by Lucius Couloute, June 13, 2017

In the U.S., we often hear ‘you do the crime, you do the time.’ But incarceration isn’t just an individual-level problem, it affects entire networks of people. This Father’s Day I’d like to bring attention to the pernicious consequences of parental incarceration and the exploitive ways in which private telecom companies profit from the separation of families.

Crime has been declining for decades, yet the number of children with a father in state or federal prison is now over 1.5 million. If we include jails, 1 out of every 28 children now has an incarcerated parent. And the latest estimates suggest that Black and Hispanic children are up to six times more likely to have an incarcerated parent than their white peers.

Graph showing number of minor children with a father in state or federal prison from 1991-2007. From 1991 to 2007 the number of minor children with a father in state or federal prison increased 77%. In a separate graph we detail the growing number of fathers in prisons.

Victims of a war waged – largely on poor communities of color – long before they were born, over-criminalization forces children to contend with a vast array of barriers that prevent upward economic mobility. Parental incarceration is associated with an increased risk of childhood poverty, health problems, school suspension and expulsion, and can be a source of stigma for children as they navigate the world around them. During a period when bipartisan support for reform appears to be in flux, it’s important to remember that young lives are at stake when we over-incarcerate.

And as if the forced separation of fathers from their loved ones wasn’t enough, telecom providers have found a way to benefit – and indeed profit – from parental incarceration. At a time when phone companies provide unlimited long distance calling for people like me and you, it can cost an incarcerated person and their family up to $24.95 for a single 15-minute in-state phone conversation. These exorbitant costs help explain why over $1.3 billion a year goes to the prison telephone industry.

A more recent development has been the growth of the video visitation industry; where local jails collude with private companies to charge up to $1.50/minute for low quality offsite video conferencing services (not including any additional fees that get tacked on for good measure). As jails across the country implement this technology they tend to scale back or eliminate in-person visits altogether, all the while receiving kick-backs from the private, for-profit telecom companies.

The exploitative practices of the prison communication industry – which penalize families for trying to stay in touch – amounts to a kind of regressive taxation. In this case, the profits come disproportionately from poor people already struggling with the absence of a loved one. From both a policy perspective, and from the perspective of families, replacing in-person visits with poorly functioning and expensive video visitation is unacceptable.

So on this Father’s Day, millions of children will be without their fathers, and without the ability to pay the outrageous fees associated with speaking to them. I hope that by the time Father’s Day comes around next year, state lawmakers take the initiative to better regulate prison telecom companies, and most importantly, reduce the number of incarcerated people.


by Lucius Couloute, June 8, 2017

Policing in the United States is a highly polarized issue. According to one national poll, Black Americans are much more likely to report being treated unfairly by the police compared to their white counterparts. This is nothing new, of course. Racial disparities in the criminal justice system have always existed and can be linked to Black Americans’ distrust of the police, courts, and other arms of the state. New research out of Stanford University, however, uses novel data to substantiate what Black America has always known – that police officers treat Blacks differently than they do whites.

In their report, the authors find that “police officers speak significantly less respectfully to black than to white community members in everyday traffic stops,” and that this lack of respect occurs irrespective of the officer’s race, severity of the infraction, and even the outcome of the stop.

Rob Voigt and his co-authors capitalized on the growing adoption of body cameras in police forces across the country as a new source of data. The research team used video footage from 682 stops of Black drivers and 299 stops of white drivers in Oakland, California to analyze the language used by police officers in their interactions with community members during routine traffic stops.

In the first phase of the study, volunteers rated the respectfulness of language used by police in a sub-sample of police-community interactions. The volunteers reviewed transcriptions (not recordings) of interactions, so the race of both the officers and civilians were unknown to volunteers. The researchers found that even these “thin slices of police-community interactions reveal racial disparities in how respectful, impartial, polite, friendly, and formal officers’ language to community members was perceived.”

For the second phase, Voigt and his colleagues constructed a computational model that was able to interpret large swaths of transcribed video footage; a necessary step if we are ever to address the 26 million police vehicle stops occurring each year in the United States. Rooted in linguistic theories of respect, these models examined whether police officers used respectful language, like formal titles (Sir, Ma’am), showed concern for driver safety (“drive safe, please”), or instead used less respectful expressions, like commands to keep “hands on the wheel” or statements that addressed civilians by first name only.

Based on their entire sample, which included over 36,000 officer utterances, they found that whites are 57% more likely to hear an officer say one of the most respectful phrases – those involving gratitude or apologies for example – whereas Blacks were 61% more likely to hear officers use one of the least respectful expressions.

Although we’ve known for a while now that differences in satisfaction with police exist, this analysis of big data is the first to objectively measure how police officers communicate with the public and the racial disparities present in police-civilian interactions. “At the very least,” Voigt explained in an interview with CNN, “this provides evidence for something that communities of color have reported, that this is a real phenomenon.”

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