A new report highlights how the replacement of in-person visits with video calling makes jails less safe, but more profitable for sheriffs.

by Lucius Couloute, January 30, 2018

In April 2014 the sheriff’s office in Knox County, Tennessee banned in-person visits at its jail facilities and entered into a contract with Securus Technologies, forcing incarcerated people to interact with their loved ones through video screens alone. The sheriff’s office cited concerns about contraband, safety, and efficiency to justify the switch from in-person visits to video chats, but failed to illustrate how a new video calling system would provide the magic bullet.

In a new report from Face To Face Knox, a grassroots coalition of citizens in Knox County seeking humane treatment for incarcerated individuals, data from an open records request shows that the replacement of family visits with video calls has resulted in more violence, no drop in the rate of reported contraband, and higher levels of disciplinary infractions, putting more demand on staff.

  • assaults
  • staff assaults
  • contraband
  • disciplinary infractions

Scroll to the right to see the impact of eliminating in-person visits on assaults, contraband cases, and disciplinary infractions over time. Data compiled by Face To Face Knox through a public records request.

  • assaults
  • staff assaults
  • contraband
  • disciplinary infractions

The video-only “visitation” system did exactly the opposite of what the sheriff’s office intended – except for turning a profit. At a cost of $6 a visit, the sheriff’s office has generated nearly $70,000 from the 50% commissions it makes on the backs of people attempting to stay in touch with their incarcerated loved ones.

As the report explains, “The results are clear: The ban on in-person visits makes the jail more dangerous, does nothing to stop the flow of contraband, and strips money from the pockets of families. It’s time to end the ban and give visitors the option to see their friends and loved ones face to face.”

The push to end driver’s license suspensions for drug offenses is picking up steam in Pennsylvania.

by Wanda Bertram, January 24, 2018

In case you missed it, the push to end driver’s license suspensions for drug offenses is picking up steam in Pennsylvania. Only twelve states continue to enforce this obsolete federal policy, which requires states to suspend driver’s licenses for reasons completely unrelated to driving. Pennsylvania alone has suspended the driving privileges of around 150,000 people since 2011.

Now, with the governor’s vocal support, the state legislature is considering multiple bills to end the practice. Separately, the nonprofit Equal Justice Under Law is suing the state on behalf of two victims of this counterproductive policy.

Nationally speaking, close to 200,000 people are impacted by this outdated law every year, and we’re glad to hear arguments for reform coming from across the political spectrum. The eleven other states where this law is still active should follow Pennsylvania’s lead.

A new poll from Latino Justice PRLDEF shows that the Latinx community is deeply concerned about mass incarceration.

by Lucius Couloute, January 24, 2018

Earlier this month LatinoJustice PRLDEF, a national not-for-profit Latino civil rights organization, released findings from a new national poll of the Latinx community on their views of the criminal justice system. Whereas most survey research on criminal justice issues tend to abide by a Black-white binary, this poll brings to light the impact of mass incarceration in the lives of people often left out of the conversation.

Senior Analyst Edward D. Vargas finds that, like most Americans, the majority of Latinxs favor rehabilitation over more punitive responses to crime, such as added police or prisons. Almost 60% of Latinx respondents felt less safe in the wake of Trump’s presidency. Other findings include:

  • In the context of widespread attention to the treatment of African Americans by the police, 64% of respondents believed that Latinx people face similar treatment at the hands of the police.
  • 57% of all respondents and 70% of Afro Latinx-identified respondents believed that the police are more likely to unjustly use deadly force against Latinx people than against whites.
  • 84% of respondents believed that police officers should not stop and search people simply because of their race or ethnicity.
  • 83% of Democrats and 70% of Republican respondents support the voting rights of people who have “paid their debt to society” after being convicted of a crime.
  • 67% of respondents believe that the Department of Justice should collect better data on Latinx people in the criminal justice system.

The Latinx community is diverse, making it difficult to conclude that any one view defines their experience as a whole. But one thing is clear: mass incarceration is a Latinx issue.

Latinx people make up about 20% of the U.S. incarcerated population, they experience differential treatment at the hands of the police, face stiffer school discipline than their white peers, and are increasingly subject to harassment by ICE, making this poll both timely and informative. The majority of Latinx people want reform. As Juan Cartagena, President of LatinoJustice PRLDEF, explains in a recent piece for HuffPost, “their voices need to be heard.”

We share our favorite recent episodes of Bill Newman's excellent podcast, each just over a minute long and covering a current threat to civil liberties.

by Wanda Bertram, January 22, 2018

Attorney, director of the Western Massachusetts ACLU, and friend of the Prison Policy Initiative Bill Newman publishes an excellent weekly podcast that highlights threats to civil liberties and what you can do. (Don’t be intimidated – they’re just 90 seconds long.) (website | iTunes)

Here are some of the recent highlights that are still timely:

January 2018:

December 2017:

November 2017:

October 2017:

September 2017:

One of our most dedicated volunteers shares the highlights of his experience.

by Wanda Bertram, January 22, 2018

We frequently get emails from students and professionals of all backgrounds asking how they can be part of our work, despite living far from Western Massachusetts (as most people do). That’s why we launched our Young Professionals Network: Now, when a project calls for a savvy designer, programmer or other specialist, we can offer the work to someone who really wants the opportunity.

Stephen Raher headshot

One of our most active volunteers is attorney Stephen Raher, who we interviewed in our recent Annual Report. Stephen has led several in-depth investigations into the industries that prey on incarcerated people and their families. He’s written extensively about exploitative prison “services” including “electronic messaging,” release cards, tablet computers, and commissary. We’re reprinting his interview below.

Why did you decide to join the Young Professionals Network?

When I was considering leaving the private practice of law, I talked to several people about how I could be helpful to the movement against mass incarceration when I no longer had the resources of a large law firm at my disposal. Peter Wagner said the Prison Policy Initiative’s Young Professionals Network could match me with high-impact projects involving my areas of expertise, and that’s exactly what has happened.

What does your work focus on? And what’s the connection between that work and the Prison Policy Initiative?

SR: I have a background in both anti-prison activism and business law. Because of the Prison Policy Initiative’s broad scope of work, I get to work on a wide variety of projects involving financial regulations, public contracting, consumer protection, and telecommunications law.The projects I’ve worked on are challenging, innovative, and they strategically fit within a larger coordinated effort to reverse this country’s incarceration crisis.

What do you think is unique about the Prison Policy Initiative and the projects it takes on?

SR: Since I started working on criminal justice issues in 1998, prisons have become a much more popular topic. As a result, a lot of organizations have rushed into this space and have prioritized projects based on funding availability or superficial talking points.The Prison Policy Initiative is one of the handful of groups that plans its work based on hard evidence and deliberate strategy. Refreshingly, it also views other like-minded organizations as true allies, not just competitors for scarce resources.


Want to learn more and see examples of past collaborations? Fill out our introduction form! Then, send the form to lcouloute [at] prisonpolicy.org.

Released on the heels of our recent report on women's state prison populations, a new BJS report shows that in 2016, the "gender divide" in incarceration trends widened even more.

by Wendy Sawyer, January 10, 2018

Today, the Bureau of Justice Statistics released its annual update on prison populations in the U.S. Of course, it’s just my luck that they released the 2016 data the day after my report on women’s state prison population trends over time. But the changes over the last year are largely consistent with my finding that women’s prison populations remain near record highs while men’s populations are falling.

In 2016, state prisons across the U.S. cut men’s populations by more than 12,000 – but maddeningly, incarcerated over 700 more women than they did in 2015, widening the “gender divide” we’ve seen in the past few years. In 14 states, women’s populations grew or were unchanged while men’s declined. In some of these, the differences are minimal, but in others, the disparities are cause for alarm. The changes in these states underscore how the growth of women’s incarceration can undermine efforts to decarcerate:

  • Tennessee managed to grow its overall prison population solely by incarcerating more women. The men’s population actually decreased, but that progress was thwarted by an even greater growth in the women’s population.
  • South Carolina saw a modest reduction in the men’s prison population, but locked up 10% more women – enough to cancel out most of the reduction in the men’s population.
  • Ohio reduced its prison population by 222 men – but counteracted most of that change by incarcerating 164 more women.
  • In Arizona, almost half of the prison beds emptied by reductions in the men’s population were backfilled by additions to the women’s population.

The new report offers more evidence that as states undertake the critical work of reducing prison populations, they need to pay attention to these gendered trends. The most effective reforms will reverse the growth of all incarcerated populations, without leaving women behind.

Women’s prison populations are largely growing faster than men’s. See our 50-state analysis.

January 9, 2018

Easthampton, Mass. – States have made impressive progress over the last 10 years in reducing their prison populations, but for most women in prison, this progress might as well never have happened. Even as men’s incarceration rates are falling, women’s incarceration rates hover near record highs, a trend driven by criminal justice decisions at the state level. A new report from the Prison Policy Initiative identifies more than 30 states driving this national “gender divide.”

women's incarceration rates: select states and all 50 states

The mass incarceration of women has severe and far-reaching effects: 62% of women, for instance, are separated from minor children when they are put behind bars. But though this is largely an issue of state policy, “few people know what’s happening in their own states,” says Wendy Sawyer, author of The Gender Divide: Tracking Women’s State Prison Growth. Sawyer says states undermine their commitment to decarceration when their criminal justice reforms leave women behind.

For example:

  • Texas recently reduced its men’s prison population by 6,000, while backfilling its prisons with 1,100 more women.
  • Michigan’s female prison population grew 30% from 2009 to 2015, while the number of men in Michigan prisons fell by 8%.
  • Six other states have seen men’s prison populations decline even as women’s populations have climbed.

The report features more than 100 state-specific graphs tracking 40 years of women’s prison growth, designed to help policymakers assess the need for local reform. It also isolates the underlying causes of women’s mass incarceration, including the War on Drugs, harsh sentencing for violent offenses, and the growing frequency of women serving jail time.

Women in prison are uniquely burdened by mental health problems and trauma, and Sawyer notes that most prisons, having been designed for men, “make those problems worse.” But she stresses that the appropriate response “is not to build better prisons – it’s to ensure women are included in reforms that move people away from prisons.” Most women in the justice system could be better served through alternatives to incarceration. Developing those solutions should be an urgent priority in every state.

How are women faring in your state? See the report and state-specific graphs https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/women_overtime.html.

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