Attorney General uses pie chart report and jails matter blog post to show how many people are affected by justice system

by Bernadette Rabuy, April 28, 2016

U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch penned a powerful op-ed in USA Today about the urgent need to remove the 45,000+ roadblocks that formerly incarcerated people face when reentering society. We were especially excited to see the Attorney General cite our report, Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie, and our blog post, Jails matter. But who is listening?, in order to express the enormous churn in and out of our correctional facilities and the far larger universe of people affected by the criminal justice system.

The Department of Justice designated this week, April 24-30, the first-ever National Reentry Week in order to shine light on the many challenges formerly incarcerated people face and to encourage states and private businesses to do their part in easing these burdens.

Check out her op-ed.

We share some suggested language.

by Peter Wagner, April 26, 2016

One of our donors asked how to remember the Prison Policy Initiative in her will, and I thought it might help others to share the suggested language here:

I give, devise and bequeath _______________ (insert dollar amount or item of property to be donated) to the Prison Policy Initiative, Inc., EIN 20-3671130, or its successor organization, a nonprofit corporation as described in section 501 (c) of the Internal Revenue Code, to be used to fight for a fairer justice system.

Thank you to all of our supporters for all of the generous ways that you make our work possible.

We make two graphs from Zaw, Hamilton, and Darity's groundbreaking dataset to illustrate the racial, ethnic and wealth disparities in incarceration.

by Meredith Booker, April 26, 2016

The wealth disparity between young men who experience prison and those who never do is staggering. A fascinating study in Race and Social Problems makes this clear. The authors Khaing Zaw, Darrick Hamilton, and William Darity, Jr. use the National Longitudinal Study of Youth to examine the personal wealth of a group of young men, following them for 27 years. When the young men are divided into two groups – those who experience incarceration at some point in their lives and those who never do – a striking disparity emerges.

Graph showing the increasing wealth disparity between incarcerated and non-incarcerated young men starting at age 14.When it comes to the economic impacts of incarceration, one point becomes very clear: men who experience incarceration maintain lower levels of wealth throughout their lifetimes compared to men who are never incarcerated. This disparity is present before, during, and after a person is incarcerated. (The data stops in 2000 because of small numbers of survey respondents for some subgroups; the authors note that the wealth trends remain in the years that followed.)

Once an individual is incarcerated, they often lose what little wealth they have and are left with little to no wealth accumulation. Once released, that individual may make gains in wealth accumulation, but they will always remain at significantly lower levels of wealth compared to those who are never incarcerated in their lifetime.

This is consistent with our previous conclusions about differences in pre-incarceration incomes in our report Prisons of Poverty: Uncovering the pre-incarceration incomes of the imprisoned, where we use a little-used government dataset to find that pre-incarceration incomes of incarcerated people are 41% lower than those of people of similar ages on the outside.

Looking at the same trend disaggregated by race adds another layer of detail to the story. In a press release, author Khaing Zaw says, “When it comes to wealth and incarceration outcomes, the disadvantages of being black or Hispanic compound the disadvantages of poverty.” White men that never experience incarceration will accumulate the most wealth compared to Black and Hispanic men regardless of incarceration status. At the other end of the spectrum, Black men that are incarcerated at some point in their lifetime accumulate less wealth compared to all other groups regardless of incarceration status. Later in life, this disparity endures. As the survey respondents got older, white men who experienced incarceration reported higher levels of wealth compared to Black men who had never experienced incarceration.

Graph showing the increasing wealth disparity by race and ethnicity between incarcerated and non-incarcerated young men starting at age 14. Whites who have never been incarcerated have the highest incomes, followed by Hispanic never incarcerated, Whites who have been incarcerated, Blacks who have never been incarcerated, Hispanics who have been incarcerated and Blacks who have been incarcerated.Previous research in Black Wealth, White Wealth: A New Perspective on Racial Inequality highlights the gap between the wealth of white people and that of Black people. This graph shows that even white men who experienced incarceration have greater wealth than Black men who never experienced incarceration.

This striking racial disparity, where even white men who have experienced incarceration accumulate wealth faster than Black men who have never experienced incarceration, brings to mind Devah Pager’s research about the impact of a criminal record on gaining employment. Pager found that between white men and Black men, white men who had a record of incarceration were more likely to be called back for a job interview compared to Black men with no history of incarceration. The “mark” of incarceration is harsh for everyone, but for Black men, it can be financially crippling for a lifetime.

The study, “Race, Wealth and Incarceration: Results from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth” follows a cohort of youth over 27 years and presents wealth data in relation to race, sex, and incarceration status. For the graph entitled “Wealth accumulation and incarceration,” I used the tables in the article to calculate the average median wealth, weighted by the number of respondents in each racial category, for those that never experienced incarceration and those that experienced incarceration at some point, and I extrapolated the data for years 1991, 1995, 1997, and 1999.

For the first time since 2013, in-person visits will be allowed at Travis County jails.

by Alison Walsh, April 19, 2016

Visits in Travis County, Texas, took on a special significance today. This morning marked the end of the county’s video-only visitation policy and the first time since 2013 that people incarcerated in the county’s jails were able to see their loved ones through a plexiglass window instead of a computer screen.

In 2013, Travis County phased out its in-person visitation program and adopted a video-only visitation policy. Jail administrators claimed that video was more efficient and conducive to more frequent visitation. Families reported a different experience, and the current psychological research confirms that video and in-person communication are far from equal.

The reversal in Travis County sets a new precedent. While almost three-fourths of the jails that adopt video visitation also ban in-person visits, the Travis County jails are now an example of how the technology can supplement in-person visits and improve communication options for families.

Congratulations to Grassroots Leadership, and to the formerly incarcerated people and their families whose advocacy brought about this change!

Travis County, Texas' experience shows: video visitation often fails to meet expectations.

by Emily Widra, April 18, 2016

Last week we wrote about the psychological differences between in-person and video communication. This week, we decided to look into how incarcerated people and their families feel about using video visitation and how this compares to the expectations that sheriffs have when they adopt video visitation.

In 2009, the Travis County Sheriff’s Office in Texas made the transition from 100% face-to-face visitation to 50% face-to-face and 50% video visitation. In 2013, the Sheriff’s Office went further, eliminating in-person visitation in favor of 100% video visitation.

What arguments do sheriff’s offices make to support the decision to ban in-person visitation in favor of video-only visitation? Some claim video visitation is more efficient, allows for more frequent visitation, and can reduce the introduction of contraband into correctional facilities.

Claim: Video visitation is more efficient.
Travis County’s experience: Travis County’s experience shows that visitation and in-person visitation can be used together to allow for increased efficiency and a greater frequency of visits. For example, the average wait time for a face-to-face visit before the Travis County Sheriff’s Office offered video visitation was 1.5-3 hours. When the jail offered both video and face-to-face visitation, the average wait time was reduced by half. With video visitation as the only option, appointments did drastically shorten wait time, but the wait can still be up to a full hour when an appointment is not scheduled in advance. While pre-scheduling visitation can be beneficial for some families, we’ve spoken to many who find coordinating issues like transportation to the jail, childcare, and employment ahead of time to be difficult.

Claim: Video visitation allows for more frequent visitation.
Travis County’s experience: The Sheriff’s Office found that the average number of visits per year was highest when they offered both video and face-to-face visitation, leading to about 1,429 more visits per month than when the Sheriff’s Office only offered in-person visits. The number of visits dropped dramatically when the Sheriff’s Office went to video-only visitation.

Claim: Video visitation can reduce the introduction of contraband into correctional facilities.
Travis County’s experience: Because many in-person jail visits are conducted through glass, there is no reason to think that video would lead to a greater reduction in contraband than a through-the-glass visit. In fact, according to a report by Grassroots Leadership and the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, disciplinary cases in Travis County jails for possession of contraband increased an overall 54% following the elimination of all in-person visitation.

Claim: Incarcerated people and their families will love video visitation.
Travis County’s experience: Two years after changing to video-only visitation, the Travis County Sherriff’s Office surveyed visitors about their experience with video visitation. A majority of the respondents had experienced both in-person and video visitation at the jail and 43% had never had face-to-face visitation at the jail.

While the majority rated their experience with video visitation as positive, almost all (91%) reported they would prefer face-to-face visitation.

Visitors prefer face-to-face visitation, even when that requires the visitor and incarcerated person to be separated by glass. As we reported last week, the reasons for this preference are numerous: video communication reduces the natural flow of conversation, slows the process of establishing trust, prohibits the intimacy and social connection that come with in-person visits, and leads to shorter conversations and reduced interactivity. Another reason for this preference might come from the fact that over 90% of video visits in Travis County took place at the jail and not from a home computer, making video far less convenient than one might think. It looks like visitors prefer face-to-face even if it means waiting longer to visit.

So taking all of these factors into account, what did the Travis County Sheriff’s Office decide to do?

In 2015, the sheriff’s office announced it would move back in the right direction by reinstating in-person visitation and only offering video visitation as a supplemental option. We hope that other county sheriff’s offices will follow suit or will, at the very least, start surveying incarcerated people and their visitors about their experience with video visitation.

For the complete survey data from Travis County, see:

Jails continue to adopt video visitation, often at the expense of in-person visits. What does current psychological research say about the key differences between video and in-person communication?

by Emily Widra, April 11, 2016

As we reported in January 2015, jails are increasingly adopting video visitation services and 74% of county jails that implement video visitation then ban in-person visitation. As this harmful trend continues to grow, we decided to dig into the research and look into the key differences between video and in-person communication.

Since the advent of the AT&T Picturephone in the 1960s, psychologists have been comparing various kinds of video communication with face-to-face interactions. While there are benefits to video communication, primarily regarding long-distance communication, psychologists have repeatedly found numerous differences between face-to-face and video communication. Video communication, and therefore video visitation, falls short of in-person interactions across six major aspects of conversations:

  • Video communication increases the formality of the conversation, regardless of the relationship between the two communicators, as evidenced by longer utterances with fewer interruptions.1 This means people are more likely to be talking at one another when they are using video technology rather than having a more natural conversation.
  • With video communication, there is less opportunity for visual signals that facilitate listener understanding. Visual signals such as head nods, eye contact, and facial expressions are key to in-person interactions but are difficult to recognize in video communication.2
  • The process of establishing trust takes longer via video communication than in face-to-face conversations where almost spontaneous trusting behaviors can occur.3 This is especially worrisome since video technology is sometimes used between incarcerated people and doctors (tele-medicine) as well as between incarcerated parents and their young children.
  • The absence of mutual eye contact and a shared visual field disrupts communication and decreases conversational fluidity, which in turn limits the ability to discuss more complex topics and concepts.4 This can be even trickier with correctional video visitation where the visitors are able to see inside the housing units or pods of cells. As you can imagine, this can be distracting.
  • Video communication has a higher frequency of social distance indicators than in-person communication, suggesting that it is more difficult for people to express intimacy and social connection with video communication.5
  • The decreased content and process coordination in video communication leads to shorter conversations, reduced interactivity, and less complex utterances.6

The current psychological research is clear: in-person and video communication are not equivalents. However, more research needs to be done that specifically compares the effects of correctional in-person visitation and video visitation. This research should make sure to include factors such as eye contact and the ability to build and maintain trust over video. What we already know is that in-person visits have long been crucial to incarcerated people’s rehabilitation process and that families have been frustrated with the shortcomings of video communication. Too many jails are ignoring psychological research and correctional best practices when they replace in-person visitation with video visitation.


1 Doherty-Sneddon, G., Anderson, A, O’Malley, C., Langton, S., Garrod, S., and Bruce, V. (1997). Face-to-face and video-mediated communication: A comparison of dialogue structure and task performance. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 3(2), 106.

2 Doherty-Sneddon, G., et al., 122.

3 Gill, A.J. and Gergle, D. (2008). The Language of Trust Establishment in Face-to-Face and Video-Mediated Communication. Conference Papers — International Communication Association, 4.

4 Gill, A.J. and Gergle, D., 22.

5 Gill, A.J. and Gergle, D., 27.

6 Gill, A.J. and Gergle, D., 27.

Country music star Merle Haggard spent 49 years trying to convince this nation that discriminating against the formerly incarcerated is bad social policy.

by Peter Wagner, April 6, 2016

Country Music star Merle Haggard died today on his 79th birthday. Unlike Johnny Cash who also made the pain of incarceration a central theme in his work, Haggard actually did serve time. And, ironically or perhaps luckily, Haggard was in the audience at Cash’s very first concert at a prison, and that experience led him him to take up a career in music.

But Haggard didn’t leave his roots behind. Of his many songs about incarceration, my favorite is “Branded Man” about the discrimination faced by formerly incarcerated people: “No matter where I’m living, the black mark follows me,” he sings. “I’m branded with a number on my name.”

Here is a live performance from 1968:

The song, which peaked at #1 in 1967, is still in frequent rotation on country music stations. Merle Haggard deserves credit for 49 years of trying to teach this country just how short-sighted it is to hold past mistakes against people. As he sings in the chorus:

I’d like to hold my head up and be proud of who I am
But they won’t let my secret go untold
I paid the debt I owed them, but they’re still not satisfied
Now I’m a branded man out in the cold

Now Merle Haggard went on to become famous, in no doubt because, as Rolling Stone put it last year: “Luckily for Haggard, his music career never again required him to answer the ‘have you ever been convicted of a crime?’ question on a job application.” It’s well past time to extend that right to more people.

Literacy is a key metric for how our society sets some groups up to fail.

by Corey Michon, April 1, 2016

Although much attention has been dedicated to the fact that educational and job training programs can reduce recidivism amongst people being released from prisons and jails in the United States, policymakers, academics, activists, and citizens alike would do well to devote greater attention to the forms of disadvantage that make people more likely to end up behind bars in the first place. As we demonstrate in our July 2015 report on pre-incarceration incomes of people in prison, the American criminal justice system incarcerates people who had a median annual income 41% less than that of their non-incarcerated counterparts before their incarceration. In this blog post, we examine disparities in literacy rates as another avenue for understanding who ends up behind bars in the world’s largest prison system.

In 2003, the U.S. Department of Education conducted the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) survey, assessing the English literacy of incarcerated adults for the first time since 1992. The assessment was administered to approximately 1,200 people incarcerated in state and federal prisons, as well as 18,000 non-imprisoned Americans. The NAAL found that there was a significant difference between the literacy rates between incarcerated individuals and their non-incarcerated counterparts:

graph showing the portion of the prison and household populations that have 'below basic' or 'basic' literacy for the three types of literacy. In all measures, people in prison have score worse.
People in prison are 13 to 24 percent more represented in the lowest levels of literacy than people in the free world. The smallest disparity is for prose literacy, and the largest disparity is for quantitative literacy. (For an explanation of the different types of literacy, and why “basic” literacy is inadequate for our modern society, see my appendix below.)

The fact that people in prison had significantly lower median incomes before prison than their non-incarcerated counterparts and that people in prison have significantly lower levels of literacy than non-imprisoned individuals show who is most vulnerable to incarceration: those without access to jobs or quality education fill cells, while those with a larger share of the nation’s resources have a far greater chance of avoiding incarceration.

This is not a new fact: poverty, lack of quality education, and little job opportunity have been central to the argument of prison vulnerability for decades. However, the 2003 NAAL study reveals an additional disparity that speaks to the “is it race or class?” debate in mass incarceration:

Looking at the 2003 NAAL study and focusing on the two lowest categories of literacy proficiency, “below basic” and “basic”, reveals striking disparities. Incarcerated Black and Hispanic adults had lower levels of literacy than whites; and incarcerated white adults had lower literacy than non-incarcerated white adults. This is unsurprising. What is notable, however, is that the study also found that Black and Hispanic non-incarcerated adults have lower literacy scores than white adults outside or inside of prison. This data is strong evidence that the U.S. educational system may be failing people along racial lines.

On average, non-incarcerated Black and Hispanic adults are more likely to have “below basic” or “basic” literacy scores than incarcerated white adults.
Percentage of population that has “below basic” or “basic” literacy, by literacy type

Literacy type
Prose Document Quantitative
Black adults in households 67% 59% 79%
Hispanic adults in households 74% 64% 83%
White adults in prison 41% 33% 64%

To me, this data implies that in ending mass incarceration, we will need to grapple with how our educational system is failing large portions of our nation — to the detriment of everyone.

Corey Michon, a graduating Senior at Williams College, wrote this article as part of her 2016 Alternative Spring Break experience at the Prison Policy Initiative. She is looking forward to the publication of updated NAAL data in the summer of 2016.


Appendix: Literacy Types and Literacy Proficiency

Types of Literacy

The 2003 NAAL study address three types of literacy and defines each as the following:

  1. Prose literacy: The knowledge and skills needed to search, comprehend, and use information from continuous texts. Prose examples include editorials, news stories, brochures, and instructional materials.
  2. Document literacy: The knowledge and skills needed to search, comprehend, and use information from noncontinuous texts. Document examples include job applications, payroll forms, transportation schedules, maps, tables, and drug or food labels.
  3. Quantitative literacy: The knowledge and skills needed to identify and perform computations using numbers that are embedded in printed materials. Examples include balancing a checkbook, computing a tip, completing an order form, or determining the amount of interest on a loan from an advertisement.

Categories of Literacy Proficiency

The 2003 NAAL categorizes literacy levels with 4 descriptors (below basic, basic, intermediate, and proficient), and defines each as the following:

  1. Below Basic: Indicates that an adult has no more than the most simple and concrete literacy skills.
  2. Basic: Indicates that an adult has the skills necessary to perform simple and everyday literacy activities.
  3. Intermediate: Indicates that an adult has the skills necessary to perform moderately challenging literacy activities.
  4. Proficient: Indicates that an adult has the skills necessary to perform more complex and challenging literacy activities.

Examples for Each Type and Category of Literacy

The following are examples of tasks for each type and category of literacy provided by the NAAL 2003 study.

  1. Below Basic Examples
    Prose: Identify what it is permissible to drink before a medical test, based on a short set of instructions.
    Document: Circle the date of a medical appointment on a hospital appointment slip.
    Quantitative: Add two numbers to complete an ATM deposit slip.
  2. Basic Examples
    Prose: Find, in a long narrative passage, the name of the person who performed a particular action.
    Document: Determine and categorize a person’s body mass index (BMI) given the person’s height and weight, a graph that can be used to determine BMI based on height and weight, and a table that categorizes BMI ranges.
    Quantitative: Calculate the cost of a sandwich and salad, using prices from a menu.
  3. Intermediate Examples
    Prose: Explain why the author of a first-person narrative chose a particular activity instead of an alternative activity.
    Document: Enter product numbers for office supplies on an order form, using information from a page in an office supplies catalog.
    Quantitative: Determine what time a person can take a prescription medication, based on information on the prescription drug label that relates timing of medication to eating.
  4. Proficient Examples
    Prose: Compare and contrast the meaning of metaphors in a poem.
    Document: Apply information given in a text to graph a trend.
    Quantitative: Calculate the yearly cost of a specified amount of life insurance, using a table that gives cost by month for each $1,000 of coverage.

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