In a year when the hardships of American women have often dominated the news, one major issue is still off the national radar: women’s incarceration. Criminal justice discussions usually focus on men – and for understandable reasons – so it’s not widely known that women’s incarceration in America dwarfs that of most other Western nations. In every state.
That’s why last month we released Women’s Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2017. For the first time, our movement has a big picture view of women’s incarceration that highlights just how many women are held in jails because they are too poor to make bail. Our report is fueling fresh criticism of the bail system and of the jail conditions that isolate women from their families.
The Prison Policy Initiative exists to tell data-driven stories like these in order to make the moral case for ending mass incarceration. From giving the big picture on the criminal justice system to leading specific campaigns, such as protecting in-person visitation from the for-profit “video visitation” industry, the Prison Policy Initiative is at the forefront of the movement for criminal justice reform.
We are able to do this critical but painstaking work because of the investments of our donors. Can you join them in support of truth, fairness, and justice by making a gift this Giving Tuesday?
P.S. As a bonus, a group of donors will match the first $100,000 that we receive this season. That means any gift you can make will automatically go twice as far.
Policy work sometimes requires tough choices. For example, our campaign to protect in-person family visits in jails has won some major victories at the price of accepting legislation that does not apply to counties that had already replaced in-person visits with inadequate video calls.
In both Texas and California, state bills were successful in protecting in-person visits in a majority of counties but exempted some counties from restoring in-person visits. (This practice of creating an exemption in a law is sometimes called a “grandfather clause” or “grandfathering.”) Our coalitions struggled with these compromises, and I want to share some of the considerations we confronted in the hopes that it might guide similar decisions:
What is the main goal of the legislation?
At the Prison Policy Initiative, we often work in coalitions. One challenge of working in coalitions is that it can be hard to make fast-paced decisions. Planning ahead, creating a structure, and agreeing in advance on the purpose of the legislation can make all the difference. In California, we used a few approaches. We had regular conversations among the coalition members about the purpose of the legislation. This was almost like creating a ranking of the most important purposes of the legislation to the least important purposes. We also elected a smaller group of the coalition that was entrusted to make fast-paced decisions if getting in touch with all of the coalition members didn’t work out. Another approach, which is similar to what we did in Texas, is to alert coalition members to be on stand-by for a last-minute conference call as soon as there is reason to believe that a fast-paced decision is likely.
Is the compromise the right size?
Passing legislation often requires compromise, so the first question, after whether compromise is necessary, is whether it’s the right one. For example, we’ve found it helpful to focus on the extent of that compromise. We’ve thought about whether the compromise is limited to what’s necessary or, on the other hand, takes the teeth out of a bill. For example, for legislation on video calls, we ask ourselves, if a grandfather clause is necessary, how many counties exactly does it make sense to include? Unfortunately, the California bill has an expansive grandfather clause. It not only exempts jails that were built without physical space designated for in-person visitation, but it also exempts jails that are in early stages of construction.
Can we effectively address, at the local level, what the state legislative compromise left out?
When we considered the expansive California exemption, we thought about the feasibility of follow-up campaigns in the counties that would be exempted. In other words, we asked, “Can we fix it later?”
When working with a coalition, it can be helpful to poll members’ capacity to do follow-up work. For example, is the campaign a part of that coalition member’s one-year plan or five-year plan? If most of the coalition is located in a couple of cities, would it be practical to launch a campaign outside of those cities? How difficult would it be to track local policymaking? (For example, are county government meeting agendas posted online regularly and in advance?)
How likely is future reform? Is there opposition and how strong or widespread is it?
We’ve also assessed the political climate. For example, when we were working to protect in-person visits in Texas, it didn’t seem like the opposition would waver if we decided to reject the offered compromise and waited for the next legislative session. In particular, Bexar County was resistant to the bill we were working on because it was building a visitation center in order to replace in-person visits with video calls. Bexar County wasn’t showing any sign of rethinking its plans, and, as home to San Antonio, it seemed to be an influential county.
We’ve weighed the potential harm of an exemption with the likelihood that we could adopt alternative strategies for reform. For example, in Texas, some of the counties that had already banned in-person visits were still subject to the law’s requirement to provide in-person visits because they had not in fact incurred “significant expense” to adopt video calls. We knew from our research that it was common for predatory video call companies to install video call systems in jails at no cost to the county. Upon closer investigation, Woods and Hays hadn’t paid for their video systems so they were required to provide in-person jail visits. In Travis County, advocates like Grassroots Leadership, which is based in the County, organized and successfully persuaded the Travis County Sheriff to bring back in-person visits even though he received an exemption.
In California, the coalition that sponsored the initial bill responded to the Governor’s veto by partnering with supportive legislators and family members of incarcerated people. The Senate and Assembly Budget Subcommittee 5 on Corrections, Public Safety and the Judiciary along with the Senate Public Safety Committee hosted an informational hearing on video calls at the State Capitol where members of our coalition testified to raise further awareness of the harm of banning in-person visits. We also organized family members of incarcerated people to share the positive impact that in-person visitation has had on them through public comment or written testimony. As one man who has visited his father in various California jails put it, “Human beings need in person visits. Our minds need it and our hearts need it.” The support of legislators and the public helped us keep our campaign in the spotlight until we were able to protect in-person visits through a second bill.
Legislative compromises are never easy questions. Without a doubt, legislative compromises require assessing factors that vary from one place to another. But our experience working to protect in-person visits in certain states has reminded us that anticipating opposition and brainstorming potential responses in advance can make the decision easier.
We just released our 2016-2017 Annual Report, and I’m thrilled to share some highlights of our work with you. Despite the new challenges posed by the White House, we had a number of big successes, including:
Helping state lawmakers reverse a relic from the War on Drugs that prohibits people convicted of drug offenses from driving. (Virginia partially repealed their law, and other efforts are now underway in four more states plus D.C.)
But that’s not all. In our highly-skimmable annual report, we review our work on all of our issues over the last year. Thank you for being a part of our successes over the last year. We are looking forward to working with you in the year to come.
We evaluated the current transgender and gender non-conforming policies of 21 states in terms of PREA standards, World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH) Standards of Care, and correctional staff training and treatment of transgender individuals. All but one come up short.
In the summer of 2013, Chelsea Manning’s high-profile incarceration and subsequent pardon brought the existence of trans women in prison into the mainstream discourse. Activists like Janet Mock and CeCe McDonald have courageously spoken out about their experiences while incarcerated. But while their high-profile cases have resulted in greater awareness about the criminalization of trans people — particularly trans women of color — and the abuses the mass incarceration system heaps upon them, there is very little discussion of actual policies. Advocacy groups and departments of corrections alike are operating with almost no information in this area, leaving incarcerated trans people without resources and at the mercy of widespread ignorance.
To begin to bridge this research gap, the Prison Policy Initiative has conducted a review of the current transgender/gender non-conforming policies1 of 21 states.2