May 24, 2018

The ongoing – and growing – exploitation of incarcerated people and their families has been a central theme in our work at the Prison Policy Initiative. In our new report, attorney Stephen Raher explores another overlooked but central part of prison life: the commissary. The fairness of prison commissaries is an essential bread-and-butter issue for incarcerated people, who have only the store’s limited options to choose from when the prison fails to provide them with what they need.

In his report, The Company Store: A Deeper Look at Prison Commissaries, Raher analyzes commissary sales data from three states to address questions like:

  • What do people spend the most money on in prison commissaries?
  • How “fair” are prices, compared to “free-world” prices and relative to prison wages?
  • How does the emerging digital market compare to traditional commissary sales, like food and toiletries?

The three states sampled – Illinois, Massachusetts, and Washington – were the few from which we could easily obtain detailed statewide commissary sales data. Fortunately, this sample includes examples of both state-run and privately operated commissary systems, as well as a range of prison population sizes. While we would warn against generalizing broadly based on this small sample, the report highlights a number of issues that merit further study and serious consideration by policymakers.

The purpose and fairness of prison commissary systems come into question in light of the report’s findings:

  • Incarcerated people spent an average of $947 per person annually through commissaries – well over the typical amount they can earn at a prison job. In these three states, an incarcerated worker holding a job supporting the prison, such as food service or custodial work, would usually earn $180 to $660 per year.
  • Incarcerated people buy most items to meet basic needs, like food, hygiene, and over-the-counter medicines, rather than “luxuries.” 75% of the average person’s annual commissary spending in the three sampled states was used to purchase food and beverages, indicating a widespread need to supplement the food provided by the prisons.

Treemap graphic breaking down commissary sales by item type, using data from three states.

The findings also point to the incentives of the prison retail market for private commissary vendors:

  • While private vendors generally charge prices comparable to those found in outside prisons, monopoly contracts and the ability to transfer goods straight from the warehouse to the customer mean vendors’ operating costs are often lower than in the “free world.” Yet their prices do not always reflect these advantages.
  • The most obvious price-gouging is found in new digital services marketed to prisons, such as email and music streaming. Prison and jail telecommunications providers are aggressively pushing these new products and services, where they can charge prices far higher than similar businesses do outside of the prison setting.
  • Even in state-run commissary systems, private companies are poised to profit. In Illinois, the Keefe Group (one of the largest commissary companies) was not contracted to run the commissary, but still made up the dominant share (30%) of the state’s purchases for commissary goods.

Commissaries present yet another opportunity for prisons to shift the costs of incarceration to incarcerated people and their families. Meanwhile, telecommunications contractors with prison contracts are maximizing their revenues by offering more digital services at exorbitant rates. Instead of leveraging incarcerated people to subsidize the prison system by monetizing their every need, the report concludes, states could more effectively cut costs by drastically reducing prison populations.


by Lucius Couloute, May 14, 2018

1 in 4 women in the U.S. – and nearly 1 in 2 Black women – have a loved one who is incarcerated, but even in conversations about ending mass incarceration, the hardships these women face get little attention. A new report from the Essie Justice Group exposes the profound isolation that is experienced by these women and ignored by the rest of society.

Cover of ESSIE Justice report Because She's Powerful

Essie surveyed over 2,000 women and collected a wealth of focus-group and interview data, all aimed at uncovering the experience of being a woman with an incarcerated loved one. We partnered with Essie to help analyze this data. Our work produced disturbing findings: Not only do women with incarcerated loved ones feel stigmatized and isolated; they also disproportionately suffer from financial insecurity, homelessness, and serious mental and physical health problems.

Women provide their incarcerated loved ones with numerous types of support, which can include posting bail or paying burdensome court fees. Shouldering these burdens often destabilizes their lives: Fully 43% of the women Essie surveyed had missed out on educational opportunities, changed their career plans, or taken on longer hours as the result of their loved one’s incarceration. More than half of them had childcare responsibilities as well.

It’s clearer than ever that overpolicing and overcriminalization – far from making families safer – creates anxiety and insecurity for the mothers, wives, and sisters of people behind bars. Women with incarcerated loved ones are isolated politically, not just socially. Listening to their experiences is critical to understanding how mass incarceration devastates entire communities.


by Wendy Sawyer and Wanda Bertram, May 13, 2018

Women incarcerated in the U.S. are disproportionately in jails rather than prisons, and even a short jail stay can be devastating, especially when it separates a mother from children who depend on her.

Graph showing number of women jailed each year and percentage who are mothers.Estimates have been rounded for this graphic. Sources: Federal Bureau of Investigation, Crime in the United States 2016 (including supplemental table “Arrests by Sex, 2016”); and Vera Institute of Justice, Overlooked: Women in Jails in an Era of Reform.

80% of the women who will go to jail this year are mothers – including nearly 150,000 women who are pregnant when they are admitted. Beyond having to leave their children in someone else’s care, these women will be impacted by the needlessly brutal side effects of going to jail: Aggravation of mental health problems, a greater risk of suicide, and a much higher likelihood of ending up homeless or deprived of essential financial benefits.

It’s time we recognized that when we put women in jail, we inflict potentially irreparable damage to their families. Most women who are incarcerated would be better served though alternatives in their communities. So would their kids.


by Aleks Kajstura, May 11, 2018

Abuse of power in the nation’s prison and jails is nothing new, but now correctional staff can target any person in the U.S. – as long as that person has a cell phone. Last night, The New York Times reported that Securus allows facility staff to track any cell phone in the country.

Securus has contracts with hundreds of correctional and law enforcement agencies across the country, meaning that staffers at any of these agencies can track you on a whim. Shouldn’t they at least have a warrant or affidavit if they want to track your cell phone? Absolutely – but Securus isn’t checking. What if you never even talked to anyone in any correctional facility? Securus doesn’t check on that, either.

As the Times reports, Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) sent a letter to the FCC asking them to investigate, as well as letters to phone companies like Verizon and AT&T, who provide the tracking data to Securus.

The thing is: the FCC already knew about this. When Securus was up for sale last year, Lee Petro, representing the Wright Petitioners, pointed to this very practice as a reason for the FCC to block the sale. But the FCC turned a blind eye.

Thanks to Senator Wyden’s letters, Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile are starting to ask their own questions. But it’s a sad day when the FCC has to rely on telecom giants to carry out its mandate.


by Emily Widra, May 3, 2018

I wanted to compare homicide victimization across racial, ethnic, and gender groups over time, since this data is deceptively difficult to find in one place.

In the process, I found that the murder rate for Black men is consistently higher than the murder rate for men of all other racial and ethnic groups has ever been:

Graph showing men's homicide rates broken down by race from 1980 to 2015.Despite a drop in overall murder rates, the racial disparities in male murder rates have persisted.

Controlling for gender reveals more complexity. For example, the rate of homicide of Native women is higher than the rate of homicide for Hispanic and Latina women, whereas the opposite is true for their male counterparts:

Graph showing women's homicide rates broken down by race from 1980 to 2015.Overall, Black, Hispanic or Latinx, and American Indian and Alaskan Native people are murdered at much higher rates than their white or Asian and Pacific Islander counterparts.

Overall murder rates have been declining since 1980 – when the total rate for murder and non-negligent manslaughter was 10.2 per 100,000 people – but violent crime is still a favorite talking point among lawmakers and newspeople.

What’s important is to change how we talk about it. White victims tend to get close attention, while the murder of people of color is callously left unexplored. We can and should be investigating why communities of color suffer disproportionately high rates of violent crime, as these rates belie a lot of geographic and economic complexity. (To dig deeper, see Krivo and Peterson’s study controlling for neighborhood disadvantage, as well as the Violence Policy Center’s recent study of black homicide victimization.)


by Emily Widra, May 3, 2018

I updated a graph from our 2003 book The Prison Index to answer the question: How closely does Americans’ fear of violent crime reflect the actual violent crime rate?

The answer: Hardly at all.

Beginning in 1965, Gallup began asking Americans if there was “any area near where you live…where you would be afraid to walk alone at night?” Over time, these poll results show a tenuous relationship, at best, between the violent crime rate and the number of people who report being afraid:

Graph comparing violent crime rates to Americans expressing fear of victimization, from 1965 to 2017.The violent crime rate (yellow) peaked in 1991. The fear of crime (orange) peaked nine years earlier and was already declining when the violent crime rate was approaching its peak.

Of course, this data isn’t sensitive to regional and economic variations in crime across the country. And people who aren’t afraid of being attacked might be afraid to walk around at night for other reasons.

But it’s interesting to explore the discrepancy between perception and reality. From the early 1980s to the early 1990s, as violent crime reached historic heights, Americans’ fear of victimization fell.

This isn’t to say that Americans are grossly out of touch. But it should remind elected officials and media that the last place to look for evidence of a crime wave is in public opinion polls.


by Wendy Sawyer and Wanda Bertram, April 26, 2018

Meek Mill was released on bail from a Pennsylvania prison this week, but like many of the 4.5 million people in the U.S. on probation and parole, he still doesn’t feel free. The Philadelphia rapper, whose probation violations landed him back in prison years after serving his original sentence, has brought attention to the problem of community supervision cycling people back into prisons and jails.

Two reports – also published this week – shed new light on the system that has “stalked” Meek Mill for close to a decade. In his analysis of community corrections in Pennsylvania, Columbia Professor Vincent Schiraldi shows how the state’s long probation and parole terms give it one of the highest rates of community supervision in the country. Those sentencing practices, along with excessive use of pretrial detention for technical violations, make Pennsylvania a perfect example of how probation and parole contribute to unnecessary incarceration.

Probation and parole widen the net of incarceration by keeping people under onerous restrictions and monitoring instead of focusing squarely on reentry assistance. In states like Pennsylvania, the consequences are clear: Fully half of Philadelphia’s jail beds, along with one-third of Pennsylvania’s prison beds, are occupied by people charged with parole and probation violations. Incarcerated at great personal cost and public expense, these people are locked up for things as minor as failed drug tests and leaving the county without permission (as Mill was).

Restrictive and long-term supervision doesn’t pay off in enhanced public safety. Instead, as Prof. Schiraldi points out, supervision of individuals at low risk of reoffending “actually increases their likelihood of rearrest.” Meanwhile, supervision stretches resources that could be more effectively directed at higher-risk cases.

So it’s welcome news that probation populations are down nationwide, according to a second report, this one from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. In its annual report on probation and parole, BJS reports that the number of people under any form of community supervision fell by 1.1% in 2016. (The number of people on parole actually increased slightly, meaning that the entire decrease is due to a drop in probation.)

graph showing probation populations grew significantly in Virginia, New Jersey, Oklahoma, and Colorado, but fell in Texas, Washington, Florida, and Illinois

Change in the total probation population in select states, from yearend 2015 to yearend 2016.

Surprisingly, four states appear to account for half the decrease in probation: Illinois, Florida, Washington, and Texas collectively cut over 24,000 people from probation supervision, more than all other states combined.

But it’s important not to read this data too optimistically. Several states added to their probation populations: Virginia added 5,300 (10%) more people to probation, New Jersey added 4,500, Oklahoma added 2,300 (7%), and Colorado and Arkansas each added 1,900. (12 other states added smaller numbers to probation.)

The White House has declared April National Second Chance Month, a time to focus on “opportunities for people with criminal records to earn an honest second chance.” Meanwhile, though the number of people on probation and parole is edging in the right direction, states continue to set up millions of people to fail with needlessly long supervision terms, numerous restrictions, and constant scrutiny. With such a high human cost, it’s critical that policymakers look for alternatives to incarceration that provide genuine assistance, rather than unnecessarily expanding the criminal justice system’s reach.


by Wanda Bertram, April 11, 2018

In our January report The Gender Divide, we identified more than 30 states where recent criminal justice reforms have had little to no impact on women. The result? Nationally, women’s incarceration rates still hover near record highs, even as men’s rates are going down.

But why exactly are women being left behind, and what can states do to change course? Our report addressed these questions broadly, but to identify problematic policies or specific areas of need, drilling down to the local level is necessary. So I teamed up with Sasha Feldstein, a member of our Young Professionals’ Network, to compile a list of state studies worth reading in full.

Here are some of the insights from these important studies:

  • “The increase in women becoming involved in the criminal justice system can be traced to changes in state and federal drug policies that included prosecution of both users and distributors. Law enforcement practices of targeting users and low-level drug offenders led to an increase in women being charged with drug offenses.”

    – Nebraska ACLU, Let Down and Locked Up: Nebraska Women in Prison

  • Resource-based bail systems are particularly problematic for women, as poverty is a particularly significant factor for justice-system-involved women. A higher percentage of women reported incomes of less than $600 per month immediately prior to their incarceration than their male counterparts, with two-thirds of these women earning minimum wage in entry-level positions.”

    – Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, A Growing Problem: The Surge of Women into Texas’s Criminal Justice System

  • “The number of women sentenced for felony property crimes doubled from 2000 to 2011. As a result of Oregon’s creation of harsher penalties for property crimes such as ID theft, more women are being incarcerated for longer periods, including for behaviors that historically would not have been punished with imprisonment.”

    – Oregon Justice Resource Center, Women in Prison in Oregon

  • “Data reveals a higher prevalence of discipline among all incarcerated women than men at prisons statewide…The number of disciplinary tickets is almost double for the women’s population than for men. Disparities were prevalent for ‘minor insolence’ infractions, where the average number of disciplinary tickets issued to the women’s prison population was almost five times higher than those issued to men.”

    – Women’s Justice Institute and Illinois Department of Corrections, The Gender Informed Practice Assessment: Summary of Findings and Recommendations

  • “Just under 70 percent of incarcerated women in June of 2016 had an actively managed or serious mental illness, compared to 44 percent of incarcerated men…the Task Force recognizes the need for and recommends additional and appropriate funding dedicated to the expansion of community supervision as well as mental health and addiction treatment for offenders.”

    – Oklahoma Justice Reform Task Force, Final Report

  • “Changes in arrest practice and policy in situations of domestic violence could potentially divert a significant number of women charged with assault-related offenses from the system…[Crisis intervention training] should be expanded to reach all officers and incorporate gender-responsive, trauma-informed practices to prevent encounters from escalating.”

    – John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Women InJustice: Gender and the Pathway to Jail in New York City

  • “Native American women comprise 21% of the inmate population. Though individuals of non-white races are overrepresented in Minnesota’s prison population, the incarceration of Native Americans is dramatically disproportionate…and the proportion of Native American women in the prison population outpaces that of men.”

    – Robina Institute (at the University of Minnesota), Women in Prison: A Small Population Requiring Unique Policy Solutions

  • “Incarcerated women are often parents, and the separation from children often creates financial and emotional hardship for families. All three of the state’s prison facilities are located in the southern part of the state and northern Nevada families may face difficulties in traveling to visit their incarcerated female family members. Many states have adopted policies that take children and families into consideration when choosing a prison assignment for a parent.”

    – Guinn Center for Policy Priorities, New Study Sheds Light on Challenges for Women Behind Bars

The United States holds nearly 30% of the world’s incarcerated women. Most shouldn’t be there at all, or could be better served through alternatives to incarceration, as these reports suggest. Developing ways to help disadvantaged women rather than incarcerating them should be an urgent priority in every state.


by Lucius Couloute, April 11, 2018

According to documents filed last week, The NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund (LDF) has reached a settlement with the Target Corporation in a discriminatory hiring lawsuit. From 2008 to 2016 Target denied employment to over 41,000 Black and Latinx job applicants simply because they had a criminal record.

If approved by the court, Target will be required to reform its hiring procedures and to compensate the tens of thousands of people who were subject to criminal record discrimination.

The settlement builds from updated guidelines published by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in 2012 establishing that the exclusion of people with criminal records can violate the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (which prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of race, religion, sex, or national origin). Basically, if employers like Target are using criminal records to automatically disqualify applicants, it is likely that they are disproportionately disqualifying applicants of color and violating the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Those covered in the settlement would qualify for either an entry-level job at Target, or monetary compensation up to $1,000 (if, for example, they are retired or cannot work due to a disability). The settlement also requires Target to contribute $600,000 to reentry organizations that support individuals with criminal records, and to create new guidelines for the use of criminal records in making hiring decisions.

The settlement won’t change the economic fate of everyone with a criminal record, but it does send a clear message to employers across the country: discrimination could cost you.

And it should.


by Lucius Couloute, March 26, 2018

Last week, after many months of effort on the part of grassroots organizations and lawmakers, the Massachusetts conference committee between the House and Senate reached an agreement on criminal justice reform – including a measure that will protect in-person visits for incarcerated people and their families.

The bill is quite extensive, but the language around visitation reads:

A correctional institution, jail or house of correction shall not: (i) prohibit, eliminate or unreasonably limit in-person visitation of inmates; or (ii) coerce, compel or otherwise pressure an inmate to forego or limit in-person visitation. For the purposes of this section, to unreasonably limit in-person visitation of inmates shall include, but not be limited to, providing an eligible inmate fewer than 2 opportunities for in-person visitation during any 7-day period.

A correctional institution, jail or house of correction may use video or other types of electronic devices for inmate communication with visitors; provided, that such communications shall be in addition to and shall not replace in-person visitation, as prescribed in this section.

Nothing in this section shall prohibit the temporary suspension of visitation privileges for good cause including, but not limited to, misbehavior or during a bonafide emergency.

The Senate and the House will get opportunities to vote on the bill before it finds its way to Gov. Charlie Baker’s office for a final signature. We encourage lawmakers in Massachusetts to support this policy measure and join advocates from across the country in recognizing that the pernicious, profit driven trend of replacing in-person visits with video chats is an unacceptable one.

Update, April 13 2018: Gov. Charlie Baker signed this bill into law. See coverage by the State House News Service, or a more detailed breakdown of the bill from state Sen. William Brownsberger.



Tweet this page Follow @PrisonPolicy on Twitter Get our newsletter Donate


Events

Nothing scheduled right now. Invite us to to your city, college or organization.