On Wednesday night I presented my research on women’s incarceration at a working dinner with the Democratic Women’s Working Group (DWWG). Although federal prisons contain about 6% of the women incarcerated in the United States, federal legislation often impacts states’ incarceration policy. So it’s good to see that women’s mass incarceration is getting the attention of the DWWG, which focuses on improving the lives of women and their families.
Representative Barbara Lee organized this month’s dinner, bringing together over a dozen Congresswomen and three presenters (myself, Theresa Hodge of Mission:Launch, and Topeka Sam of The Ladies of Hope Ministries, both of which focus on women’s re-entry) for a dynamic and wide-ranging discussion of women’s incarceration in the United States. In fact, the hour-long dinner was on the verge of spilling into hour three when discussion turned in earnest to actionable next steps for Congress.
Right now the US women’s incarceration rate is skyrocketing, even as the overall incarceration rate has started to drop. I hope the engaged energy of the evening will translate to criminal justice reform that doesn’t leave women behind.
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
Please welcome our new Communications Strategist, Wanda Bertram.
Wanda is a graduate of the University of Washington, where her focus on national security sparked her interest in prison policy and immigrant detention. She has reported on local criminal justice reform as a Seattle-based freelance writer while producing, managing, and strengthening the communications of area nonprofit organizations.
New report details the number of women who are locked up by various correctional systems and why.
October 19, 2017
With 219,000 women locked up in facilities operated by thousands of agencies, getting the big picture is anything but easy. In our new report, Women’s Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2017, we use our “whole pie” approach to give the public and policymakers the foundation to end mass incarceration without leaving women behind.
Our new report details, for the first time, the number of women who are locked up by various correctional systems and why. Women’s Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2017, released jointly by the Prison Policy Initiative and the ACLUs Campaign for Smart Justice, is a first look at where women fall within our decentralized and overlapping systems of mass incarceration.
For example, we find that a quarter of incarcerated women are unconvicted, highlighting serious questions about how we use incarceration in the United States. And the report finds that “[i]n stark contrast to the total incarcerated population, where the state prison systems hold twice as many people as are held in jails, incarcerated women are nearly evenly split between state prisons and local jails.” These findings reinforce the importance of considering jails, not just prisons, in ending mass incarceration.
The report provides a breakdown of offense types for women incarcerated in local, state, and federal correctional systems. And while the distribution of offenses is different for women than for the general incarcerated population, our analysis confirms that meaningful reform and ending mass incarceration requires looking beyond non-violent drug and property offenses.
California took an important step forward in dismantling the War on Drugs' harmful legacy of excessively punitive sentences. Extreme sentences harm individuals and communities, consume resources that should be directed to more effective programs, and fail to improve public safety.
California just took an important step forward in dismantling the War on Drugs’ harmful legacy of excessively punitive sentences. On Wednesday, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law a number of criminal justice reforms, including the Repeal Ineffective Sentencing Enhancements (RISE) Act, repealing the state’s three-year sentence enhancements for prior drug convictions. These enhancements were applied consecutively, so three years were added for each prior conviction for anyone convicted again for a similar offense. In a case that exemplifies the senselessness of the law, one woman took a plea deal for six years when faced with a possible 9-year prison sentence for a $5 sale of cocaine.
As we and otheradvocates of the bill have pointed out, such severe punishments harm individuals and communities, consume resources that should be directed to more effective community programs and treatment, and fail to improve public safety. At at time when Trump and Sessions threaten a return to the ineffective, costly, and destructive policies of the War on Drugs, policymakers will need to follow California’s example and take decisive action at the state level.
As we highlighted two years ago, Securus was donating $10,000 a year to the Sacramento County sheriff, even though it did not have a contract with the county. We recently dug around a little deeper and discovered that Sacramento’s experience is not unique.
We found that GTL and Securus alone have donated over $70,000 to Alameda County Sheriff Greg Ahern’s campaigns in just 4 years (2010-2013):
As we can see, prison and jail phone companies have been fueling Ahern’s campaign for years. And in 2012, their contributions accounted for nearly 25% of Ahern’s campaign expenditures.
Finally, these findings represent just a handful of the country’s 3,163 jails. Much more work needs to be done to uncover the full impact of jail phone companies on sheriff races, and what that means for families trying to keep in touch with incarcerated loved ones.
VC Daily was quick to acknowledge that it may seem like an unlikely supporter of in-person visits, and it explained why video calls are a poor replacement of in-person visits:
As much as we consider ourselves here at VC Daily to be cheerleaders for the technology and use of video conferencing, the bottom line is that video conferencing just isn’t the same as in-person communication. At least, not right now. It is a great substitute when distance and circumstance make sharing the same space impossible, impractical, or just plain expensive.
VC Daily understands that in-person jail visits are far from impossible, impractical, or expensive:
In-person jail visits are not impractical. In-person visits, not video calls, are the norm in state and federal prisons. Jails can and should provide in-person visits too, especially since families are generally able to visit incarcerated loved ones more easily when they are close by in a local jail than many miles away in a prison.
In-person jail visits are not expensive. Traditionally, jails did not charge families to visit their incarcerated loved ones. Charging families to see their incarcerated loved ones is one of the negative consequences of the growth of the video call industry and a practice discouraged by the American Correctional Association. Jails do expend resources to provide in-person visitation, but in-person visitation can lead to a reduction in recidivism so it’s a worthy investment.
VC Daily went on to admit that, even as a community of video conferencing enthusiasts, it believes that denying incarcerated people human contact infringes on basic human needs:
However, as an L.A. Times editorial noted just a few months ago, once you start employing video conferencing to replace human physical interaction, you run the risk of dangerously undermining a person’s basic human needs… We usually end these posts dreaming of a hypothetical future in which video conferencing is the good guy, the tech that can make great things possible. But this certainly takes the fun out of our hypothetical.
VC Daily’s critique gets at the heart of what is so perverse about the way that jails use video calls: it’s a rare example of a technology being used to separate, rather than connect, people. This harmful practice is in part why VC Daily concludes, “[v]ideo conferencing is an addition to our lives, not the venue for them.”