It’s time to recognize that if we really care about taxpayers’ dollars, public safety, and the wellbeing of all communities, prisons and jails should be the last places we want to put people suffering from addiction.

by Lucius Couloute, April 28, 2017

Last year, as part of the Obama Administration’s agenda on criminal justice reform, acting Attorney General Loretta Lynch declared April 24th-30th National Reentry Week. Unfortunately, the current administrations seems to have shelved the idea, in favor of appearing tougher on crime and cracking down on drugs in the “inner-city”. But we want to take the opportunity to join grassroots leaders across the country in drawing attention to the importance of reentry today.

At a time when the future of mass incarceration is unclear, it is important to recognize that our criminal justice policy decisions have real and lasting consequences for millions of people across the country. And although the current administration appears to be interested in reframing the debate, history suggests that the ‘tough-on-crime’ strategy, especially as it pertains to drug use, is a flawed one.

As a sociologist examining the difficult road of reentry for formerly incarcerated people, I’ve listened to countless stories about the harms of addiction.
Very frequently I hear from formerly incarcerated people about how ordinary tasks like going to work, taking care of kids, or taking classes are made much more difficult when contending with a present or past dependence on drugs.

But it isn’t just that addiction makes life difficult. Even when formerly incarcerated people feel they’ve kicked their habit, the effects of having been formally criminalized because of an addiction can actually work against recovery.

When I asked about his robbery convictions and their connection to his decades-long struggle with heroin, Alex, a 49 year-old Latino man told me:

“[My crimes] are a means to keep getting money to keep getting high … And in my case I get so messed up that I say, ‘you know something? Time for me to go back in and clean myself up, gain some weight and try [to stay sober] again.’ But that place is only going to mess you up more, mentally. Because … addiction services in prison are almost nonexistent.”

Alex isn’t exaggerating about the lack of drug treatment available to incarcerated people. Despite the fact that an estimated 80% of incarcerated people are dealing with some form of addiction, only about 11% of the people who need treatment actually receive it in prison or jail.

The good news is that states are beginning to recognize that addiction is a medical issue and should probably be addressed outside of correctional facilities. Unfortunately, though, the criminalization of drug dependence has wreaked havoc on communities of color for years and continues to shape the lives of people like Alex.

Alex spends most of his time now looking for jobs, safe places to stay, and fighting off the urge to use – but having a criminal record makes each of these tasks difficult. He believes people like him are alone in their battle for a better life. But as he puts it, “We did that to ourselves. Because we keep repeating the same mistakes so many times that people lose faith in us. People give up.” Having constantly been told that his personal choices led to his criminal record, Alex’s cynicism reflects an institutional-level inability to address the source of his criminal behavior – a dependence on heroin.

By misrecognizing crime as a function of character our criminal justice system does little to help people like Alex lead law-abiding lives.

And confounding the causes of crime, in this way, occurs more than we think. Current estimates suggest that about 20% of incarcerated people are locked up because of a drug offense, but drugs probably play a role in a far greater number of criminal offenses than the statistics imply. People in prison for multiple offenses are reported in official records only for the most serious ones, so some people incarcerated for “violent” offenses might have also been charged with a drug offense too. Not to mention that about 1/3rd of people who commit crimes are estimated to have been using drugs at the time of their last offense.

In many cases that don’t appear to be driven by drug-seeking behavior (like Alex’s robbery convictions), addiction very well may have played a significant role. Yet as Alex points out, few people receive holistic long-term services before, during, or even after their incarceration.

Effective treatment is costly, yes, but compared to the cost of incarceration, drug treatment is a bargain. If we fail to provide people suffering from addiction the resources they need to function, the criminal justice system will continue to squander taxpayer dollars in an endless cycle of incarceration, release, and re-incarceration.

As National Reentry Week 2017 comes to an end, it’s time to recognize that if we really care about taxpayers’ dollars, public safety, and the wellbeing of all communities, prisons and jails should be the last places we want to put people suffering from addiction.

On Tuesday, May 2, we'll be participating in Valley Gives, a 24-hour online giving event for nonprofit organizations located in western Massachusetts.

by Wendy Sawyer, April 25, 2017

On Tuesday, May 2, we’ll be participating in Valley Gives (link no longer available), a 24-hour online giving event for nonprofit organizations located in western Massachusetts. And this Valley Gives Day, a generous supporter will match the first $2,500 given to the Prison Policy Initiative.

In the past year, we have had historic successes in our major campaigns:

  • We organized an unprecedented 100,000 people to submit comments to the Census Bureau demanding an end to prison gerrymandering, including 13 U.S. Senators and 39 civil rights organizations.
  • Following the success of last year’s campaign in Massachusetts to eliminate an outdated law suspending driver’s licenses for drug offenses unrelated to driving, we expanded our campaign nationally. So far, we’ve seen progress in D.C., Florida, Mississippi, Texas, and Virginia, and just this month legislation was introduced in Congress that would repeal the federal law.
  • Local jails are allowing private companies to replace in-person visits with expensive, low-quality “video visitation,” as our research has shown. Fortunately, policymakers in Illinois and New Jersey have stepped up to protect crucial in-person visits, and we continue to fight this damaging and exploitative practice.
  • We’re also pushing for criminal justice reform in our home state of Massachusetts. In a recent report, we showed that probation fees hit the state’s poorest communities hardest. Legislation introduced this year would eliminate probation fees for more people under community supervision, and ensure that no one is locked up because they can’t afford a fee.

Together with individual supporters like you, we’ve been able to accomplish so much in the past year. The need for criminal justice reform – and to protect the reforms we’ve achieved – has never been more urgent. So please donate by May 2nd to double the impact of your gift. As always, we thank you for your support.

You can visit our Valley Gives page here: (link no longer available)

We are thrilled to see the ACA support the common sense idea that emerging technologies should supplement, not replace, in person visits.

by Lucius Couloute, April 24, 2017

ACA policy on family-friendly communication and visitationAs we mentioned in our January 2015 report, in four conferences going back to 2001, our nation’s leading professional organization for correctional officials, the American Correctional Association, has consistently declared that “visitation is important” and “reaffirmed its promotion of family-friendly communication policies between offenders and their families.”

Last August, the American Correctional Association went further by explicitly declaring that emerging technologies (like video visitation) should only be used to supplement existing in-person visitation.

The ACA isn’t the only national association to take a stand; the American Bar Association’s standards state that video visitation should not replace in-person visitation.

These resolutions are important because they tell the hundreds of jails that have replaced in-person visits with video visitation that these jails are violating correctional best practices.

Since jails incarcerate people who tend to be extremely poor, video visitation can come at a great cost to their families. At up to $1.50 per minute, a single 15-minute video visit can be the difference between buying a day’s worth of food, or forgoing groceries to speak with a loved one. The American Correctional Association understands this economic reality, urging correctional facilities to “not place unreasonable financial burdens upon the offender or their family and friends.”

As a supplement to in-person visits, video visitation can help connect families who are far apart. We are thrilled to see the ACA include in their Public Correctional Policies the common sense idea that emerging technologies should supplement – not replace – in person visits.

For more information on this issue and to see country wide press coverage, see our report and organizing on the for-profit video visitation industry in prisons and jails.

Are providers of prison communication services allowing unrestricted access to the personal computers and conversations of incarcerated people and their loved ones?

by Stephen Raher, April 24, 2017

The apparent suicide of former NFL player Aaron Hernandez has received much media attention, due to Mr. Hernandez’s celebrity status. While many news reports noted that Mr. Hernandez was recently acquitted of additional murder charges, I wanted to highlight one of his experiences while awaiting trial: a civil lawsuit against prison telecom company Securus.

What happened?

While he was awaiting trial, Hernandez was held in the Suffolk County Jail in Massachusetts. The county has chosen Securus as the exclusive provider of telecom services for people incarcerated in the jail. According to a document we received, Securus has determined that an unauthorized person (or people) accessed recordings of Mr. Hernandez’s phone calls. Securus later informed the federal court that the recorded calls were between Hernandez and his fiancée.

Mr. Hernandez sued Securus in Massachusetts state court, alleging invasion of privacy and other related claims. Securus tried to move the case to federal court, but in March 2017, the U.S. District Court for Massachusetts concluded that the lawsuit did not implicate federal law, and sent it back to state court, where it is still pending.

What does this mean for incarcerated people and the loved ones they talk to?

Securus’s self-serving “Integrity Pledge (link no longer available)” claims that the company understands and honors “confidentiality of calls.” But as with so much corporate PR, when something actually goes wrong, Securus’s commitment to stated principles is nowhere to be found. In response to Mr. Hernandez’s lawsuit, Securus argued that Hernandez couldn’t sue for unauthorized access to call recordings, because “inmates have no expectation of privacy in their communications” and thus Hernandez “suffered no cognizable privacy injury.”

Notably, Hernandez was not suing because jail officials listened to his calls, but rather because he believed that Securus didn’t take adequate steps to prevent a hacker from breaking into the database of recordings and listening to private conversations. Most people realize that law enforcement can listen to non-privileged jail phone calls (Securus has also been accused of illegally taping privileged attorney-client phone calls, but this did not appear to have happened in Hernandez’s case); however, this should not mean that private phone calls can be shared with anyone in the world. Nonetheless, this is basically what Securus is arguing when it says that Hernandez doesn’t even have a right to go to court.

What additional concerns does this raise for families and friends of incarcerated people?

The same privacy concerns discussed above also apply to family and friends who call or video-chat with incarcerated people. But folks on the outside have another potential source of worry: they are often granting Securus access to their personal computers.

In the case of video visitation, Securus requires users to install a Java applet that—according to Securus—allows the transmission of audio and video. When users install the applet, they receive a warning that the applet “run[s] with unrestricted access which may put your computer and personal information at risk.” Screenshot of Securus unrestricted access applet This warning suggests that Securus’s applet can potentially access unrelated information on a customer’s computer, like photos, emails, or other private files. This, in turn, raises several concerns, given the terms and conditions that customers must agree to.

First, Securus’s privacy policy states that customers agree that Securus can “receive[] and store[] certain information whenever [the customer uses video visitation].” But “certain information” is never defined. Are customers unwittingly granting Securus permission to snoop through their files or eavesdrop through their computer’s microphone? Probably not, but Securus’s confusingly-written contract doesn’t provide any assurances to the contrary.

Of greater concern is Secrurus’s language about monitoring by law enforcement. Securus forces its customers to agree to the following language:

Securus assumes no responsibility for the activities, omissions or other conduct of any member of Law Enforcement (a “Law Enforcement Official”). Relative to [video visitation], Securus acts solely as a portal for the online distribution and publication of electronically distributed information and has no obligation to screen communications or information in advance and is not responsible for screening or monitoring electronic communications sent via this Service.

If the Java applet does create a backdoor into a user’s computer (either intentionally or accidentally), then law enforcement could exploit this backdoor (either on their own or at Securus’s invitation), and access private information on a user’s computer. In such a scenario, Securus has set itself up to disclaim any liability—an argument that is foreshadowed in the Hernandez lawsuit.

Securus is able to charge high prices because it knows it can exploit the desire of families who want to maintain contact with their loved ones. Adding insult to injury, Securus now argues that its customers have no privacy rights whatsoever. And making matters even worse, Securus’s terms of service don’t clearly tell customers what information they are surrendering.

While Aaron Hernandez had the resources to fight back, most incarcerated people do not. This situation illustrates an increasingly obvious fact: as prisons adopt new technologies (like video visitation, electronic fund transfers, and electronic messaging), incarcerated people and their families will be unfairly exploited unless lawmakers get serious about extending consumer protections inside the prison walls.

When we consider the relative cost of medical co-pays to incarcerated people who typically earn 14 to 62 cents per hour, it's clear they can be cost-prohibitive. Co-pays that take a large portion of your paycheck make seeking medical attention a costly choice.

by Wendy Sawyer, April 19, 2017

If your doctor charged a $500 co-pay for every visit, how bad would your health have to get before you made an appointment? You would be right to think such a high cost exploitative, and your neighbors would be right to fear that it would discourage you from getting the care you need for preventable problems. That’s not just a hypothetical story; it’s the hidden reality of prison life, adjusted for the wage differential between incarcerated people and people on the outside.

In most states, people incarcerated in prisons and jails pay medical co-pays for physician visits, medications, dental treatment, and other health services. These fees are meant to partially reimburse the states and counties for the high cost of medical care for the populations they serve, which are among the most at-risk for both chronic and infectious diseases. Fees are also meant to deter people from unnecessary doctor’s visits. Unfortunately, high fees may be doing more harm than good: deterring sick people from getting the care they really do need.

A $2-5 medical co-pay in prison or jail may not seem expensive on its face. But when we consider the relative cost of these co-pays to incarcerated people who typically earn 14 to 63 cents per hour, it’s clear how they can be cost-prohibitive. To compare the cost of medical co-pays in prisons and jails to what people pay on the outside (relative to the wages available to each population), I first calculated how many hours of work it would take a low-paid incarcerated person in each state to pay for one co-pay. Then, I translated this hourly cost into the wages earned by a minimum wage, “free world” worker in the same state.

Graph showing how much minimum wage earners in each state would pay if a single co-pay took as many hours to earn as a co-pay charged to an incarcerated person does. The average equivalent co-pay is about $200 and in West Virginia, it's over $1,000. See the table below for co-pay fees and minimum wages in each state. Policy details and sourcing information can be found in the Appendix. For another perspective, I also graphed what percent of the lowest-paid incarcerated person’s monthly earnings is taken by a single co-pay in each state.

In West Virginia, a single visit to the doctor would cost almost an entire month’s pay for an incarcerated person who makes $6 per month. For someone earning the state minimum wage, an equivalent co-pay that takes the same 125 hours to earn would cost an unconscionable $1,093. In Michigan, it would take over a week to earn enough for a single $5 co-pay, making it the free world equivalent of over $300. I found that fourteen states1 charge a medical co-pay that is equivalent to charging minimum wage workers more than $200.

The excessive burden of medical fees and co-pays is most obvious in states where many or all incarcerated people are paid nothing for their work: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas. Texas2 is the most extreme example, with a flat $100 yearly health services fee, which some officials are actually trying to double to $200. People incarcerated in these states must rely on deposits into their personal accounts – typically from family – to pay medical fees. In most places, funds are automatically withdrawn from these accounts until the balance is paid, creating a debt that can follow them even after release.

Co-pays in the hundreds of dollars would be unthinkable for non-incarcerated minimum wage earners. So why do states think it’s acceptable to charge people making pennies per hour such a large portion of their earnings? Some might argue that incarcerated people have nothing better to spend wages on than medical care. But wages allow incarcerated people to buy things they need that the prison does not provide: toiletries, over-the-counter medicine, additional clothes and shoes, as well as phone cards, stamps, and paper to help them maintain contact with loved ones. Co-pays that take a large portion of prison wages make seeking medical attention a costly choice.

Part of the justification for charging incarcerated people medical co-pays is to force them to make difficult choices. Administrators want to deter “frivolous” medical visits. The National Commission on Correctional Health Care (NCCHC), however, argues that abuses of sick call can be managed with “a good triage system,” without imposing fees that also deter necessary medical services. And although providers must treat people regardless of their ability to pay, incarcerated people with “low health literacy” may not understand this right. The NCCHC warns that co-pays may actually jeopardize the health of incarcerated populations, staff, and the public.

Out-of-reach co-pays in prisons and jails have two unintended but inevitable consequences which make them counterproductive and even dangerous. First, when sick people avoid the doctor, disease is more likely to spread to others in the facility – and into the community, when people are released before being treated. Second, illnesses are likely to worsen as long as people avoid the doctor, which means more aggressive (and expensive) treatment when they can no longer go without it. Correctional agencies may be willing to take that risk and hope that by the time people seek care, their treatment will be someone else’s problem. But medical co-pays encourage a dangerous waiting game for incarcerated people, correctional agencies, and the public – which none of us can afford.

For details and sourcing information on co-pays (and what happens when incarcerated patients can’t afford them), see the Appendix.

March 2020 update: Please see our post about legislative changes in California, Illinois, and Texas to see what state policies have changed since we first published this briefing, and our page tracking correctional responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, which includes temporary suspensions of copays in some states.

This table includes co-pay fees for non-emergency, patient-initiated visits with medical staff. The co-pay average excludes Texas, which charges on a yearly basis rather than per-service. For details and sourcing information on co-pays, see the Appendix. For information on wages, see “How much do incarcerated people earn in each state?” State minimum wage information was obtained from the National Conference of State Legislatures. Exceptions: for states with no minimum wage law or minimum wages below the federal law, I used the federal minimum wage. For states with two tiers of minimum wages for free-world workers, I used the higher wages that apply to larger businesses (Minn., Mont., Ohio, and Okla.). For Nevada, I used the lower of the two minimum wage tiers, which applies to jobs with health benefits.
Co-pay or fee Prison job minimum wage Hours of work required to afford one co-pay State minimum wage Equivalent co-pay at minimum wage
(hours x minimum wage)
Alabama $4.00 $0.00 n/a $7.25 n/a
Alaska $5.00 $0.30 16.67 $9.80 $163.33
Arizona $5.00 $0.15 33.33 $10.00 $333.33
Arkansas $3.00 $0.00 n/a $8.50 n/a
California3 $5.00 $0.08 62.50 $10.50 $656.25
Colorado $3.00 $0.13 23.08 $9.30 $214.62
Connecticut $3.00 $0.13 23.08 $10.10 $233.08
Delaware $4.00 n/a n/a $8.25 n/a
Florida $5.00 $0.00 n/a $8.10 n/a
Georgia $5.00 $0.00 n/a $7.25 n/a
Hawaii $3.00 $0.25 12.00 $9.25 $111.00
Idaho $5.00 $0.10 50.00 $7.25 $362.50
Illinois4 $5.00 $0.09 55.56 $8.25 $458.33
Indiana $5.00 $0.12 41.67 $7.25 $302.08
Iowa $3.00 $0.27 11.11 $7.25 $80.56
Kansas $2.00 $0.09 22.22 $7.25 $161.11
Kentucky $3.00 $0.13 23.08 $7.25 $167.31
Louisiana $3.00 $0.04 75.00 $7.25 $543.75
Maine $5.00 n/a n/a $9.00 n/a
Maryland $2.00 $0.15 13.33 $8.75 $116.67
Massachusetts $3.00 $0.14 21.43 $11.00 $235.71
Michigan $5.00 $0.14 35.71 $8.90 $317.86
Minnesota $5.00 $0.25 20.00 $9.50 $190.00
Mississippi $6.00 $0.00 n/a $7.25 n/a
Missouri $0.00 $0.05 0.00 $7.70 $0.00
Montana $0.00 $0.16 0.00 $8.15 $0.00
Nebraska $0.00 $0.16 0.00 $9.00 $0.00
Nevada $8.00 n/a n/a $7.25 n/a
New Hampshire $3.00 $0.25 12.00 $7.25 $87.00
New Jersey $5.00 $0.26 19.23 $8.44 $162.31
New Mexico $0.00 $0.10 0.00 $7.50 $0.00
New York $0.00 $0.10 0.00 $9.70 $0.00
North Carolina $5.00 $0.05 100.00 $7.25 $725.00
North Dakota $3.00 $0.19 15.79 $7.25 $114.47
Ohio $2.00 $0.10 20.00 $8.15 $163.00
Oklahoma* $4.00 $0.05 80.00 $7.25 $580.00
Oregon $0.00 $0.05 0.00 $9.75 $0.00
Pennsylvania $5.00 $0.19 26.32 $7.25 $190.79
Rhode Island $3.00 $0.29 10.34 $9.60 $99.31
South Carolina $5.00 $0.00 n/a $7.25 n/a
South Dakota $2.00 $0.25 8.00 $8.65 $69.20
Tennessee $3.00 $0.17 17.65 $7.25 $127.94
Texas5 $100.00 per year $0.00 n/a $7.25 n/a
Utah $5.00 $0.40 12.50 $7.25 $90.63
Vermont $0.00 $0.25 0.00 $10.00 $0.00
Virginia $5.00 $0.27 18.52 $7.25 $134.26
Washington $4.00 n/a n/a $11.00 n/a
West Virginia $5.00 $0.04 125.00 $8.75 $1,093.75
Wisconsin $7.50 $0.09 83.33 $7.25 $604.17
Wyoming $0.00 $0.35 0.00 $7.25 $0.00
Federal $2.00 $0.12 16.67 $7.25 $120.83
Average* $3.47 $0.14 25.09 $8.30 $208.25


Footnotes (including updates)

  1. This was updated April 28, 2017 with information from a new source on wages for Oklahoma’s regular prison jobs (non-industry). The source used when this was first posted did not state a minimum prison wage, only a maximum. According to DOC policy, however, the minimum wage for regular jobs is $7.23 per month, or about 5 cents per hour. A $4 co-pay for someone earning that much is the equivalent of a $580 co-pay charged to a non-incarcerated minimum wage earner in Oklahoma. The table, text, and graphs in this post have been updated to reflect Oklahoma’s updated information.  ↩
  2. As of 2019, the Texas legislature had made progress by replacing the notorious $100 fee Texas had charged incarcerated people with a $13.55 per-visit fee. While this change marks a substantial improvement, incarcerated people in Texas – who earn nothing for their labor – continue to be charged the highest medical co-pay in state prisons nationwide.  ↩
  3. In 2019, California passed legislation ending medical co-pays in prisons and jails.  ↩
  4. In 2019, Illinois passed legislation ending medical co-pays in state prisons and juvenile residential placement facilities.  ↩
  5. As of 2019, the Texas legislature had made progress by replacing the notorious $100 fee Texas had charged incarcerated people with a $13.55 per-visit fee. While this change marks a substantial improvement, incarcerated people in Texas – who earn nothing for their labor – continue to be charged the highest medical co-pay in state prisons nationwide.  ↩

Stephen Raher reviews Cathy O’Neil's book, Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy.

by Stephen Raher, April 18, 2017

Weapons of Math Destruction book coverCathy O’Neil has a Ph.D in math, and has worked in academia, finance, and data analytics. Fortunately for everyone, she recently decided to use her skills to write an informative and accessible exploration of “Big Data” in her book Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy.

Referencing the collateral damage caused by weapons of mass destruction, O’Neil coined the term “weapons of math destruction” (WMDs). She defines WMDs as opaque mathematical models that embed human prejudice, misunderstanding, and bias into the software systems that automate numerous aspects of our lives. Her book covers several types of these models and the frustrating injustices they can perpetrate. In addition to case studies about credit scoring, online advertising, employment, and insurance, O’Neil discusses the use of WMDs in the criminal justice system. In particular, the book considers models used to deploy police, predict a defendant’s chances of recidivism, and calculate prison sentences.

Weapons of Math Destruction covers a lot of ground, but four distinct themes emerge in connection with the criminal justice system’s use of WMDs.

1) Fairness

The book repeatedly points to the unfairness that results from WMDs. O’Neil gives examples of algorithms that map crime so that police can predict crime hotspots, as well as models that take demographic information about a criminal defendant and calculate a “risk score” purporting to predict the likelihood that the defendant will recidivate. Although the creators of such WMDs usually claim not to consider race as a factor, facially neutral data like neighborhood can act as a highly accurate proxy for race. As a result, mathematical models, which are marketed as supposedly removing human bias from the system, often perpetuate racial discrimination.

WMDs also work to the disadvantage of low-income people. Crime-mapping programs direct police to focus on poor neighborhoods with high crime rates, leading to increased arrests in those areas (usually for “quality of life” non-violent offenses), thus reinforcing the initial data that led to heavier policing of poor neighborhoods. Residents from these localities who are convicted of crimes are—because their friends and neighbors are more likely to have criminal records—more likely to be flagged by risk-scoring models as high recidivism risks and receive longer sentences. As other researchers have noted, this faulty logic shifts responsibility for community-wide problems to individuals who have no control over neighborhood conditions like racial profiling, inadequate job opportunities, limited educational opportunities, and lack of access to mental health care. In O’Neil’s words, because WMDs have no way of considering fairness, “the result is massive, industrial production of unfairness. If you think of a WMD as a factory, unfairness is the black stuff belching out of the smoke stacks. It’s an emission, a toxic one.”

It’s also important to remember that unfairness isn’t always an unintended byproduct of WMDs. After publishing Weapons of Math Destruction, O’Neil has written about the current presidential administration’s intentional steps to distort data in an effort to criminalize immigrants.

2) Legality

In addition to the broader issues of fairness, O’Neil points to narrower questions of legality. Even though recidivism risk scores are problematic from the outset (as discussed above), they could arguably be useful as one of several factors in making certain decisions (for example, identifying people who could benefit from intensive education or therapy programs). But grave legal issues are implicated when these models are used in determining a criminal sentence (a practice that is currently used in nine states, according to a 2016 ProPublica report, and which seems to be gaining in popularity). The U.S. Constitution guarantees that a criminal defendant can confront witnesses and challenge the evidence presented against him or her. But O’Neil explains that recidivism risk scores, unlike witness testimony, cannot be recorded and challenged in court, but instead “are tucked away in algorithms, intelligible only to a tiny elite.” Moreover, risk scores can be based on information that would not be admissible in a court proceeding, such as the criminal background of a defendant’s friends and family members, or the crime rate in his or her neighborhood.

3) Garbage in, garbage out

Ever since the early days of computer programming, programmers have acknowledged that inaccurate input data will produce inaccurate results. In the criminal justice context, this arises when deciding what type of crime statistics to feed into a WMD. When discussing crime-mapping, O’Neil posits that if a model is built on data about burglary, car theft, and violent crime, then perhaps the results could be useful in deploying limited police resources (although, even then, she acknowledges that crime reports and arrest records aren’t particularly reliable proxies for the true amount and nature of criminal activity). The big problem comes when nuisance offenses like vagrancy, panhandling, and simple drug possession are fed into models. These data distort crime calculations, fueling the proliferation of “broken windows policing” and ever-growing numbers of arrests.

On the flip side of the coin, plenty of harmful crime is not incorporated into WMDs. Financial firms defraud customers (sometimes nearly bringing the global economy to a halt) and industries violate environmental laws—but these harmful activities are not included in crime-prediction models, and the algorithms do not dispatch battalions of police to look for violations in wealthy suburbs and gated communities. As O’Neil writes, “[t]he result is that we criminalize poverty, believing all the while that our tools are not only scientific but fair.”

4) Using data for good

Finally, O’Neil expresses her frustration with the fact that sophisticated mathematical models can be used to improve society, but such deployment is not common because it would threaten entrenched powers. For example, she notes that prisons collect massive amounts of data on incarcerated persons, yet this information is not used to tackle questions like: what are the impacts of solitary confinement, what are effective tools for combatting sexual assault in prison, and what types of prison experiences (big or small) effectively reduce recidivism. Data that could be used to address issues like these are either not held in a usable format, or are purposely withheld from researchers. According to O’Neil, prison administrators “use data to justify the workings of the system but not to question or improve the system.”

Food for thought

I found Weapons of Math Destruction to be a good read because it provides an expert’s insight into how WMDs impact all of us. But this is a huge topic, and at roughly 200 pages, O’Neil’s book can’t cover all the ground, particularly in regards to criminal justice. There are many topics that remain lurking in the background, including three that come immediately to my mind.

First is the proliferation of data sources that can potentially feed WMDs. When discussing criminal-justice WMDs, O’Neil frequently mentions data comprised of arrest records, court records, and other public documents, but doesn’t explore the growth of “alternative” datasets that could be sucked up into risk-scoring algorithms. There is cause to worry on this front. In a report that I wrote for the Prison Policy Initiative last year, I noted that some prisons are embracing electronic messaging as an alternative to mailed correspondence to and from incarcerated persons. These services are typically operated by private contractors that provide users with little or no privacy protections. This raises the all-to-real possibility that years’ worth of correspondence between an incarcerated person and their family could be used as data in a risk-scoring WMD. As another example, the federal Bureau of Prisons is trying to weaken financial privacy protections so that it can collect banking information on people who send money to people in prison (the Prison Policy Initiative and other groups have formally opposed this move, and BOP has not yet finalized the draft rule).

Second, the ease with which data travels can mean that it’s harder for formerly-incarcerated people to escape the stigma attached to a criminal record. As more businesses and government agencies rely on WMDs to automate decision-making, criminal records will inevitably flow through more databases, thus ensuring an ever widening net that prevents formerly incarcerated people from meaningfully participating in economic, civic, and social life. Communities must start discussing fair ways to honor public access to information without condemning formerly incarcerated people to a permanent diminished tier of citizenship.

Finally, there is the fact that opaque and unfair WMDs developed in the criminal justice system today are likely to be applied to society-at-large tomorrow. News reports recently indicated that about half of the adult population of the U.S. is unwittingly contained in an FBI facial-recognition database that has a reported 15% inaccuracy rate (and is far more likely to misidentify Black people). While we can expect to see more expansion of such systems, the real question is where this leads: will experiments such as the FBI’s catalyze a thoughtful discussion of privacy, fairness, and expectations about risk; or, will they hasten a Minority Report-style society where people are punished because they might commit a crime in the future?

Some legislators are beginning to take notice of the abusive video visitation industry. Policymakers across the country should consider adopting legislation so that incarcerated people and their families are not prevented from face-to-face contact during difficult times.

by Lucius Couloute, April 10, 2017

As our research has shown, local jails are increasingly replacing in-person visits with expensive and poorly implemented video visitation systems.

Fortunately, some policymakers are taking notice. Illinois State Rep. Carol Ammons introduced a bill earlier this year that would protect in-person visitation from being eliminated in Illinois correctional facilities and limit the cost of video visits. There is also active legislation in New Jersey that would guarantee face-to-face family visits for incarcerated individuals, cap video costs at 11 cents a minute, and ban fees on professional video visits from lawyers and clergy.

Policymakers across the country should consider adopting similar legislation so that incarcerated people and their families are not prevented from in-person contact during difficult times. Preserving face-to-face visitation is not just humane, it’s good policy because contact between incarcerated people and their loved ones is proven to reduce the likelihood that an individual will re-offend after release.

For more information on this issue and efforts to protect in-person visitation, see our report on the video visitation industry.

Prison wages come up again and again in the context of prison conditions and policies. So, we found the most up-to-date information for each state.

by Wendy Sawyer, April 10, 2017

How much do incarcerated people earn? For this update, we combed through the policies of state correctional agencies and any other available sources, and found information for every state. Despite the inaccessibility of data for some state prison jobs, this is the most comprehensive list of wages paid to incarcerated people available today:

Wages are per hour. Some states publish wage policies differently. For states that calculate wages on daily, weekly, monthly, and annual bases, I calculated the hourly rates based on work hours per day and work days per month, according to the written policies or what was reported in the 2001 Corrections Yearbook survey. For states where I could find no information on work hours, I assumed 22 work days per month and an average workday of 6.35 hours (for regular jobs) or 6.79 hours (for industry jobs) per day. I included all non-industry jobs paid by correctional agencies as “regular prison jobs” for the table, including rare and off-site jobs that pay more. In many states, most regular prison jobs pay well below the highest rates stated here. See the Appendix for policy details.
Regular jobs
Jobs in state-owned businesses
(“Correctional Industries”)
Low High Low High
Alabama 0.00 0.00 0.25 0.75
Alaska 0.30 1.25 0.65 4.90
Arizona 0.15 0.50 0.20 0.80
Arkansas 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.00
California 0.08 0.37 0.30 0.95
Colorado 0.13 0.38 n/a n/a
Connecticut 0.13 1.00 0.30 1.50
Delaware n/a n/a 0.25 2.00
Florida 0.00 0.32 0.20 0.55
Georgia 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.00
Hawaii 0.25 0.25 0.50 2.50
Idaho 0.10 0.90 n/a n/a
Illinois 0.09 0.89 0.30 2.25
Indiana 0.12 0.25 n/a n/a
Iowa 0.27 0.68 0.58 0.87
Kansas 0.09 0.16 0.25 3.00
Kentucky 0.13 0.33 n/a n/a
Louisiana 0.04 1.00 n/a 0.40
Maine n/a n/a 0.58 3.50
Maryland 0.15 0.46 0.20 0.82
Massachusetts 0.14 1.00 n/a n/a
Michigan 0.14 0.56 n/a n/a
Minnesota 0.25 2.00 0.50 2.00
Mississippi 0.00 n/a 0.20 1.30
Missouri 0.05 n/a 0.30 1.25
Montana 0.16 1.25 n/a n/a
Nebraska 0.16 1.08 0.38 1.08
Nevada n/a n/a 0.25 5.15
New Hampshire 0.25 1.50 0.50 1.50
New Jersey 0.26 2.00 0.38 2.00
New Mexico 0.10 1.00 0.30 1.10
New York 0.10 0.33 Average 0.62
North Carolina 0.05 0.38 0.05 0.38
North Dakota 0.19 0.88 0.45 1.69
Ohio 0.10 0.17 0.21 1.23
Oklahoma 0.05 0.54 0.00 0.43
Oregon 0.05 0.47 0.05 0.47
Pennsylvania 0.19 1.00 0.19 0.42
Rhode Island 0.29 0.86 n/a n/a
South Carolina 0.00 0.00 0.35 1.80
South Dakota 0.25 0.38 0.25 0.25
Tennessee 0.17 0.75 n/a n/a
Texas 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.00
Utah 0.40 n/a 0.60 1.75
Vermont 0.25 0.40 0.25 1.25
Virginia 0.27 0.45 0.55 0.80
Washington n/a 0.36 0.70 2.70
West Virginia 0.04 0.58 n/a n/a
Wisconsin 0.09 0.42 0.79 1.41
Wyoming 0.35 1.00 0.50 1.20
Federal Prisons 0.12 0.40 0.23 1.15
Average 0.14 0.63 0.33 1.41

What kinds of work do incarcerated people do?

Not everyone works in prison. Facilities face budget limitations and sometimes there is just not enough work to go around. But generally, correctional facilities assign incarcerated people to work as close to a regular day as possible. These work assignments fall into four broad categories, the first of which is by far the most common:

Not everyone works in prison. Facilities face budget limitations and sometimes there is just not enough work to go around. But generally, correctional facilities assign incarcerated people to work as close to a regular day as possible. These work assignments fall into four broad categories, the first of which is by far the most common:

  1. Regular prison jobs. These are directed by the Department of Corrections and support the prison facility. This category includes custodial, maintenance, laundry, grounds keeping, food service, and many other types of work. Sometimes called “facility,” “prison,” or “institutional support” jobs, these are the most common prison jobs.
  2. Jobs in state-owned businesses. Often called “Correctional Industries,” these businesses produce goods and provide services that are sold to government agencies. Correctional agencies and the businesses coordinate to operate these “shops,” and the revenues they generate help fund these positions. Agency-operated industries employ about 6% of people incarcerated in prisons.
  3. Jobs outside the facility. Work release programs, work camps, and community work centers provide services for public or nonprofit agencies. These programs are directed by the Department of Corrections, but sometimes community employers pay incarcerated workers’ wages. These jobs are typically reserved for people considered lower security risks, and/or those preparing to be released.
  4. Jobs in private businesses. A small number of incarcerated people work for businesses that contract with correctional agencies through the PIE program. This program allows private companies to operate within correctional facilities and provide job training and supervision. Companies must pay local “prevailing wages” for these jobs, but workers may only end up with a small portion of these wages; up to 80% of these earnings can be deducted for various fees.

One major surprise: prisons appear to be paying incarcerated people less today than they were in 2001. The average of the minimum daily wages paid to incarcerated workers for non-industry prison jobs is now 86 cents, down from 93 cents reported in 2001. The average maximum daily wage for the same prison jobs has declined more significantly, from $4.73 in 2001 to $3.45 today. What changed? At least seven states appear to have lowered their maximum wages, and South Carolina no longer pays wages for most regular prison jobs – assignments that paid up to $4.80 per day in 2001. With a few rare exceptions, regular prison jobs are still unpaid in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, and Texas.

Incarcerated people assigned to work for state-owned businesses earn between 33 cents and $1.41 per hour on average – roughly twice as much as people assigned to regular prison jobs. Only about 6 percent of people incarcerated in state prisons earn these “higher” wages, however. An even tinier portion of incarcerated workers are eligible for “prevailing local wages” working for private businesses that contract with states through the PIE program. The vast majority spend their days working in custodial, maintenance, grounds keeping, or food service jobs for the institutions that confine them.

The wages listed above do not include any deductions, which in reality often leave incarcerated workers with less than half of their gross pay. In Massachusetts, for example, at least half of each paycheck goes into a savings account to pay for expenses after release. “Any and all funds” can be used to pay court-assessed fines, court costs, victim witness assessments, etc. New Mexico deducts 15-50% of each paycheck for a Crime Victims Reparations Fund, discharge money, and family support. These policies arguably serve legitimate purposes, but such deductions also mean that $1 per day earned to make day-to-day life behind bars more bearable is really 50 cents (or even less).

The question of wages paid for prison labor is an important one, especially when we consider the relative costs of fees charged and things sold to incarcerated people. The value of a dollar is different when you earn pennies per hour. (And in six states, the wage is almost always zero pennies per hour.) In Colorado, for example, it costs an incarcerated woman two weeks’ wages to buy a box of tampons; maybe more if there’s a shortage. Saving up for a $10 phone card would take almost two weeks for an incarcerated person working in a Pennsylvania prison.

Making it hard for incarcerated people to earn real money hurts their chances of success when they are released, too. With little to no savings, how can they possibly afford the immediate costs of food, housing, healthcare, transportation, child support, and supervison fees? People with felony convictions are often ineligible for government benefit programs like welfare and food stamps, and face barriers to finding stable housing and employment. And they may leave prison with just a bus ticket and $50 of “gate money,” if they have no other savings. So the meager earnings from prison work assignments can be essential to a person’s success – and even survival – when they return to their community.

Most prison jobs teach incarcerated people very few skills relevant to the labor market they will rejoin upon release, so the wages they earn may be the only payoff they see. These perpetually low wages are especially frustrating when we consider the increasing expenses incarcerated people face, both inside and after release. Of course, raising wages is a tough sell politically, but policymakers and the public must acknowledge that almost everyone in prison will eventually be released. Their success and independence depends largely on financial stability, which is undermined by low wages, nickel-and-diming through “user fees,” mandatory deductions, and work that does little to prepare them for work outside of prisons. Forward-thinking policymakers must consider the importance of earnings and relevant job training for people they hope will be independent one day.

For details about each state’s wage policies, see the Appendix.

Updated April 28, 2017 with information from a new source on Oklahoma’s regular prison jobs (non-industry). Originally, I included information based on a DOC website statement that these jobs pay up to $20 per month. According to DOC policy, however, most pay between $7.23 and $14.45 per month, and the highest possible wage for “special project pay” is 54 cents per hour. The averages have been updated to reflect these changes as well.


Proposed legislation would undo one of the Drug War's worst ideas, and would undo it at its source -- Congress.

by Peter Wagner, April 7, 2017

A misguided relic from the War on Drugs suspends the driver’s licenses of 190,000 people every year for drug offenses that do not involve driving. This law makes it hard for people with drug convictions to get back on their feet. After helping Massachusetts end this practice in 2016, we released a report urging the remaining 12 states and the District of Columbia to follow suit.

This week, bi-partisan legislation was introduced that would repeal the problem’s origin: a federal incentive that encouraged states to pass this regressive legislation in the first place.

Yesterday, the Drug Policy Alliance sent a letter to Congress from more than 30 criminal justice reform, addiction recovery, faith, and civil rights organizations supporting the full repeal of the underlying federal law. The Prison Policy Initiative joined the letter and reprints the press release here:

U.S. Representative Beto O’Rourke Leads Bipartisan Bill that Repeals Federal Transportation Law Requiring States to Suspend Driver’s Licenses for Drug Offenses

Nearly 200,000 Driver’s Licenses Are Suspended Annually for Drug Offenses Unrelated to Driving Because of Federal Mandate

More than 30 Addiction Recovery, Criminal Justice, Civil Rights and Faith Organizations Send Letter to Congress Urging Repeal of Federal Suspension Law

Washington, D.C. – U.S. Representative Beto O’Rourke (D-TX-16) has introduced bipartisan legislation with Representatives Justin Amash (R-MI-3), Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY-8), Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI-5), Jerrold Nadler (D-NY-10), and Mia Love (R-UT-4) that would repeal a 26-year-old federal law that mandates states to automatically suspend driver’s licenses for anyone convicted of a drug offense or risk losing federal highway aid money.

Since this mandate was adopted in 1991, 38 states have opted-out demonstrating that the policy is counterproductive. The remaining twelve states – including Texas, New York, Michigan and Florida – still comply with the federal mandate. A recent report by the Prison Policy Initiative found that nearly 200,000 driver’s licenses are still suspended in these states each year for drug offenses unrelated to driving. The American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators has also pointed out that roads are more dangerous when law enforcement time and resources are wasted enforcing license suspensions unrelated to dangerous driving. More than 30 criminal justice reform, addiction recovery, faith and civil rights organizations have signed a letter to Congress supporting full repeal of this federal mandate.

“Limiting an individual’s ability to get around because of a drug law violation is excessively punitive and stifles efforts to find employment, take care of family responsibilities, and access health care and support networks,” said Queen Adesuyi, policy associate of national affairs with the Drug Policy Alliance. “It was 1991 when Congress passed a law requiring states to automatically suspend driver’s licenses for a drug offense, and the catch phrase then was ‘smoke a joint, lose your license.’ In the years since, the harsh impact on people trying to get back on their feet is shining a light on just how counterproductive the war on drugs has been and continues to be.”

Advocates point out that the ability to legally drive is essential to maintaining employment, housing and sobriety, which are also often conditions placed upon individuals as a condition of court-ordered supervision post-conviction and release. The U.S. Census Bureau found that 86% of people surveyed use a vehicle to get to work and employers often require proof of a valid driver’s license to even be considered for certain jobs. Many communities and most rural areas do not have access to public transportation, including many of the states that still follow the federal mandate. In fact, almost half of the 25 least accessible metropolitan areas are within the 12 states that are still automatically suspending licenses for drug convictions. This makes the ability to legally drive essential to maintaining employment and meeting responsibilities.

Low-income communities and communities of color are disproportionately hurt by this antiquated federal mandate. All of the states that suspend driver’s licenses after a drug conviction have reinstatement fees, as high as $275, on top of court fines and fees. Moreover, 44% of the United States’ Black population lives in one of the 12 remaining jurisdictions that suspends driver’s licenses.

“Despite using drugs at similar rates to whites, Blacks and Latinos are disproportionately arrested and convicted for drug offenses, which makes them more likely to be impacted by driver suspension laws,” said Adesuyi. “Driver license suspension laws hit the most marginalized people the hardest without any actual benefit to public safety. A drug conviction should not bar you from being able to pick up your kids from school or go to work. Repeal is long overdue.”


Tommy McDonald 510-338-8827
Queen Adesuyi 202-810-1481

You can also see Representative Beto O’Rourke explain his proposed legislation in this video:

The Prison Policy Initiative’s award-winning campaign to abolish unnecessary license suspensions is just one of the ways we shed light on the hidden consequences of mass incarceration.

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