up in thousands of correctional facilities operated by various agencies, getting the big picture is anything but easy. Today, with the publication of Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2016, 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 2015 and 2014 reports, that, for the first time, aggregated the disparate systems of confinement, this updated version allows the reader to drill deeper, including into the reasons that so many people are locked up in local jails.

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 March 2016.

As we discuss in the report and accompanying infographics, 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?
  • Are there more people in local jails that have been convicted of a crime or have not been convicted?
  • 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?
  • Are most people in state and federal prisons locked up for drug offenses?
  • How many youth are locked up in the U.S. and in what types of facilities?
  • How does the number of people in correctional facilities compare to the even larger number of people under the supervision of probation and parole?

Armed with the big picture, Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2016, 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 Prison Policy Initiative plans to release updated versions of this report each year on Pi Day, March 14.

The report is available at: http://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie2016.html

To embed the report’s infographics into your website or blog, copy and paste the following code:

-30-


by Emily Widra, March 14, 2016

As New York’s experience shows, lowering the price of phone calls home from prisons and jails has many benefits: it allows families to better stay in touch, reduces contraband cellphone use, and strengthens family relationships in preparation for when incarcerated people are released and return to their families and communities. That’s why New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision Commissioner, Anthony Annucci, called New York’s decision to reduce the rates of phone calls to less than five cents per minute “among the most cost-effective family reunification options that we offer.”

Last fall, the FCC followed the lead of states like New York and decided that families of incarcerated people nationwide should be able to benefit from reasonable phone rates. Unfortunately, some states are taking a penny-wise and pound-foolish approach and trying to block the FCC’s historic rate caps. First, the state of Oklahoma tried to join a group of phone companies in opposing the FCC prison phone rate caps. Then, eight additional states moved to join Oklahoma’s resistance to the rate caps: Arizona, Arkansas, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Wisconsin, and Nevada.

What’s shocking is that the governors of most of the states challenging the FCC are governors that have previously supported criminal justice reform in general and specifically, reducing recidivism and keeping families together. But by trying to block the FCC’s prison rate caps, these states are working to do the exact opposite: they are promoting policies that increase the financial and emotional burden that incarceration already imposes on families.

For example, in 2011, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin signed a bill into law that worked to allow people to serve their sentences closer to home by expanding community sentencing programs and electronic monitoring of people convicted of low-risk, nonviolent offenses. She has also spoken about the need for maintaining family connections when a parent is imprisoned in a correctional facility: “A child with a parent in prison is five times more likely to end up in the correctional system. We can do something about that. Many of our children who have a parent who’s in a correctional facility will grow up to live in poverty.” Making it possible for incarcerated parents to talk to their children for less than $1 per minute is one common-sense way of reinforcing these family ties.

The governors of Arkansas and Indiana have also explicitly expressed support for strengthening family ties and reducing recidivism rates, two goals that will be served by the FCC rate caps. Governor Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, in his keynote address at the Charles Koch Institute’s Advancing Justice Summit, stated that his goal for criminal justice reform is to “give those who are re-entering society – the ex-offenders – a better second chance at a new life” by strengthening community connections.

Similarly, Indiana Governor Mike Pence has repeatedly advocated for a focus on rehabilitation: “first-time offenders ought to be dealt with in a way that’s focused on reformation, that’s focused on coming alongside these young men and giving them access to a full range of programs and individuals that will inspire them to be more and to make better choices in their lives.” Families are often the greatest source of inspiration and hope for people upon release. Governor Pence also emphasizes how high recidivism rates and prison time break apart families: “[recidivism is] tearing at the fabric of our neighborhoods, tearing at the fabric of our families, and that’s why I’ve been so committed … from the outset of this administration to drive new ideas and new innovations.”

As New York’s example shows us, FCC rate caps would surely make it easier for families to stay in touch. If the elected officials of these states are seeking to reduce recidivism and strengthen family and community ties, then why exactly are they opposing the FCC’s efforts to support these same goals?


by Bernadette Rabuy, March 1, 2016

job description thumbnailAre you interested in joining our dedicated team to fill critical data and messaging gaps in the movement for criminal justice reform? Do you want to produce cutting edge research and take the lead on a series of projects similar in scope to those in our National Incarceration Briefing Series?

If so, our new Policy Fellowship might be for you. Please spread the word, and if you think the position is for you, please apply.

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