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The research is clear: visitation, mail, phone, and other forms of contact between incarcerated people and their families have positive impacts for everyone — including better health, reduced recidivism, and improvement in school. Here’s a roundup of over 50 years of empirical study, and a reminder that prisons and jails often pay little more than lip service to the benefits of family contact.
To incarcerated people and their families, it’s glaringly obvious that staying in touch by any means necessary — primarily through visits, phone calls, and mail — is tremendously important and beneficial to everyone involved. Yet prisons and jails are notorious for making communication difficult or impossible. People are incarcerated far from home and visitation access is limited, phone calls are expensive and sometimes taken away as punishment, mail is censored and delayed, and video calls and emerging technologies are all too often used as an expensive (and inferior) replacement for in-person visits.
Prison- and jail-imposed barriers to family contact fly in the face of decades of social science research showing associations between family contact and outcomes including in-prison behavior, measures of health, and reconviction after release. Advocates and families fighting for better, easier communication behind bars can turn to this research, which demonstrates that encouraging family contact is not only humane, but contributes to public safety.
In-person visitation is incredibly beneficial, reducing recidivism and improving health and behavior
The positive effects of visitation have been well-known for decades — particularly when it comes to reducing recidivism. A 1972 study on visitation that followed 843 people on parole from California prisons found that those who had no visitors during their incarceration were six times more likely to be reincarcerated than people with three or more visitors. A few years later, researchers found similar results in a study of people paroled from Hawaii State Prison.
Since the 1970s, the body of evidence in favor of prison visitation has only grown. In 2008, researchers found that among 7,000 people released from state prisons in Florida, each additional visit received during incarceration lowered the odds of two-year recidivism by 3.8 percent (in this study, recidivism was defined as reconviction). Findings out of Minnesota a few years later were similar: Receiving one visit per month was associated with a 0.9 percent decrease in someone’s risk of reincarceration; better yet, each unique visitor to an incarcerated person reduced the risk of re-conviction by a notable 3 percent.1 Among people who received visits during their incarceration, felony re-convictions were 13 percent lower and revocations for technical violations of parole were 25 percent lower compared to people who did not receive visits.
Visitation is also correlated with adherence to prison rules. In 2019, an Iowa researcher found that in-prison misconduct (as measured by official citations) was reduced in people who received visits at Iowa state prisons. Based on these results, one additional visit per month would reduce misconduct by a further 14 percent. “Probably as a direct result of the reduced misconducts,” the study’s author notes, “a similar increase in visitation would also reduce time served by 11 percent.”
These findings add to other recent studies linking visitation and reduced prison misconduct. The timing of visits may matter, as visiting “privileges” can swiftly be taken away as a cruel punishment: According to one study, misconduct tended to decrease in the three weeks before a visit. This may explain why more frequent visits lead to more consistent good behavior, better overall outcomes and post-release success. Families who visit, concluded Holt and Miller in the California study, are a “prime treatment agent” for incarcerated people.2
Research has also found that visitation is linked to better mental health, including reduced depressive symptoms — an important intervention for the isolated, stressful experience of incarceration. Yet even before the pandemic halted visitation, and despite these known benefits, correctional facilities have made visitation hard due to remote locations, harsh policies, and the financial incentives to replace visits with inferior video calls.
Consistent phone calls to family improve relationships
Phone calls tend to be more common than in-person visitation, as they involve fewer logistical barriers. In fact, the key studies we found reveal that 80 percent or more respondents used phone calls to contact family, far more than the number receiving visits, and sometimes more than those using mail to keep in contact.3 As with visitation, family phone calls are shown to reduce the likelihood of recidivism; more consistent and/or frequent phone calls were linked to the lowest odds of returning to prison.
A 2014 study of incarcerated women found that those who had any phone contact with a family member were less likely to be reincarcerated within the five years after their release. In fact, phone contact had a stronger effect on recidivism compared to visitation, which the study also examined.
Of course, reduced recidivism is not the only benefit. A 2020 survey of incarcerated parents showed that parent-child relationships improved when they had frequent (weekly) phone calls.
These positive findings have not gone unnoticed by senior policy makers: “Meaningful communication beyond prison walls helps to promote rehabilitation and reduce recidivism,” explained Mignon Clyburn of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in a 2015 statement on the high cost of phone calls. “In a nation as great as ours, there is no legitimate reason why anyone else should ever again be forced to make these levels of sacrifices, to stay connected.”4
Given the frequency and importance of phone calls from prisons and jails, their prohibitive cost in many jurisdictions and the loss of phone “privileges” as a punishment are both inhumane and counterproductive.
Mail correspondence is a lifeline, and taking it away only hurts families
Mail is widely understood as a major lifeline for incarcerated people, with some literature finding that it’s the most common form of family contact.The fulfilling feeling of receiving personal mail, the ability to write and read (and reread) mail at one’s own pace, and the relatively low cost of a letter mean that it’s a highly practical and cherished mode of communication, universal to people both inside and outside of prison. And while prison mail hasn’t taken center stage in academic literature, some of the studies mentioned earlier did examine mail contact as part of their methods, finding that it contributes to parent-child attachment and relationship quality.
Yet mail is another example of a service whose benefits become obvious once it’s under attack. In 2007, notoriously cruel Maricopa County, Arizona, sheriff Joe Arpaio instituted a postcard-only policy in the county jail, with sheriffs in at least 14 states following suit. These postcard-only policies severely limit parents’ and children’s ability to stay in touch. A study of incarcerated parents in Arizona cited mail as the most common mode of communication with their children, and those who used mail contact reported improved relationships with their children as compared to the year before their incarceration. Postcards also change the economic argument for mail correspondence: With their tiny physical space available for writing, we found that relaying information on a postcard is about34 times as expensive as in a letter.
In recent years, other correctional systems have embraced another mail-restriction policy that advocates know is harmful: The telecom company Smart Communications has created “MailGuard,” a mail digitization service marketed as a response to (exaggerated) claims of contraband entering prisons through the mail. MailGuard’s scans of letters and photographs tend to be low-quality, and privacy is clearly violated as one’s mail is opened and scanned. We’ve criticized this practice and maintain that mail scanning is a poor substitute for true mail correspondence.5
Video calling and emerging technologies could enhance carceral contact if they weren’t prohibitively expensive
Sometimes billed as “video visitation,” video calling from prisons and jails allows families to connect virtually. Used effectively as a supplement, video calls could help eliminate many of the barriers that in-person visitation presents. However, we’ve argued time and time again that these calls fail to replicate the psychological experience — and therefore benefits — of in-person visitation, and should never be used as a replacement. A 2014 survey found incarcerated people in Washington State were pleased when video calling allowed family to see them, but extremely frustrated by the cost and significant technical challenges of the software. Video calling is a “double-edged sword” providing a mediocre service while lining the pockets of private corporations.
Most advocates and groups (including the American Correctional Association) agree that video calling should only supplement in-person visitation, not replace it entirely. But anecdotally, some corrections officials offer video calling only, and promote it as a safer and more efficient option to visitation. (In terms of safety, the argument that most contraband is introduced into prisons through visitation is a myth we’ve busted.)
In fact, taking away visitation can make prisons and jails less safe. For example, when in-person visits were banned at the jail in Knox County, Tennessee, in favor of video-only visitation, incarcerated people lost the opportunity to maintain healthy social connections. As a result, assaults between incarcerated people and assaults on staff increased in the months after the ban on visits was implemented. Data also show that, similar to the Iowa study mentioned earlier, disciplinary infractions in the jail increased after the ban.
Though the Knox County, Tennessee Sheriff’s Office claimed video-only visitation would be safer, the data suggest the opposite: The replacement of family visits with video calls at the Knox County Detention Facility resulted in more assaults between incarcerated people and on staff. There was also no drop in the rate of reported contraband, and there were higher levels of disciplinary infractions at the jail. See more of the devastating findings compiled by the grassroots coalition Face to Face Knox.
The Knox County research wasn’t an isolated finding: In Travis County, Texas, there was an escalation of violence and contraband after that jail switched from offering both video calls and visitation for a few years, to banning in-person visitation altogether. The change also reduced overall family contact: The number of video calls dropped dramatically compared to the average number of in-person visits that had happened at the jail before the policy change. As it turns out, the availability of both in-person visitation and video calling actually increased the average number of in-person monthly visits. And unsurprisingly, visitors who were surveyed overwhelmingly preferred in-person visitation to video calling. In 2015, the Travis County Sheriff’s Office reinstated in-person visits.
Technologies like video calling (and electronic messaging) have the potential to improve quality of life for incarcerated people and help correctional administrators run safer and more humane facilities. New research suggests that video calls may even help reduce recidivism (but only when they supplement in-person visits). Sadly, the promise of these new services is often tempered by a relentless focus on turning incarcerated people and their families into revenue streams.
Families endure tremendous hardship due to incarceration, but staying in touch can mitigate negative impacts
Many of the studies discussed here focused on the benefits of family contact for incarcerated people. But what about their families — do they gain from the time spent visiting, writing, or calling? Research says yes, family contact also provides relief to the family of an incarcerated person. This is important, because simply having an incarcerated loved one indicates poorer health and a shorter lifespan. In particular, children — the “hidden victims” of incarceration — are at increased risk for mental health problems and substance use disorders, and face worse intellectual outcomes compared to children without an incarcerated family member. (Youth can themselves be confined in detention facilities, turning parents into visitors; similar to the research explored earlier, visitation of confined youth was remarkably beneficial.6)
Research suggests that families who visited during a loved one’s incarceration show improved mental health measures and have a higher probability of remaining together after release. And a 1977 study, explained in a larger review of family contact research, found that children who had displayed concerning behavior upon their fathers’ incarceration showed improved behavior after visiting with their fathers.
The R Street Institute sums it up nicely: Supportive family relationships can promote psychological and physiological health for incarcerated people and their loved ones, at a time when everyone’s health is otherwise deteriorating. When done well, visitation can ease anxiety in children and mitigate some of the impacts on strained interpersonal relationships. Serving families at this most critical period simply makes communities healthier.
Making family contact readily available should be a no-brainer for prisons and jails
Of course, staying in touch with an incarcerated person is almost never easy. There can be great distress and tension as a family navigates its role, and the inconsistent timing and frequency of contact can be unsettling to someone whose incarceration is overly predictable and tedious, while life outside can be anything but.
Still, academic research is unified in its message that family contact during incarceration provides immense benefits, both during incarceration and the reentry period. Prisons and jails should make all types of family contact safely and equitably available, and end the practice of taking contact away as a punishment for rule violations. And with no certain access to visitation as the pandemic wears on, families and incarcerated people should receive more phone and video time, fewer fees, and better mail options in order to preserve family ties and the critical benefits that result from family contact.
Below, we’ve compiled all of the research discussed and linked above as a bibliography for our readers. And for further reading on the harmful restrictions on communication between incarcerated people and their loved ones, see our resources on visitation and our campaigns fighting for phone, mail, and visitation justice.
In this study, both family members and non-family members like mentors and clergy were connected to this reduced risk of recidivism. ↩
More importantly, Holt and Miller assert that “correctional systems can no longer afford to incarcerate inmates in areas so remote from their home communities as to make visiting virtually impossible.” Located in inconvenient areas for many, prisons are getting in their own way when it comes to treatment and rehabilitation. ↩
For example, in a 2020 study examining contact between children and their incarcerated female parents, researchers found that when children communicated with their parents in prison, 76% of those who used phone contact did so weekly, 45% who used mail did so weekly, and 31% who visited did so weekly. ↩
While there are still many harmful policies in place, some prisons and jails have backed down when families and the courts call out these attacks on mail, such as in Portland, Oregon, in 2012 and in Santa Clara County, California, in 2015. ↩
A study of family visitation frequency in Ohio juvenile facilities found that youth who were visited by family regularly (defined as weekly) had a grade point average that was 2.1 points higher than youth who were infrequently or never visited. Additionally, behavioral incidents decreased as the overall frequency of visitation increased among the families of confined youth. The researchers note that white youth in this study had higher GPAs than nonwhite youth, and that factors beyond their control could be contributing to the calculation of GPAs of youths of different races, so they suggest that the results merit further exploration. Still, frequent family visitation did improve GPAs after controlling for race and other variables. ↩
The FCC has regulated video calling since the 1960s, and there is no reason why it should not use its authority to crack down on high prices and unfair practices in the correctional video-calling market.
A decade ago, the battle for prison and jail phone justice was in its formative years. At that time the movement was focused on phone justice because telephone calling was the only technology available to most incarcerated people for real-time communication. But a lot has changed in the intervening time — new technologies are proliferating in prisons and jails, most prominently video calling.
While activists have won several notable victories in terms of bringing down outrageous phone rates, correctional video calling is completely unregulated. In the face of legal requirements to reduce phone rates, many companies are simply steering people to use more expensive video calling. Our recent filing provides the FCC with a blueprint for addressing this growing problem.
AT&T’s Picturephone provided video calling service in the 1960s. Although the product was a commercial disappointment, the Commission regulated Picturephone as a communication service without any serious objection. Source: Jon Gertner, The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation (2012) (reprint courtesy of AT&T Archives and History Center).
The dominant prison telecom companies have waged a years-long misinformation campaign claiming that the FCC lacks the power to regulate video calling. But the legal arguments upon which the companies base their clams are gravely flawed. The FCC has regulated video calling since the 1960s, and there is no reason why it should not use its authority to crack down on high prices and unfair practices in the correctional video-calling market.
Our filing provides an extensive analysis that the FCC can use to reject industry arguments and assert its power to protect consumers. We remain hopeful that the FCC will rise to this challenge.
Other topics that we address in our filing include:
The thorny issue of jail security costs: we review the evidence gathered by the FCC and encourage the agency to not cave to the National Sheriffs’ Association demands that jails be able to charge families for a wide range of security services.
Industry seizure of customer prepaid funds from “inactive” accounts, and the need to prevent this practice.
The dominant company’s improper use of patents to stifle competition in the industry and the need for an investigation.
Our work in 2021 has exposed little-known forms of exploitation behind bars, heartless COVID-19 policies, and overlooked reasons that mass incarceration persists. With 2021 coming to a close, we thought we’d share the most important reports we published this year:
We gathered data from all 50 states and the federal government to compare how prison systems responded to the coronavirus in the pandemic’s first year and a half. We graded each state’s pandemic response along almost 30 data points, finding that virtually every state allowed prisons to remain crowded and unsanitary, abandoning incarcerated people to die. Our report includes graphics showing how states compare on key issues — like getting the vaccine to incarcerated people — and appendix tables breaking down all of the data we collected.
Our analysis of parole releases in 13 states shows that in 2020 — amid a global pandemic that infected one in three people in U.S. prisons — parole boards actually held fewer parole hearings and granted fewer releases than in previous years. Parole grant rates are low in ordinary years, but the number of hearings and releases fell even lower during COVID-19, even in “progressive” states like New York.
In this report, we compare the incarceration rates of every U.S. state to those of almost every independent country. We find that many states — if they were independent countries — would have the highest incarceration rate in the world. Moreover, every U.S. state incarcerates at least twice as many people (per capita) as do countries like the U.K., Canada, France, and Belgium, even though many of these countries have comparable or higher rates of violent crime.
One of the many reasons mass incarceration persists is that county governments, dealing with crowded jails, believe the only solution is to build a new, bigger jail — even though their constituents often know better. This year, a resident of Otsego County, Michigan sent us his county’s proposal for a bigger jail, a report that the county had commissioned from a private jail architecture company. Our analysis of the firm’s arguments found that the county, contrary to needing a larger jail, was locking up many people for no good reason and should instead be working to reduce incarceration. Shortly after we released this piece, residents of Otsego County once again voted down the proposed jail expansion.
What should counties with crowded jails do, instead of building bigger jails? Policymakers often say the solution is a “diversion program” to keep people out of jail. But what exactly is a diversion program? This report explains the wide variety of programs that can be called “diversion,” and the benefits and drawbacks of each. We envision the criminal legal system as a highway, with diversion programs offering five major “exits” off the road to incarceration. We compare and contrast the different programs, showing how the best programs get people off the highway to incarceration as early as possible, long before arrest or jail time.
The Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) — one of many damaging Clinton-era crime bills — has made it harder for incarcerated people to file federal lawsuits and seek relief when their civil and human rights are violated. For the 25th anniversary of the PLRA being signed into law, we worked with Professor Margo Schlanger, the nation’s leading expert on the issue, to expose the harm done by this law and explain how it limits access to meaningful justice and makes court orders less effective.
Our first-of-its-kind report surfaces an important but under-discussed issue: the policies in all 50 states that reduce jury diversity by excluding some people with criminal records from serving. Our report includes an easy-to-read map and detailed table describing each state’s policies, and explains how these policies make criminal trials even less fair.
For Indigenous People’s Day, we gathered and reported the key facts showing how Native people are overrepresented in the criminal justice system. Most importantly, we explain how the number of Native people locked up in prisons and jails has skyrocketed since 2000, coinciding with a jail-building boom on tribal lands. Our briefing also explains how persistent flaws in data collection obscure the scale and scope of Native people in the criminal justice system.
All too often, prisons force people to buy certain basic necessities (such as soap) from the commissary, rather than providing them at no cost. Prisons claim that people who are extremely poor can get certain items for free. But who qualifies as “poor” in prison? We conducted a 50-state survey to find out how prisons determine who “really needs” financial assistance, and discovered requirements so strict that even the poorest people often don’t qualify.
Our 50-state report breaks down how much it costs to send funds to an incarcerated loved one. As people in prison are increasingly expected to pay for everyday costs like food and hygiene items, a whole industry has arisen to provide faster — but vastly more expensive — electronic money transfers to incarcerated people. Our report shows which companies (if any) hold the contracts to provide money-transfer services in each state prison system, and explains what the fees are to use these services, which harmful clauses are hidden in the “fine print,” and what a better money-transfer system might look like.
Data released this year by the Bureau of Justice Statistics shows that prison and jail deaths steadily increased in the several years leading up to 2018, even as correctional populations stayed relatively flat. In a short report, we dive into the new BJS data to explore what has caused in-custody deaths to rise over the past several years — a disturbing trend that anecdotal reports suggest is getting even worse during the COVID-19 pandemic. We identify several key factors at play, including abusive correctional healthcare systems, officials unwilling to give effective care to people with substance use disorders, and cruel policies that hurt incarcerated people’s mental health, driving many to suicide.
This list only scratches the surface of the work we’ve done in 2021. In total, we’ve published six major reports and over 40 shorter research briefings this year. To see more of our work, check out our Reports page and our Briefings page. Or, to see research we’ve conducted about your state, visit our state profile pages. And if you’d like to get more frequent updates on our work in 2022, you can sign up for our approximately-weekly email newsletter.
As we head into a new year, we’ll continue producing cutting-edge research that exposes the ways mass incarceration harms the people behind bars and our society as a whole.
Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, prison systems throughout the country began publishing COVID-19 data, lifting a tiny corner of the veil of secrecy that usually shields prisons from public scrutiny. These “COVID data dashboards” — which varied from state to state, but generally at least tracked the number of active cases, testing efforts, and COVID-19 deaths — marked a departure from the outdated, obscure data we usually see coming out of prison systems and state and federal agencies. However, the quality and comprehensiveness of the published data varied from state to state, and dashboards were often riddled with inadequacies and confusion. To make matters worse, even as the Delta variant surged through the country in the summer of 2021, the UCLA Law COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Projectreported that a number of states — including those with some of the highest case rates, like Florida and Georgia — had rolled back their publicly available prison data.
Now that we’re facing yet another COVID-19 threat with the Omicron variant, many of these states have reinitiated data reporting on the number of COVID-19 cases and tests behind bars. And yet, data on COVID-19 vaccinations and booster doses — our strongest protection in the face of COVID-19 — are scarce and incomplete across the nation’s prison systems. Publicly available and regularly updated COVID-19 prison data — including vaccination and booster data — are crucial for holding public officials, politicians, and legislatures accountable, as well as for helping families and the general public obtain even the simplest information about COVID-19 in their loved ones’ facilities and local communities.
Most state prison systems provide patchy COVID-19 data, at best
In July 2021, the UCLA Law COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Projectreported a startling trend: Many state correctional agencies were failing to regularly update their COVID-19 data, including lags of 58 days in Florida, 40 days in New Jersey, and more than two weeks in Wyoming, New Hampshire, Utah, Mississippi, Alaska, and Montana. Massachusetts and Rhode Island announced that they would no longer be updating their COVID-19 prison data dashboards. A month later, in August 2021, UCLA found that Florida and Georgia had completely removed their COVID-19 data dashboards, while Louisiana drastically reduced its published data to only include active case counts.1
In fact, patchy and delayed prison COVID-19 data has become the norm, not the exception. As of December 14, 2021, 8 state correctional agencies have COVID-19 data dashboards that have not been updated in the last week. The DOC COVID-19 dashboard in Montana has not been updated for 88 days so far, and it’s been 25 days in Mississippi, 14 days in Tennessee, 12 days in North Carolina, 11 days in Alabama and New York, 9 days in Alaska, and 8 days in Oregon. An additional four states’ DOC COVID-19 dashboards — Maryland, Missouri, New Jersey, and Oklahoma — appear to be updated frequently but have no consistent information about when they last updated the data, leaving us unsure of how accurate and relevant the data are. West Virginia updates most of their COVID-19 data regularly, but their vaccination data are from November 5th, 2021, 39 days ago.
Even when they do update their dashboards, most states fail to report crucial information.
There are five major metrics that states should be tracking and publishing:
cumulative case counts,
active or current cases,
vaccination progress, and
Yet only three states provide sufficient data on all five of these metrics, for both incarcerated people and correctional staff: Washington, West Virginia, and Maryland. All other states with COVID-19 data dashboards are only publishing some of this data.
In particular, data on vaccine administration — and booster doses — are rare. Only 22 states and the federal system provide vaccination data for incarcerated people and only 15 states and federal prisons provide vaccination data for staff. Only two states — Maryland and South Carolina — are publishing the number of incarcerated people who have refused the vaccine, while no prison systems are publishing the number of staff who have refused a vaccine.2
What COVID-19 data does each state correctional agency and the Bureau of Prisons regularly publish?
An asterisk (*) denotes that the data is only available for the number of initial vaccine doses rather than completed vaccinations. UCLA Law COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project collects data directly from DOC data dashboards. Some states do not publish vaccination data on the DOC dashboards but did report data to The Marshall Project prior to July 2021. Where possible, we added The Marshall Project data for states that do not publish vaccine data on their dashboards.
Only a few state prison systems are publishing data on booster shots
The CDC has made clear to the public that booster shots are crucial to maintaining protection from COVID-19 — particularly from newer variants like Delta and Omicron. But are prison systems following the booster dose recommendations of the federal government and the CDC? It’s hard to know, given the absolute scarcity of information about booster doses of COVID-19 vaccines administered in prisons across the country. Our survey of websites operated by state departments of corrections and the Bureau of Prisons found that only four states — Delaware, Missouri, Michigan, and Minnesota — are publishing data on booster dose administration for incarcerated people, while only one prison system — Maryland — is making data available about correctional staff booster doses.
Given the scarcity of COVID-19 vaccination data, it is concerning but perhaps not surprising that we struggled to find data on booster doses administered. Even more troubling, we were only able to find four state prison systems — North Dakota, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, and Utah — that published explicit start dates for the administration of booster doses on their websites.3 An additional six prison systems — Arkansas, Pennsylvania, Idaho, Utah, Wisconsin, and the BOP — have put out policies or public statements that at least mentioned COVID-19 booster doses. This leaves us with no evidence that more than 40 other states are providing boosters at all. And when it comes to staff, we found no explicit plans for administering booster doses to prison staff in any prison system.
The COVID-19 pandemic is not over, either inside or outside prison walls. COVID-19 cases have spiked nationwide this fall (and are expected to again this winter), and many of the people most vulnerable to the virus are currently locked up. What’s more, we know that COVID-19 outbreaks in prisons can quickly spread to surrounding communities, with grave public health consequences. But alarmingly, it appears that state prison systems are not offering the booster shot to incarcerated people to protect them — as well as the general public — from COVID-19.
Finally, by retiring their COVID-19 data dashboards, prison systems are leaving the public in the dark about a critical public health measure. Rather than waiting until the pandemic is over to hold these prison systems accountable for their healthcare policy failures, we should demand transparency — and booster shots for incarcerated people — now.
In a confounding move, weeks after restricting their published data, the Louisiana Department of Corrections announced on July 27 that it was suspending visitation due to the “latest surge of COVID-19 positive cases in Louisiana,” as reported by UCLA. If the drastic statewide surge in cases was enough to shut down visitation, we would expect the Department to increase — not diminish — data transparency. ↩
This does not mean that these data are not published elsewhere. The survey we conducted for this update was based solely on the COVID-19 data dashboards on the individual state department of corrections websites. For example, news sources have published correctional staff vaccine refusal data at a single point in time for Massachusetts and Minnesota. ↩
A news source reported that a fifth state prison system, North Carolina, has begun administering booster doses, but we were not able to find this information on the North Carolina Department of Public Safety website. ↩
In the nearly 50 years since Roe v Wade established the right to an abortion without excessive governmental restriction, the courts have repeatedly confirmed that incarcerated people retain this constitutional right. Yet abortion rights throughout the country are under attack: The Supreme Court is currently deciding on a 2018 Mississippi law that bans abortions after 15 weeks, and a new Texas law empowers private citizens to sue anyone who provides an abortion after six weeks — long before many people know they are pregnant. In the first half of 2021, state legislatures enacted 90 abortion restrictions, the most of any year to date.
Life behind bars does not occur in a bubble, and these state policies have implications for the estimated 58,000 pregnant people who enter jail or prison each year. Two articles recently published in medical journals analyzed incarcerated people’s access to abortion and to permanent and reversible contraception across 22 state prison systems1 and six (mostly large) county jail systems.23The studies reveal that abortion and contraception access varies greatly between states — and that abortion access for incarcerated people is related to broader state policies. Even in states that officially allow abortion, many people may be effectively blocked from obtaining the care they need, thanks to insurmountable barriers like self-payment requirements and physical distance from abortion caregivers.4 The studies make clear that people behind bars often have very few — if any — choices and autonomy when it comes to their reproductive health and decisions.
The two articles are based on data from the Pregnancy in Prison Statistics (PIPS) project, a series of studies aiming to fill in significant gaps in data, spearheaded by Dr. Carolyn Sufrin of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and School of Public Health. Earlier studies from this project found a lack of supportive policies for pregnant, incarcerated women, as well as adverse outcomes for expectant mothers and their babies. Taken all together, these studies explain the stakes for incarcerated people during pregnancy — intended or unintended — and the postpartum period: They are likely to receive inadequate prenatal care, give birth without companion support and possibly in shackles, and have their babies taken away immediately after birth.
Most state prison systems (19 of the 22 studied, or 86%) allowed abortion, whether it was written policy or not. Of these, eight allowed it during the first trimester only.
Seven state prison systems (32%) did not have an official written policy regarding abortion. While four of these states did allow abortions in practice, the lack of policy is concerning and may leave individuals’ access to the discretion of prison staff.
Three prison systems did not allow abortions at all. None of these three had an official written policy on abortion access, but in practice they did not allow any access, and did not indicate exceptions for rape or incest, in violation of the Constitution.
Most jails (4 of the 6 studied) allowed abortion. The two that banned abortion were both in Texas: Harris County (Houston) and Dallas County. The four other jails allowed abortion during both the first and second trimesters.
Abortions are relatively uncommon behind bars: Over the one-year course of the study, there were 33 abortions reported in the study jails and 11 in the study prisons — out of 1,040 total pregnancies that ended in custody during that period.
Access to contraception varied greatly throughout the study prison systems and jails: Some provided both reversible and permanent contraception,5 but more often than not, women had few choices. Concerningly, some states provided access to permanent contraception (i.e. sterilization), but not reversible contraception.
More than one-fourth of study prisons offered no contraception access at all.
State hostility to abortion rights affects access behind bars
The authors find that there are correlations between statewide abortion policies and abortion access behind bars. Just three of the study’s 22 state prison systems banned abortion entirely. All three were in states with policies considered “hostile” to abortion rights, a distinction coined by the Guttmacher Institute.6 In all, 77% of state prison systems in hostile states allowed abortion for incarcerated people, compared to 100% of prison systems in nonhostile states. Second trimester abortions were allowed for incarcerated people in 38% of hostile states and 67% of nonhostile states.
The study’s jails revealed a similar pattern: Both of the jails in a hostile state (Texas) banned abortions for incarcerated people, while all four jails in nonhostile states allowed them in both the first and second trimesters.
Abortions can be prohibitively expensive and impossible to obtain, even in states that allow them
The study identified additional barriers to access, even in facilities that officially allow abortion, chief among them payment. Among the study’s 19 state prison systems that allowed abortion, 13 (68%) required individuals to pay for their own abortion care.7 This lack of financial support stems in part from the fact that incarcerated people have been excluded from Medicaid coverage since Medicaid was introduced in 1965.8 And in federal facilities, the Hyde Amendment forbids the use of federal funds on abortions, except to save the life of the pregnant person or in cases of rape or incest.
Although Medicaid funds may not be used on incarcerated people, the paper does reveal a correlation between states that allow Medicaid to cover abortions in the non-incarcerated population, and states that assisted with payment for abortions behind bars. Within states included in the study that have opted to allow Medicaid to cover abortion, 57% of prison systems and 75% of jails paid for an incarcerated people to obtain an abortion over the course of the study (or arranged for an outside source, like Planned Parenthood, to pay). In comparison, in states where Medicaid does not cover abortion in the non-incarcerated population, just 17% of prison systems and 0% of jails paid for (or arranged payment for) an abortion.
Other barriers include a lack of written policies on abortion in some states, and the physical distance to abortion caregivers from many rural prisons. And while pregnancy tests should be given at every intake in every women’s facility, pregnancy testing was not part of official policy in eight (36%) of the study’s prison systems and in one of the study’s six jails (17%). Especially in facilities where abortions are only allowed during the first trimester, this may leave people unaware they are pregnant until it is too late to access abortion.
There are significantly fewer abortions in prison than in the general population
Barriers to abortion access in the greater community are amplified among incarcerated populations. Abortions are already more difficult to obtain for people of color, those living in rural areas, and low-income individuals — many of the same people who are more likely to be incarcerated.
Over the course of the study, 33 abortions were reported in the study jails and just 11 in the prisons — out of 1,040 total pregnancies that ended in custody during that period.
This led to an overall “abortion ratio” of just 1.4% in the study’s prisons (the share of non-miscarriage pregnancies that ended in abortion), which is 13 times lower than the overall U.S. ratio of 18.4% in 2017. In other words, excluding miscarriages, just under one in five pregnancies ended in abortion in the general U.S. population in 2017, compared to one in about 72 pregnancies in prisons. Interestingly, the abortion ratio in study jails was 18%, similar to that of the general population. And looking only at the four jail systems that allowed abortions, that rate was even higher: 33% of non-miscarriage pregnancies that ended in those jails ended with an abortion, suggesting to the authors that “pregnant incarcerated individuals…may actually have an increased need for abortion access.”
The discrepancy between abortion rates in prisons and jails might be partially explained by timing: People typically go to jail before prison, so pregnancies may be more likely to be discovered in jail than prison. Pregnant people entering prisons may also tend to be farther along in their pregnancies, and by then it may be too late to request an abortion, although the study was not able to compare gestational age at admission. In addition, five of the six study jails were in large urban areas in close proximity to abortion caregivers (and four of the six were in nonhostile states) — meaning that access may have been better in the study’s jails than its prisons.
Incarcerated people have few — if any — choices regarding contraception
Prior studies have shown that three-quarters of incarcerated women are of reproductive age and many want to use contraception in advance of their release. The second recently-released PIPS study surveyed prison and jail policies regarding both permanent and reversible contraception (“permanent contraception” here refers to tubal ligation or getting one’s “tubes tied”; reversible contraception methods include methods like IUDs and hormonal implants). As with abortion, many facilities did not have a written policy regarding contraception, meaning actual access in those states might fall to the discretion of staff members.
Among the 22 state prison systems studied, five (23%) allowed both permanent and reversible contraception, five (23%) only allowed reversible contraception, and six (27%) only allowed permanent contraception. The remaining six states (27%) did not offer contraception at all. All six studied jails provided access to reversible contraception, with five also offering permanent contraception.
It is particularly alarming that six prison systems allowed access to permanent contraception, but not reversible contraception. This means that incarcerated people who want contraception may be forced to choose between permanent sterilization or nothing at all. In the context of prisons and jails, permanent contraception is a complex issue that blurs the line between choice and coercion, especially where no other options are provided. An audit of California prisons, for example, found that more than 100 women — particularly women of color — were subjected to illegal sterilization procedures between 2006 to 2010, many of whom did not know their surgeries would prevent them from ever getting pregnant. And in 2020, a whistleblower alleged that an immigration detention center was conducting mass hysterectomies; one detained woman compared it to an “experimental concentration camp.” Historically, forced sterilization has disproportionately devastated the lives of Black, Indigenous and other women of color.
Among the 11 state prison systems and five jails in the study that allowed permanent contraception, this procedure was only available after childbirth as a postpartum procedure in all but one prison system and one jail. This raises two concerns: Outside of prisons and jails, this procedure occurs equally frequently outside the postpartum setting, so only allowing it as a postpartum option limits choice. Secondly, incarcerated people are often in a particularly vulnerable position after giving birth in prison: They generally have no choice in their healthcare provider or birth location, and have little privacy. This vulnerability could further contribute to coerced decisions regarding postpartum permanent contraception.
In fact, as the study notes, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists advises that incarcerated women should rarely undergo permanent sterilization — and only then if long-acting reversible contraception is also available, and if there is documentation of a pre-incarceration request for the procedure.
Prisons and jails must expand access to reproductive healthcare, both in policy and practice
Pregnancy overlaps with incarceration often enough that prisons and jails should have clear policies and procedures to screen for pregnancy, provide quality prenatal and postnatal care, and ensure that incarcerated people have access to safe abortions, deliveries, and contraception, as they are entitled to by law. People do not lose their constitutional right to reproductive autonomy when they are incarcerated. Yet these two recent studies reveal abortion and contraception policies that are sometimes unwritten, sometimes unconstitutional, and frequently undermine individuals’ autonomy. They also make evident that more ongoing data collection is needed. Significant data remains uncollected,9 including demographic data (broken down by race, ethnicity, gender identity, etc.), which would allow us to see any disparities in pregnancy outcomes and access to contraception.
In many states where abortion is currently allowed behind bars, the narrow existing window of abortion eligibility may be shut if Roe v Wade is overturned by the Supreme Court. The Guttmacher Institute expects that 26 states are certain or likely to ban abortion if the right is not protected by the Constitution.10 In Texas, for example, the new law bans abortions after six weeks. The jails in Harris County (Houston) and Dallas County do not allow abortions at all, meaning that an incarcerated person in early pregnancy could easily miss this tiny window of eligibility while jailed, and not be able to obtain an abortion upon release. And while people on the outside can — if they have the means — travel to a nonhostile state for abortion care, those in jails and prisons are held captive to the policies of their states.
The study’s findings suggest clear policy recommendations:
Prioritize the diversion and/or early release of pregnant people from jail and prison, in recognition of the existing, serious risks to parental and infant health and well-being in carceral settings.
Standardize correctional health care and require oversight to ensure all incarcerated people are provided standard reproductive health services.
Establish clear, written policies regarding access to abortion care and contraception.
At intake, screen for pregnancy and provide clear information about how to access available services.
Provide non-coercive access to begin or end reversible contraception.
Ensure that abortion access in all facilities is in line with state and federal law.
Remove financial barriers to needed services for incarcerated people: State and local authorities should cover the cost of abortions and contraception for incarcerated people, or arrange for costs to be covered by service provider partners.
Connect pregnant people with needed services upon release from jail or prison.
Collect more data, disaggregated by race, ethnicity, gender identity, and other individual characteristics, on pregnancy prevalence, outcomes, policies, practices, and individual experiences — including requests for both reversible and permanent contraception.
The articles do not identify which states do or do not allow access to abortion and contraception, but do note that the study prison systems included Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Washington, and Wisconsin. (Wisconsin’s data represent just one of the three state prisons that house women.) These 22 prison systems hold 58% of women in US prisons. ↩
The jail systems included Cook County (Illinois), Dallas County (Texas), Hampden County (Massachusetts), Harris County (Texas), Los Angeles County (California), and New York City (New York). These counties include the five largest jail systems in the country, and hold 5% of all women in US jails. ↩
The article on abortion access also analyzed monthly data on pregnancy outcomes in these facilities and all 26 federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) facilities housing females over the course of 12 months in 2016 and 2017. The BOP did not participate in the study’s policy survey, however. ↩
These new papers, while concerning, are not necessarily surprising, considering what we already know. Our 2019 50-state survey found that prisons often lack official policies and humane practices for the treatment of pregnant women. And in New York State (which was not a part of these studies’ prison cohort) had no written policy related to abortion, pregnancy options counseling, or hysterectomies as of 2015. ↩
The study looked at access to permanent contraceptive methods (i.e. tubal ligation), as well as reversible contraception (which includes short-acting methods like birth control pills, as well as long-acting methods like IUDs and subdermal implants). ↩
As of the end of 2020, six states throughout the country were considered very hostile to abortion rights, 15 were hostile, and eight leaned hostile. ↩
For example, Arizona’s policy states: “Elective abortions are only performed if the inmate is able to pay for all costs related to the procedure. Related costs include all doctor and allied health clinician fees; all laboratory and diagnostic tests completed; all inpatient hospital costs, including surgery; all medication costs; all transportation costs to and from medical appointments related to the abortion procedure; all security costs including staff/labor costs; all follow-up medical/mental health costs following the completion of the procedure.” This amounts to a significant expense: One provider’s website shows a cost range (depending on gestational age) from $640 to $2,500. A medical abortion costs $620 out of pocket. This policy virtually guarantees incarcerated people won’t be able to get an abortion if they want one, for financial reasons alone. ↩
The Affordable Care Act allowed states to opt in to the “Medicaid expansion,” which provides additional federal funds to expand Medicaid coverage. In some cases, states that have opted in to the expansion may be able to receive Medicaid reimbursements for some care delivered outside of correctional institutions for Medicaid-eligible incarcerated people. ↩
Federal-level pregnancy data has only been regularly collected since the 2018 First Step Act. The Survey of Prison Inmates, which includes state prisons, is not collected often, and does not track pregnancy outcomes, just pregnancy prevalence. ↩
The following 21 states have preexisting laws banning (or nearly entirely banning) abortion that would go into effect without Roe: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, West Virginia, Wisconsin. The following five states seem likely to ban abortion as soon as possible without federal protections in place: Florida, Indiana, Montana, Nebraska, and Wyoming. ↩
Many people in prison struggle to purchase basic hygiene supplies, stamps, and other necessities of incarcerated life—thanks in part to the low wages they made before entering prison1 and the mere pennies they earn working behind bars. Most prison systems claim to provide assistance to people who are extremely poor (or, in correctional policy terms, “indigent”). However, our new survey reveals that these “indigence policies” are extremely limited—both in who they help, and the amount of assistance provided.
We found that in almost every state2 and the federal prison system, incarcerated people must maintain extremely low balances in their “inmate trust funds”3 before receiving any help with essential items like soap and stamps. And being deemed indigent is only half of the battle, as many states provide very few resources even to those who do qualify. What’s more, in 18 states, the assistance given to indigent people is actually treated as a loan they must repay if their account balance ever goes up, meaning that people are required to go into debt for access to basic necessities.
We gathered information on indigence policies in all 50 states and the federal Bureau of Prisons by looking through state departments of corrections’ websites and contacting public information officers in each system. Here, we offer answers to two questions:
How is indigence is defined in each state?
What items or services are supposed to be provided to indigent incarcerated people, according to state policies?
Most states have very narrow definitions of who qualifies as “indigent”
We were able to find a definition for indigence in 41 states and the federal Bureau of Prisons. The remaining nine states did not have easily accessible definitions online, and were not able to provide us with the requested information when asked. The lack of transparency is disappointing, and makes it difficult to hold prisons accountable for doing the bare minimum to support the poorest incarcerated people. Worse, this inability to produce policy information may be an indication that some states do not have indigence policies, meaning extremely poor incarcerated people in these states might not receive any assistance at all.
Every single department of corrections with an indigence policy requires people to have very little money before they can qualify. The monetary thresholds for indigence status range from a low of $0 (meaning that people with $1 to their name would not be considered indigent) to a maximum of $25. Over half of states have their limits set between $0 and $10. Additionally, most states require that people keep these low balances for at least a month before qualifying. If someone does get money added to their account that exceeds the indigence limit, they lose their indigence status and have to wait before they can be considered indigent again. In New Mexico, for example, an incarcerated person must have $0 in their account for a month before they qualify as indigent. Going so long with such low account balances means that people are surviving on severely limited access to food4 and basic necessities like toilet paper. While 30 days was the most common wait time – and certainly too long to have to wait for soap and envelopes to write home – Alabama, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Utah all require people to wait even longer, from 45 to 90 days.5
These arbitrary limits on the amount of money people can have means that people can lose their “indigence” status—and therefore their access to necessary supplies—just because they received a small deposit from a family member or for working a prison job. Many indigence policies specifically prohibit deposits and income of any amount in their definitions. For example, an incarcerated person in Maryland making 15 cents an hour for their labor can’t qualify for indigence status; while $0.15 an hour will hardly make someone rich, people are not allowed to work and receive free access to indigent supplies. These policies often ignore that many incarcerated people have automatic deductions taken from any money deposited into their accounts, including for fines and fees, involuntary savings funds, or repaying the department of corrections for items they received previously while considered indigent.
We also found that four states put additional work-related requirements on who can qualify for indigence, by limiting the status to those who are incapable of working, are “involuntarily unemployed,” or are actively seeking work.
The fact that free basic supplies are provided only to the poorest people—and not to all incarcerated people for free by default—fits with correctional trends of shifting the costs of incarceration onto incarcerated people and their families, as also evidenced through the rise of paid services like tablets and phone calls.
The services offered to indigent people vary from state to state, but they are always very limited
The most common items provided to indigent incarcerated people are hygiene kits6 and supplies for sending a limited number of letters to loved ones; the number of free letters allowed range from one per month in Ohio to seven per week in Maryland. Legal mail is also mentioned in many policies, though departments of corrections are more likely to require repayment for these mailings. In some states, people have to choose between using their mail supplies for personal or legal mail, as they aren’t always considered separate services.
Eighteen states require indigent people to pay the department of corrections back for at least some of the services they receive while deemed indigent. In at least seven states, correctional agencies don’t appear to offer any services or supplies for free without the expectation of repayment. The Department of Corrections in Washington State, for example, covers the cost of mailing up to 10 letters per month for indigent incarcerated people. However, if the indigent person ever loses their indigence status, the department will recoup the costs for any letters previously mailed for free by deducting money from their “inmate trust accounts.” In states with repayment policies, the only way for the poorest incarcerated people to stay out of debt is to simply not write letters to their families, despite the fact that communication is crucial for maintaining family ties and increasing the chance of success upon release.
Every prison system can—and should—do more
Every indigence policy we looked at could be improved, but some states have implemented a few decent practices (at no cost to incarcerated people or their families) that others could consider adopting:
Seven states allow indigent incarcerated people and their families the opportunity—though often very limited—to communicate via phone calls, video calls, email, or texts free of charge.7
Seven states clearly state that feminine hygiene products are provided to those who need them, free of charge.8
Seven states specify that toilet paper is provided to indigent incarcerated people for free.9
New Jersey provides indigent incarcerated people with a $15 monthly allowance for commissary, which is important for access to food and basic necessities.
California’s code of regulations prohibits charging indigent incarcerated people for mailing services they received while considered indigent (including the cost of materials, copying, and postage) if they lose indigent status.
Stringent indigence policies punish the poorest people in prison by severely limiting the amount of money people can have and still receive free services, dictating how they can spend the little money they do have, and making them wait weeks in extreme poverty before offering help. All incarcerated people deserve, at minimum, access to hygiene items and ways to communicate with loved ones without having to take on even more debt.
Incarcerated people had a median annual income prior to incarceration that was 41% lower than non-incarcerated people of similar ages. Unfortunately, this national data is not available for individual states. ↩
All states that have indigency policies require unreasonably low balances, but nine states did not share them with us, and therefore may not provide any support to people unable to purchase necessities. ↩
The term “inmate trust fund” – also called a “trust account”—is a term of art in the correctional sector, referring to a pooled bank account that holds funds for incarcerated people whose individual balances are sometimes treated as subaccounts. The term “trust” is used because the correctional facility typically holds the account as trustee, for the benefit of the individual beneficiaries (or subaccount holders). ↩
While some departments of corrections may feel wait times are necessary to prevent people from manipulating account balances to receive indigence status, long wait times create unnecessary delays in needed assistance. ↩
What’s included in hygiene kits varies by state but generally they include soap, shampoo, a toothbrush, toothpaste, and shaving equipment. ↩
These states include Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. ↩
These states include Maryland, Nebraska, New Jersey, Ohio, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. ↩
These states include California, Colorado, Idaho, Nebraska, New Jersey, Oklahoma, and Wyoming. ↩
Relevant policy numbers, documents, or other sources
“An inmate who is found to be financially unable to pay the co-pay and so is allowed to proceed in forma pauperis. For the assessment of medical co-pay charges, an inmate who maintains less than an average daily balance of twenty-dollars ($20.00) on his/her ITF account for the past ninety (90) days AND who has not received gross receipts totaling more than one hundred dollars ($100.00) during the past ninety (90) days will be considered indigent.”
“A prisoner who has less than $20 presently available in his or her account and who has had no more than $50 in his or her account during the preceding 30 days. A prisoner with more than $50 in his or her account during the preceding 30 days will still be considered indigent if no more than $50 remained after mandatory deductions (restitution, fines, child support enforcement orders, violent crime compensation payments, or civil judgments, e.g.) or deductions made for educational materials or courses, counseling, or health care.”
Mail up to 5 pieces of mail per week, weighing up to two pounds each; each facility has a system allowing indigent people to obtain hygiene items through commissary.
Yes. Costs related to legal copies and photocopies of personal materials need to be paid back.
“An inmate in a state prison who has maintained an inmate trust account with $25 or less for 30 consecutive days.”
Products for washing hands, bathing, oral hygiene, and other personal hygiene including but not limited to: soap, toothpaste or toothpowder, toothbrush, and toilet paper; writing paper, envelopes, a writing implement, and postage required for five 1-ounce first-class letters per week; an unspecified number of envelopes (metered) if housed in a behavioral management unit; notarized documents free of charge; necessary duplication of printed forms and other written or typed materials, special paper, envelopes, and postage for mailing to the courts; may receive donated, working tv sets; free unlimited mail to any court or attorney general’s office; indigent inmates shall have property shipped to an address of their choosing at the CDCR’s expense; for third level appeals, indigent inmates shall not be required to divide their appeal into separate mailings to conform to indigent mail weight restrictions; free copying and postage of legal documents required by the court, plus one copy for the opposing party and one copy for the inmate’s records.
Yes. If an indigent incarcerated person wants funds for a hobby they can request a handicraft loan. The loan will be considered uncollectable if they are paroled or discharged from CDCR.
AB 2533, NCR 20-02, an email exchange with CDCR on 10/8/2021, and the following policies in the CDCR Operations Manual: 14010.21, 52051.17, 54010.5, 54010.5.2, 54010.5.3, 54030.13.3, 54100.6, 62060.7, and 101050.4.4.
“An offender with no funds or source of income.”
Mail one letter per week, contingent upon funding; basic hygiene kits which include soap, toilet paper, toothbrush, toothpaste, denture cleaner and adhesives, and shaving equipment; if the administrative head deems there are compelling circumstances, they can ask the state to pay for a phone call which will go on their chronological record and be supervised; may place collect calls.
850.11 and an email exchange with CDOC on 10/26/2021.
“Less than $5.00 in their account for the previous 90 days.”
Personal hygiene items including shampoo, soap, toothpaste, and toothbrush, comb, disposable razor, sanitary napkins/tampons; underwear and footwear; writing materials including writing instrument and up to 20 sheets of paper for courts and attorneys per month; mail two social letters per week and five privileged letters per month; sick call fees.
“An indigent offender has an established pattern of insufficient funds, in his/her Trust Fund Account, averaging less than $10 per day in a rolling 30-day period, with which to pay for supplies such as basic personal hygiene items, writing materials, postage, and legal copies.”
Yes. Indigent people must repay the costs of hygiene items, writing materials, postage, legal copies, and release clothing and gate money. The Department of Corrections should be reimbursed when capable, and a negative balance remains on books until satisfied, even post release. (source. DE DOC)
Email exchange with DEDOC on 10/29/2021.
“An inmate without funds (indigent inmate) is an inmate who has not had a trust fund account balance of $6.00 for the past 30 days.”
No health care service fee; given over the counter medications at the institution pharmacy; provided oral hygiene products; if transferring from one facility to another, and they own something that can be transferred, the facility may cover the cost of stamps to complete the transfer.
“An offender may be classified as indigent for purposes of this SOP, if account records indicate that their Inmate Trust Account has less than ten dollars ($10.00) on the date of the offender’s request to use funds. Frozen funds will not be counted for these purposes.”
Yes. Costs incurred for postage and correspondence materials must be paid back.
406.19 and an email exchange with GDC on 10/11/2021.
“An inmate with less than $10.00 of income in her/her spendable account at the time of his/her request.”
Postage and supplies for three privileged letters per week, and one official or personal letter per week; one phone call per week.
Yes. Services such as court actions requiring filing fees and notary services will be paid for but debited to the inmate account and deducted when moneys are entered into their inmate trust account.
COR.15.02 and an email exchange with Hawaii DPS on 10/8/2021.
“An inmate who has been housed at an IDOC correctional facility (including a contract facility) for 30 consecutive days and whose trust account has a balance of less than $0.15 and has had no deposits for 30 consecutive days. If the inmate is paroled or released and returns to the IDOC as an inmate, the 30-day clock starts over. If the inmate is transported to another facility, hospital, county jail, or out of state the inmate retains indigent status upon return to an IDOC facility provided the inmate did not receive any deposits in the meantime.”
Hygiene items issued once per week upon request, including soap, toilet paper, toothbrush, toothpaste, and a disposable razor; materials (4 sheets of paper, one envelope, a writing instrument) and postage for one personal letter per week; one additional mail envelope per week for confidential correspondence; envelopes, postage, and photocopies for legal mail. Materials for legal mail include 25 sheets of paper, envelopes, and black ink pen; If diagnosed with gender dysphoria, state will issue appropriate undergarments; eyeglass replacements if necessary; over the counter medication if approved by health care provider.
Illinois had three different definitions in the same document. 1. “Anyone not receiving offender pay due to restitution owed to the court, corrections, etc.” 2. “no money on his account, no state pay and no money coming in” 3. (for medical care) “one who’s Trust Fund balance [does not] exceed $20.00 on the date of service, or at any time with the preceding 30 days prior to service.”
Hygiene kit including soap, toothpaste, and toothbrush; waived fee processing fee for accessing criminal history record; medical copays.
“An offender who has a Trust Fund account balance of less than fifteen dollars ($15.00) on the day of request and has not had a total of more than fifteen dollars ($15.00) credited to the trust fund account in the preceding thirty (30) days.”
Hygiene kit including toothbrush, toothpaste or powder, denture cleaner and adhesive, comb, bath soap, deodorant (or soap with deodorant), shampoo, and shaving supplies; mailing legal documents; copies of legal documents.
“An inmate whose inmate bank account during the previous month has a cumulative spendable amount of less than $12.00. The cumulative spendable amount shall be determined by adding all deposits made during the month to the beginning account balance and subtracting fines, fees, restitution, garnishments, forced savings, and payments or encumbrances for court filing fees applied during the month. Amounts voluntarily withdrawn from the inmate’s account shall not be subtracted from the sum of the beginning balance and deposits.”
An electric fan If they’re in a unit without appropriate circulation; basic personal hygiene items including toothbrush, toothpaste, razor, comb or pick, and soap; a pencil, writing paper, envelopes, and postage for four first class, one ounce, domestic letters per month.
“Has a zero balance in their account at the facility and has no funds in a personal savings account or investment at the time of making a request for free privileged mail, free legal photocopies, or free basic hygiene.”
Writing supplies and postage for at least four, one ounce, first class letters per week; basic hygiene items; writing supplies and postage for the purpose of corresponding with attorneys, courts, and the MDOC inspection division (no limit); commissary items that are authorized by the administrator; free photocopies of court filings; if they have access to tablets they are given 20 free text messages per week.
Yes. A resident with no more than $10 dollars is provided phone call minutes of up to $2.50 per week (the phone charge is 9 cents a minute) and must pay this back if they become able to within six months. For medical care, there is a statute which requires a $5.00 co-pay for some services. If a resident has less than $15, this co-pay is waived, and it must be paid back if they become able to within six months.
“An inmate who, within the previous 2 weeks, has not received pay for an assignment in work or school, and who has less than $2 in his or her spending account, or an inmate received within the previous 2 weeks who has not had $2 in his or her spending account.”
Hygiene items including a toothbrush, toothpaste, comb, soap, shaving cream, disposable razor, deodorant, and shampoo; writing instrument, paper, envelopes, and postage for seven letters per week
“(a) At the time of the request, the inmate has, in all accounts to which he or she has access, a total amount less than or equal to $10.00 plus the cost or fees sought to be waived; and (b) At no time for the 60 days immediately preceding said request, have the inmate’s accounts contained more than $10.00 plus the cost or fees sought to be waived. (e.g. request to waiver $5.00 on July 1, 2015; indigent if, at no time since May 1, 2015, total in accounts has been more than $15.00). In addition to 103 CMR 481.05. Indigent Inmate(a) or (b), the Superintendent may in his or her discretion, designate an inmate as indigent if the inmate has less than $2.00 in his or her account at the time of the request, or in other circumstances as he or she deems appropriate.”
Three one-ounce, first class letters per week; unlimited number of letters of any weight to any court official.
“1. The prisoner’s available account balance (on the first day of the calendar month preceding application) plus gross receipts (total receipts received in the calendar month preceding application) did not equal or exceeded $11.00 except as follows. a. If funds are received that are designated for release planning or for medical or educational expenses, those funds shall not be used in the calculation. b. If there is a hold placed on funds that are subject to a hearing (e.g., Health Care co-pay, restitution, error correct), those funds would not be included in the prisoner’s beginning available account balance. c. If the prisoner is subject to IRS federal tax withholding, then receipts shall be determined before the tax has been withheld. AND 2. The prisoner has no known cashable savings bonds.”
Yes. Indigent people will be provided with a loan (equal to $11.00 minus whatever they have in their account) to be able to purchase health care products, over the counter personal care products, and hygiene products. They will also be loaned the amount necessary for up to 10 stamps per month.
“An offender who currently has less than $1.00 in the spending account, less than $1.00 in the voluntary savings account, has not made any canteen purchases for the past 14 days and has not had any withdrawal requests processed for the past 14 days or has not transferred to another facility within the past 14 days.”
Materials for mailing services including one pen as needed and 35 sheets of writing paper per week; one first class (maximum weight 13 ounces) postage-paid large (9.5″ x 12.5″) envelope per week; two first class (maximum weight 13 ounces) postage paid business size envelopes per week (up to 4″ x 9.5″); A total of 35 sheets of legal and medical record photocopies per week; One over the counter medication from canteen per week; Laundry soap and personal care items including such examples as toothbrush, toothpaste, razor, comb, deodorant, soap, shampoo, dental floss loops, and (if wearing dentures) denture cleaner and medically-authorized adhesive as allowed on the MINNCOR restricted centralized canteen catalog.
Yes. If someone can’t pay for medical care or is indigent, the department of corrections will either find a way to get payment later or waive the fees.
Medical Definition: “not having sufficient funds to pay the assessed fee at the time of receipt of health-care services.” Mail Definition: “An indigent inmate is defined as one who is without funds and has maintained the balance of less than a first class stamp or less for 30 consecutive days preceding the requested mailing.”
Yes. Indigent people are required to pay health care related costs at a later time. Similarly, indigent people can mail legal documents after proving it’s for pending litigation but the department of corrections will give them a negative balance in their account for the postage.
“1. The offender has received or spent less than $15 in the previous month. 2. The offender has less than $15 in his or her account at the previous month’s end. 3. The offender has less than $15 on his or her account at the time of verification. 4. The request form must be filled out completely and clearly written. 5. The facility resident account representative must receive the request no later than the second business day of each month.”
An indigent inmate package which includes hygiene items, paper, envelopes, writing instruments, and postage (for writing and mailing legal documents).
“Those who have not had a balance of $10.00 or more in their institutional and/or regular savings account during the past thirty days.”
Five first-class, U.S. postage embossed envelopes per month or the equivalent in metered mail to send letters in order to maintain community ties; hygiene products including soap, shampoo, toothbrush, toothpaste or powder, a comb, toilet paper, special hygiene items for female inmates, shaving equipment upon request, denture cleaner and adhesive; each month indigent incarcerated people can choose either five stamps for mail or $2.50 debit calling time.
“An inmate who has no funds in his or her account and is not able to earn inmate wages due to prolonged illness or any other uncontrollable circumstances, and who has been verified as having no outside source from which to obtain funds.”
Photocopying services, including legal materials; personal hygiene items including soap, toothbrush, toothpaste or powder, a comb, toilet paper, shaving equipment, and products for special hygiene needs of females; $15 per month for commissary; they’re not charged for services such as legal mail, legal copies, medical copays, etc.
“Their trust fund account has been without funds or activity for a period of one (1) month prior to his/her request for such items.”
State-issued underwear, shoes, uniforms, blankets, pillows, towels, etc.; two first class letters per week; a reasonable amount of postage for legal purposes; free paper and pens; one free call per week and one free video call per week; two hygiene packs per week that include toothbrush, toothpaste, shampoo, and deodorant and they can request more if needed.
“An offender is considered indigent if they have no money to purchase basic hygiene items such as soap or deodorant.”
Up to 10 stamps per month for 1-ounce personal letters. This stamp limit does not apply to mail relating to legal matters; basic hygiene items every 30 days; upon release, they receive $45 in gate money if they have served two consecutive years of a felony sentence; upon release, they are given the cost of a bus ticket if they do not have at least 5 times the cost of the ticket in their offender banking account on their release; prior to release, DOC helps them with opening a bank account, visiting the local housing authority to find a place to live, obtain a driver’s license from DMV or birth certificate from the NC Vital Records Office. They also try to transfer them closer to home when possible so family can pick them up.
“You must have received $15.00 or less of spendable money each month. This includes spending balances carried over from the previous month. You must be actively seeking a job and cannot have quit a job, refused to work, or have been fired from a job or work assignment within the past 30 days.”
Up to $4 credit per month for legal copies, legal postage, and regular or personal postage; basic hygiene; writing materials; DOC may waive the copay for oral surgery; costs covered for glasses every two years; two free 15 minute phone calls per month to contact their children and two free video visitation sessions per month to individuals actively working toward family reunification within their case plan; hearing aid batteries (hearing aids are given to anyone who needs them); if PCP approves, they may be provided over the counter medication.
Yes. If the $4 credit for legal copies, legal postage, and regular or personal postage is exhausted, money is taken from their “release aid account.” Any money spent beyond that available balance is recorded as a debt.
“An inmate is considered indigent if, during the 30 days immediately preceding the request, the inmate has earned or received less than $12.00 and, if the inmate’s account balance has not exceeded $12.00 at any time during the thirty (30) days immediately preceding the request. In the case of an inmate who has been incarcerated for less than thirty (30) days, the inmate is considered indigent if the inmate’s account balance has not exceeded $12.00 at any time during the period of incarceration.”
Legal kit including two large manilla envelopes, one black ink pen, five sheets of carbon paper, 40 sheets of white bond or copy paper, and one white writing-paper tablet from the library every 30 days; first class mail to courts of law; one free stamped envelope per month; hygiene kit provided weekly that includes a toothbrush, toothpaste, dental floss, comb or pick, razor, deodorant, and 2 boxes sanitary napkins and/or tampons for people entering women facilities; Eight free electronic mail stamps per month for outbound email only, which includes videograms and attachments.
“An inmate is considered indigent if the total of their end of day available balance and all voluntary withdrawals for the last 30 days does not exceed $10.50. a. Any disbursements, cash draws, canteen sales or similar transactions will count as a “voluntary” except disbursements for birth certificates. b. Co-pays, court costs, fines, fees, institutional debt and similar transactions will not count towards the $10.50 “voluntary” withdrawals. The available balance is checked for being over the $10.50 limit after these collections are made. If co-pays, court costs, fines, fees, institutional debt, and similar mandatory collections collect all but $10.50 of the funds that an inmate receives in their available balance and the inmate would otherwise be indigent the inmate is still indigent.”
Two one-ounce privileged or non-privileged letters per week; personal hygiene items including soap, shampoo, toothbrush, toothpaste or powder, denture cleaner and adhesive, comb, toilet paper, razors, sanitary napkins/tampons (for females), and deodorant; if someone has a fan or tv confiscated it may be given to an indigent person instead of being auctioned.
“Two categories of inmates will qualify for indigent status. (a) A Priority Legal User who is without sufficient funds in the inmate’s trust account to pay for the costs of necessary supplies, photocopies and mailing services at the time of the request will be provided necessary supplies, photocopies, and mailing services notwithstanding the inmate’s indigent status in accordance with these rules. (b) A General Legal User with an imminent Court Deadline who can demonstrate the inability to acquire funds or purchase necessary supplies or mailing services within the court deadline will be provided necessary supplies, photocopies and mailing services notwithstanding the inmate’s indigent status in accordance with these rules.”
Additional storage units for storage of legal material in their living quarters; envelopes for necessary court filings.
Yes. Indigent people may be provided with photocopies, supplies, and mailing services but their accounts will be charged and they will have to pay the state back. The same is true for those requesting copies of their own records (medical, dental, psychiatric, etc.)
“An inmate for whom the combined balances of his/her facility account and any other accounts are $10 or less at all times during the 30 days preceding the date on which the inmate submits a request to the person designated by the Facility Manager/designee. An inmate who refuses available work/school although he/she is physically able and not precluded from work/school by virtue of his/her housing status, is not indigent for the purposes of this policy and is not eligible for free stationery or to anticipate for postage. An inmate who is selfconfined may also be considered as refusing available work although physically able as determined by the Program Review Committee (PRC). Any inmate who has funds in another account, which if deposited in his/her facility account would bring his/her balance to more than $10, is not indigent. Any inmate who has not made a good faith effort to manage his/her money so as to be able to pay the necessary costs of litigation himself/herself is not indigent.”
Stationery and a pen; up to $11 per month in copying and postage for legal mail charges; basic hygiene items.
“One who is involuntarily unemployed, has less than $10 in their active account, and has had no deposits of $10 or more in the previous two months.”
An indigent kit every thirty days which includes 1 bottle of shampoo, one tube of shaving cream, two disposable razors, one writing pad, six #10 envelopes, one soap bar, one tube of toothpaste, one tooth brush, one writing pen, three two-packs of generic pain reliever, and one deoderant stick; three personal letters per week and legal mail.
2.25-03 DOC and an email exchange with RIDOC on 10/7/2021.
“An inmate whose E.H. Cooper account’s balance and/or deposits for a 30 day period has not exceeded $6.42.”
A pair of clogs or tennis shoes (bobos) for recreational purposes if their state-issued, job-specific shoes are not authorized for wear during recreational activities; a hygiene pack that includes three soaps, one pencil, one tube of toothpaste, one toothbrush, one deodorant, two envelopes, eight sheets of paper, two 3-in-1 gels for men or three 3-in-1 gels for women, four disposable razors, and a comb.
“When a TDCJ offender. (1) has less than a $5 balance in an inmate trust fund (ITF) account; (2) has a damaged or misplaced identification (ID) card; or (3) is on week one of lockdown status for more than seven consecutive days.”
Yes. Indigent people can receive stationery and postage but it must be paid back when funds are placed into their accounts. The same is true for medical co-pays—they don’t have to pay upfront but the charges will accumulate and the DOC will expect payment whenever funds are placed in their accounts again.
“An inmate who has not had over nine dollars in his or her inmate account for 45 consecutive days may be eligible for indigent status.”
Duplication of medical records; one first class, one-ounce envelope per week; personal hygiene items including a toothbrush every 3 months, toothpaste, soap, a small comb, and one disposable razor every week; duplication of legal records (up to 25 per week); writing materials including writing paper, envelopes, pencils and pens; I.D. cards (and they don’t have to pay for a replacement if it’s lost or stolen).
“An offender with less than $5.00 in their offender account for discretionary spending during the previous month and has no job or other source of income that provided as much as $5.00 during the previous month or an offender who is newly received into a facility and does not have available funds nor hygiene items.”
Hygiene items including toothbrush, toothpaste, denture cleaner and adhesive, shampoo, deodorant, comb, razor, and bar soap; legal package including paper, pen, carbon paper, and manilla envelope; postage for one one-ounce, domestic, first class letter per week; $50 stipend each year for copies of offender notification information.
Yes. If an indigent person participates in Ramadan or NOI Month of Fasting, they have to pay for their meal tray between dawn and sunset. The cost will be charged as a loan if they don’t have a sufficient amount to cover the cost.
“An inmate who has less than a twenty-five dollar balance of disposable income in his or her institutional account on the day a request is made to utilize funds and during the thirty days previous to the request.”
Yes. Indigent people will not be denied access to personal hygiene items, or medical, dental, or mental health care but they will have to pay the money back once they have money available. Additionally any money spent on postage for regular and legal mail will also have to be paid back.
If they are transgender or intersex, they can ask the health services unit for Magic Shave without a copay; basic hygiene items; feminine hygiene products are free; free stamped envelope biweekly and two free phone calls per week; one free haircut per month; state issued shoes, clothing, linens, and towels; over the counter medication; state issued glasses if prescribed; free state-issued ID upon return to community.
Yes. The DOC will loan up to $100 annually to indigent people for supplies, photocopies, and postage to allow them access to the courts for litigation related to their own cases.
“An inmate who has no source of income and no money on his/her account. Inmates who have twenty-five dollars ($25.00) or more credited to their account at any time in any given month from any source for discretionary spending shall not be considered indigent during that month regardless of their account balance at any time during that month.”
Use of pens and paper when in the law library; replacement glasses; Hygiene items including soap, toilet paper, and a tooth brush, toothpaste, denture cleaner and adhesives, shaving equipment and “special hygiene needs.”
Yes. Costs of mailings, printing, photocopying, and any indigent mail packets they are given will result in debt. They will accrue indebtness until they’ve reached 180 days of indigency, at which point there will not be additional charges for the subsequent period of consecutive indigence. If they receive outside money, up to 50% will be taken for reimbursement towards indigent indebtness.
As people in prison are increasingly expected to pay for everyday costs (food, hygiene items, correspondence, etc.), the mechanics of how people send money to incarcerated people assumes heightened importance. Family members used to mail a money order to a PO box, and a day or two later, the money would be in the recipient’s trust account.1 In those days, the most common complaint from family members and incarcerated recipients used to be about delays in processing money orders. Quick to use consumer psychology to turn a buck, a whole industry arose to provide faster–but vastly more expensive–electronic money transfers to incarcerated people.
This “correctional banking” industry includes specialized services like release cards, but at its core the industry makes money off the simple (but highly lucrative) business of facilitating transfers from friends and family members to incarcerated recipients. The industry relentlessly crows about the speed of electronic transfers, while conveniently glossing over the high fees that typically accompany these services. To get a better sense of the landscape, we looked at all fifty state departments of corrections and tried to figure out which companies (if any) hold the contract(s) to provide money-transfer services for each prison system. When possible, we tried to figure out what the fees are to use these services.
Below, we provide the results of our review, identify notable trends in this realm, and highlight steps families of people who are incarcerated, regulators, procurement officials, and companies can take to make money transfers more convenient, affordable, and easy to understand.
Table 1: Shows the results of a survey of all fifty state departments of corrections. The table shows which companies (if any) hold the contract(s) to provide money-transfer services for the system. Each agency name links to its policy.
We live in an age of financial technology (known as “fintech“), where people are accustomed to digitally sending or receiving money from friends and family at little or no cost. A service like Venmo allows no-fee personal transfers from bank accounts or debit cards (payments from a credit card are subject to a 3% fee). Other companies providing similar services charge roughly equivalent fees.2 We looked at 33 state prison systems where fee information was available. We found rates ranging from 5% to 37% for online transfers. The average fee is 19% for a $20 online transfer, with a slight decline for higher-dollar transfers (the average fee for a $50 transfer is 12%). Fees for phone or in-person payments (options more likely to appeal to low-income people without a bank account) were generally higher than for online payments. There is no reasonable explanation why prison money transfers are so much more expensive than regular “free world” services like Venmo.
Three companies dominate the market
Three companies dominate the correctional money-transfer market, at least where prisons are concerned (it’s likely that there are smaller “fringe” players that provide this type of service to jails). The three dominant companies are JPay (a Securus subsidiary that was recently fined $6 million for improper practices in its release-card business), Global*Tel Link (which sometimes uses the tradename “Touchpay”), and Access Corrections.
A few smaller companies also appeared in our survey: a company called JailATM holds a couple of contracts (JailATM is also a minor player in the electronic messaging industry); commissary operator Keefe Group is one of three companies serving the Arizona prison system; and, a company called Cashless Systems, Inc., (a closely-held corporation operated out of a residence in Raleigh, North Carolina and doing business as Premier Services) holds the contract for Mississippi prisons.
There’s a little bit of competition
Most prisons pick one company that receives a monopoly on money-transfer services, but at least eleven states (22%) allow people to choose from two or more different companies.3 Prisons like to give monopoly contracts for things like phone service or operating the commissary. Administrators often cite security concerns as a justification for using only one company as a contractor. But this doesn’t seem to be the case when it comes to money transfers, even though a brief review of corrections-department webpages reveals that prison officials have plenty of security concerns about money transfers.4 It’s telling that when it comes to facilitating the flow of money into prison, many corrections departments are suddenly open to competition.
It’s unclear how much competition actually benefits consumers
We took a closer look at fees in states that offered more than one option, and found that those states had slightly lower money-transfer fees. For example, the 11 states with multiple options had an average fee of 16% for a $20 transfer, as opposed to an average of 20% in 26 states that issued monopoly contracts (see table 2).5 But this only tells a part of the story. In the states with more than one option, it can be extremely complicated for a consumer to figure out what the lowest-cost option is.
Table 2: Shows the lowest available online money-transfer fees in states that offered more than one option. When states had multiple vendors, we show the vendor with the lowest fee for $20 and $50 transfers. Each state name links to its policy.
* Amounts are rounded to the nearest whole percentage. This results in small discrepancies between the number in this column and the first map in this briefing.
As an example of complexity that can arise from multiple options, consider the California Department of Corrections (which houses over 130,000 people). California contracts with all three of the dominant money-transfer vendors (JPay/Securus, GTL, and Access Corrections). JPay is significantly cheaper than the other companies if you want to send $20. But increase the amount the transfer to $50, and JPay is the most expensive option. Worse yet, the prison department’s webpage doesn’t show a chart of the different companies’ respective fees–so the only way a family member can figure out the different fee options is to create accounts with three different companies, initiate test transactions in each system, and then manually compare the different fees (or maybe hunt around vendor websites for a fee table buried in some non-obvious place). The complexity of the options is outlined in table 3. And keep in mind that this is only an example based on two different amounts–if you wanted to send $30, you’d have to perform another round of test transactions to figure out the cheapest option. This kind of opacity seems purposefully designed to prevent consumers from finding the most cost-effective option.
Table 3: Selecting the least expensive money-transfer service is incredibly complex In California, which has three vendors, JPay is the cheapest company to send $20, but the most expensive to send $50.
Fee as percentage of amount transferred
Fee as percentage of amount transferred
Prisons don’t have to outsource
Most prison systems appear to have outsourced money transfers, but there are still some that handle these transactions in-house. Several states still process money-order payments sent through the mail. We also identified four states (Arkansas, Maine, Montana, and Texas) that accept online payments through a general-purpose state-operated online payment platform.
Interestingly, Arkansas recently added Access Corrections as an alternative to the state-operated payment platform. Access Corrections’ fees in Arkansas are 25¢ less than the fees for the state-operated system, and are by far the lowest fees we have seen Access Corrections charge in any prison system–thus suggesting that companies set rates based on what other options are available, and they can provide low-cost transfers when they’re forced to.
Mailed payments are still an option in many states
The vast majority of states (around 45) still allow people to mail a money order at no fee. Some states direct people to mail those money orders to the department of corrections’ accounting office; other states outsource the processing to vendors like JPay and Access Corrections. But, just because there’s no fee, doesn’t mean there’s no cost–between the cost of the money order itself, and a stamp, the sender will probably pay around $2, but that’s lower than most online fees.6 The issue, of course, is speed. The vendors that hold correctional banking contracts earn their profits from fees charged for payments made online or over the phone. Do we trust them to promptly process money orders for which they receive no fee revenue? If their terms of service are any indication, the companies seem to reserve the right to deliberately delay money-order processing.
Don’t forget the fine print
Terms imposed by the dominant money-transfer vendors are replete with objectionable, misleading, and unfair provisions. We’ve grouped some of the more problematic provisions into five categories, discussed below.
Failure to promise anything in return for consumer’s money. Read a money-transfer website, and you’ll understandably be left with the impression that you can pay the vendor a fee to transfer money to someone in prison. But read the fine print, it turns out the companies don’t actually promise to do anything. All three of the leading companies disclaim “any warranty of any kind, express or implied.”7 Advertising a certain service (like transferring money) and then using fine print to disclaim any responsibility to actually provide that service is considered a deceptive practice under many consumer-protection laws.
Seemingly intentional degradation of money-order payments. As noted above, sending a money order is obviously slower than making an online transfer, but in many cases it can be cheaper. But companies seem to go out of their way to make money-order payments arduously slow and plagued by uncertainty. JPay’s terms, for example, promise that payments will be “transmitted” within 1 or 2 business days, except for money-orders, which “are generally processed within ten (10) business days” (most people would refer to 10 business days as two weeks, which is an inexcusably long amount of time for processing small-dollar consumer payments).8 Both JPay and Access Corrections disclaim any liability for money orders that they receive, but which are not credited to the recipient’s account.9
JPay requires customers to consent to a credit check,10 which makes no sense because JPay does not extend credit and it’s unclear why the company needs that kind of private information.
Companies say that user information can be shared with law enforcement, which at first glance isn’t terribly surprising. But many customers might be surprised that the terms of information sharing are so broad that they vitiate any kind of reasonable safeguards for consumers. Access Corrections, for example, says that it can share information with law enforcement, but it defines law enforcement as “personnel involved in the…investigative (public and private) or public safety purposes” (which, aside from being atrocious grammar, essentially means they can share your information with anyone who says they have a public safety purpose).11 GTL allows personal information to be shared with “law enforcement or correctional staff,” but doesn’t require that such staff have a proper job-related purpose for receiving such information.12
Access Corrections states that it has the right to use any customer communications to market its services, without notice or compensation to the customer.13 (Consumer activists successfully sued Facebook in 2011 for using customer likenesses without consent, but Access Corrections is apparently unconcerned about running afoul of the same laws that tripped up the behemoth Facebook).
Poorly designed services. Several miscellaneous provisions indicate how poorly these companies carry out their operations. For example, JPay terms state that the only cost to send money is the “service fee” that must be paid prior to making the transfer.14 But a different paragraph in JPay’s terms state that if the company owes money to a customer (e.g., for a refund), and the customer does not claim the money, JPay will eat up the amount of the refund by levying a “monthly service fee” (this monthly fee is not mentioned on any of JPay’s fee disclosure pages, nor do the terms of service specify how much the fee is).15 JPay also requires 2 weeks’ advance notice before cancelling a recurring payment (this is probably not allowed under Visa’s rules, which reference a 7-day maximum advance notice requirement and require a “simple” mechanism for cancelling recurring payments16).
Dispute resolution. A lot of us are forced to agree to arbitration provisions buried in the fine print of consumer contracts. But these clauses, which prevent consumers from going to court to vindicate their legal rights, are especially troublesome when the company imposing the provision has a monopoly on an essential service. GTL allows customers to “opt out” of arbitration, but also states that the company can terminate the accounts of customers who exercise that right.17 JailATM, meanwhile, requires customers to consent to arbitration conducted by the National Arbitration Forum,18 a disgraced company that was forced to stop conducting consumer arbitrations in 2009 as part of a legal settlement (in fact, we pointed out this problem in our 2016 report on electronic messaging, but JailATM apparently has not bothered to update their terms in the intervening five years). Other troublesome terms that are unrelated to arbitration include one-sided indemnification provisions19 and limitations periods for disputes that are substantially shorter than most states’ statutes of limitations for contract claims.20
Suggestions for improvements
The current system is complicated, inconvenient, and expensive. Different people have different opportunities to address these problems, as explained below.
Family members of incarcerated people
It may seem like family members have no leverage in this unfair system, but there are some things they can do to advocate for change.
Complain about high fees or poor service. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (“CFPB”) has an easy-to-use online complaint system specifically designed for financial services like money transfers. Your state attorney general may also be able to investigate certain abusive or deceptive practices. If the relevant prison system has an ombuds or office of family support, send a copy of your complaint to them as well.
Talk to legislators. Money-transfer vendors take advantage of the lack of regulatory oversight. It turns out that money-transfer vendors are subject to regulation in nearly all states as “money-transmitters;” however, money-transmitter regulations are focused on the fiscal health of the business (known as “prudential regulation”), not protecting consumers. But legislatures can close this loophole. Tell state legislators (or, in the case of jails, county commissioners) about the economic toll of money-transfer fees, and ask them to pass legislation requiring regulatory agencies to enact rules protecting customers of correctional money-transfer services.
If possible, plan ahead and send a money order to avoid fees. If there are problems with money orders (slow processing, out of state mailing addresses), tell facility management and point out that “just send money online” isn’t an adequate response, because the online option is so expensive.
Federal law prohibits financial service providers from taking unreasonable advantage of a consumer’s inability to protect their own interests in selecting or using a consumer financial service.21 Users of correctional money-transfer services are unable to protect their own interests because they must either use a monopoly provider selected by a correctional facility, or choose from 2 or 3 options, all of which appear to set exorbitant prices in relation to their competitors. The CFPB is tasked with enforcing this law, and it should use its investigative and enforcement powers to crack down on unreasonably high money-transfer fees.
The Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) is also empowered to issue rules prohibiting specific unfair trade practices that cause reasonably foreseeable injury to consumers.22 The FTC should use this authority, either by itself or in conjunction with the CFPB, to develop rules governing maximum allowable fees and what types of contractual terms vendors can (or can’t) impose on customers.
Prison procurement officials
At least part of the high cost of money transfers comes from some prison systems demanding or accepting “commissions” (or kickbacks) from vendors. As with phone contracts, prisons can help lower costs by refusing commissions.
Look for in-house alternatives from other parts of state government. Prison systems are departments within state governments. Other state agencies are accustomed to accepting online payments (for vehicle registrations, hunting licenses, tuition, or any number of purposes). Have any of them developed low-cost in-house solutions for processing these payments? And if so, can those solutions be adapted for use in prisons? Arkansas, Maine, Montana, and Texas have figured out how to do it–other states should follow suit.
Sending a money order by mail is a no-fee option in most states, but the utility of this option is severely limited when vendors deliberately prolong the amount of time it takes to process money orders. States can make this better in a number of ways. If at all possible, keep the processing of money orders in-house. If money-order processing is outsourced, there are two requirements that the state should put into its contract with the money-transfer vendor. First, the vendor should be required to process money orders within one business day of delivery. Second, the vendor should provide an in-state mailing address for all money order payments.23
Post all fees on the DOC information page: as noted above, some states sign contracts with multiple vendors, but don’t post the companies’ respective fees in one location. Every DOC webpage about money transfers should include an easy-to-read disclosure of applicable fees so that all family members and all staff members are aware of these fees.
Provide specific details about garnishments/mandatory deductions. Many prison systems deduct money from incoming transfers to pay for mandatory fines, child support, restitution, cost of confinement, or other fees. Money-transfer vendors, unsurprisingly, disclaim any liability for these deductions. It’s true that these deductions are created by the state, so the state bears responsibility for explaining them. This is important information: if someone in prison needs $20 to pay for hygiene items, then a relative sending money needs to know how much to send so that the recipient actually gets $20 after mandatory deductions. Any webpage that includes information on how to send money should also include detailed information on how much is deducted and what deposits are subject to garnishment. This information should include what deductions apply to everyone, versus which deductions (like child support) only apply to a subset of recipients. Ideally, the webpage should also include a calculator so that users can type in a transfer amount and instantly see how much will be delivered to the recipient.
Last but not least, money-transfer vendors themselves have the most power to address problems in the industry they have created. While it’s probably unrealistic to expect these companies to voluntarily reduce fees, if companies are serious about their marketing puffery,24 there are other simple steps they could take to make customers’ lives easier.
To the extent that money-transfer fees are inflated in part due to commissions being paid to correctional facilities, vendors should offer a commission-free alternative in all bids.
It costs very little to write fair and easy-to-understand contracts. Vendors should rewrite their terms and conditions and eliminate things like arbitration provisions, 2-week processing times for mailed payments, and disclaimers of any warranties whatsoever.
The term “trust account” is a term of art in the correctional sector, referring to a pooled bank account that holds funds for incarcerated people whose individual balances are sometimes treated as subaccounts. The term “trust” is used because the correctional facility typically holds the account as trustee, for the benefit of the individual beneficiaries (or subaccount holders). ↩
Paypal’s free transfers are available only for payments made from bank accounts; Paypal charges 30¢ plus 2.9% for a transfer coming from either a credit- or debit-card. CashApp doesn’t publish its fees, but others report that their fees mirror Venmo’s. ↩
We say “at least” eleven states because of the confusing role of companies like Western Union and MoneyGram. Many states list Western Union, MoneyGram, or a similar money services business, as one of several options for sending money, but that doesn’t mean there is true competition. For example, a prison system could contract with JPay to handle all money transfers, and JPay could subcontract with Western Union to handle in-person cash payments. The prison’s webpage may say that people can choose between JPay’s website and sending cash at any Western Union location, but in this hypothetical, Western Union is acting as an agent of JPay, not a competitor. Based on a variety of factors, we think that Western Union is an independent, competitive option for sending money to people incarcerated in Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Iowa and Washington’s prison systems. There may be other states where Western Union or a similar company is an actual competitive option, but it is very difficult to tell based on publicly-available information. ↩
Specifically, prison officials tend to spend a lot of time worrying about laundered or otherwise illegitimate money being sent to incarcerated people. It’s not that these concerns are never valid, but we do wonder how prevalent the problem actually is. The latest major example of this narrative occurred in June, when the Washington Post, possibly acting on a leak from the federal Bureau of Prisons, published a story claiming that “there are more than 20 [federal] inmate accounts holding more than $100,000 each for a total exceeding $3 million.” This makes it sound like nefarious trust-account activity is some kind of huge problem, but if there is a problem the BOP has all the tools it needs to investigate suspicious transactions and take corrective action. More importantly, the same article notes that there are roughly 129,000 people incarcerated in BOP facilities, and the total balance of all trust accounts is somewhere around $100 million. If you subtract the $3 million in the 20 high-balance accounts, you arrive at an average account balance of $752 (i.e., $97 million divided by 128,980 people). That’s hardly a lavish amount of money (and keep in mind it’s a mean average, so it probably skews high due to a comparatively small number of people whose trust accounts receive pension or other income payments). ↩
The cost difference was narrower for a $50 transfer, with an average fee of 11% for states with multiple options, versus 13% in monopoly states. ↩
JPay “Terms of Service” P 7; Access Corrections “Terms & Conditions” at paragraph titled “Money Orders.” ↩
Aventiv Technologies, “Privacy and Data Processing Policy,” paragraph entitled “Business purposes for the collection of personal information (dated May 5, 2021; accessed Oct. 19, 2021) (Aventiv is the parent company of Securus and JPay). ↩
JPay “Terms of Service” P 16; Access Corrections “Terms & Conditions” at paragraph titled “Indemnity.” ↩
JPay and Access Corrections both require that claims be filed within one year of the claim arising. JPay “Terms of Service” P 15; Access Corrections, “User Agreement,” paragraph entitled “Disputes.” JPay’s provision is especially tricky because it defines the time limit as 12 months from the customer’s “constructive knowledge” of the claim, without defining the term “constructive knowledge” (lawyers can, and have, argued for years about the meaning of constructive knowledge, so expecting consumers to understand the term is unrealistic), and because JPay requires customers to give the company 30 days’ notice before filing a claim, which effectively shortens the limitations period from 1 year to 11 months. ↩
Dodd Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, Pub. L. 111-203 SS 1031(d)(2)(B) and 1036(a)(1)(B) (Jul. 21, 2010)(codified as 12 U.S.C. SS 5531(d)(2)(B) and 5536(a)(1)(B)). ↩
The issue of mailing distance has recently assumed heightened importance as the U.S. Postal Service has implemented a plan to slow down the mail, particularly mail traveling long distances. For example, even under the new mail-delivery standards, mail sent in Minnesota should reach most prisons in the state within two days. But if someone in Minnesota wants to send a money order to someone in the Minnesota prison system, it has to be mailed to JPay’s office in Florida, which takes twice as long. States can mitigate against this unreasonable delay by prohibiting vendors from using out-of-state addresses for receipt of money orders. ↩
JPay’s parent company, for example, brags that it “delivers superior value and service to all of our customers nationwide” (see Aventiv Technologies, “Privacy and Data Processing Policy,” introductory paragraph), a claim that’s hard to square with its actual pricing and user contracts. ↩
Some card networks don’t even use the term “cash advance.” Visa rules, for example, use the terms “account funding transactions” and “manual cash disbursement,” which describe two mutually exclusive type of cash-like transactions. ↩
Last week, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau fined JPay, a prison services provider, $6 million for exploiting people leaving prison. Below, we explain why the Bureau’s enforcement order against JPay — which builds on some arguments we made in 2015 — is a victory for criminal justice reform.
JPay is a private company widely known for selling video calls, emails and other technology to incarcerated people, but it has a less-well-known business providing pre-paid debit cards to incarcerated people upon release. This update concerns that last business.
We’ve previously discussed how a growing number of prisons force people leaving custody to receive money — such as wages earned inside, unused “trust account”1 balances, or small reentry stipends — on pre-paid debit cards riddled with high fees. The companies issuing these “release cards,” including JPay, have imposed fees for checking one’s account balance at an ATM, making a purchase, closing an account, and simply having an account at all, eating up formerly incarcerated people’s meager account balances.
The CFPB’s enforcement order against JPay will protect many people from these unreasonable and unjust fees going forward. The order takes four important steps:
The order prevents JPay from charging any fees on release cards in the future, other than an “inactivity fee” that can only be triggered after someone does not use their account for 90 days. For JPay customers, the complex matrix of extraneous fees is now gone, hopefully forever (though the consent order does expire after five years).
The order affirms that the CFPB has the jurisdiction to regulate release cards under the Electronic Fund Transfer Act, basically staking a claim for the Bureau to oversee JPay and other release-card issuers and take enforcement action when necessary. (In 2016, when the CFPB was conducting a rulemaking concerning prepaid cards, the Prison Policy Initiative brought the growing use of release cards to the agency’s attention.)
The order clarifies that under the Electronic Fund Transfer Act, people being released from prison cannot be forced to receive “gate money” (stipends for reentry) on prepaid debit cards. Instead, people must be given multiple options for receiving gate money, such as a paper check or cash. The CFPB has previously noted that the same protection applies to wages earned in prison, but it’s not entirely clear how this works with accumulated wages that are paid out in a lump sum when someone leaves custody.
The order spells out in detail how some of JPay’s business practices are unfair or abusive under the Dodd-Frank Act. This part of the order may prove critical for lawyers and activists fighting for further consumer protections for incarcerated people: Dodd-Frank prohibits unfair, deceptive, or abusive practices, but these are broad terms that need refinement, and the CFPB’s order provides that kind of refinement so that advocates can hone their strategies.
Readers who want further reading on this topic, particularly journalists, might find the following resources helpful:
Our 2015 report/comment letter Curbing the exploitation of people released from custody, which we submitted to the CFPB during a rulemaking period, explains the problems with release cards, names the biggest release card providers (including JPay), and argues that the CFPB has the authority to regulate these companies.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s searchable database of consumer complaints may help journalists looking for leads as they report on this issue.
Contractual terms for all prepaid debit cards (including release cards), available in a searchable database maintained by the CFPB.
The term “trust account” is a term of art in the correctional sector, referring to a pooled bank account that holds funds for incarcerated people whose individual balances are sometimes treated as subaccounts. The term “trust” is used because the correctional facility typically holds the account as trustee, for the benefit of the individual beneficiaries (or subaccount holders). ↩
A study by members of the New York University Prison Education Program Research Collective gives important first-hand accounts of the damage done when prisons shift financial costs to incarcerated people.
by Tommaso Bardelli, Zach Gillespie and Thuy Linh Tu,
October 27, 2021
Note: We are pleased to present research from members of the New York University Prison Education Program Research Collective, a collaboration between faculty and formerly incarcerated students. Their research, based on interviews with 51 men who have been released from the New York State prison system, provides unique, first-hand accounts of how prisons are shifting more financial costs onto people who are incarcerated.
How much does it cost to take care of basic needs in prison? Our research team at New York University’s Prison Education Program set out to find an answer to this question. We looked not just for a specific dollar amount, but also at intangible human costs.
Going to jail or prison increasingly comes with a hefty price tag for the person who is incarcerated. As states continue to cut public spending, individuals are often expected to pay money to meet their basic needs in confinement facilities. Today, for instance, most states spend less than $4 per day to feed one incarcerated person—with some states like Alabama, Kansas, and West Virginia spending less than $2 per person. Such budgets are not enough to provide healthy and nutritious meals, so most people have no choice but to purchase extra food from the commissary store and/or to rely on care packages sent from home. At the same time that public expenditures have decreased, prison wages have stagnated, and the prices of food, phone calls, and other consumer items have increased. This has resulted in a greater economic burden on those individuals and families who can manage to absorb the costs, and a “surplus” (or exacerbation) of harm and punishment for those who cannot.
Our research team recently conducted interviews with fifty-one formerly incarcerated men in New York, all of whom had been released from state prisons in the last five years. The interviews provide a personal perspective on the ideology of fiscal austerity that has become commonplace in correctional administration. The people we interviewed also shed light on a dynamic that may surprise some readers: despite the common assumption that prisons are homogenous spaces, economic hierarchies do, in fact, exist inside. Our interviewees alluded to the concept of being “jail rich”(i.e., having access to some level of financial resources), and also discussed the significant portion of the prison population that cannot afford to pay for essential goods. Our research finds that a person’s inability to absorb the cost of fiscal austerity makes them more vulnerable to the harmful effects of a prison sentence, with consequences that are likely to last well after they have left prison.
A basic prison budget
While it is difficult to determine exactly how much it costs to cover basic needs inside a New York State facility, most of our interviewees estimated that they needed at least $175 per month to get by (translating to a minimum budget of $2,100 per year). With that sum, they explained, people can purchase just enough commissary food to integrate the paltry meals served by the facility, while also having some left to spend on other essentials, such as clothes, personal care products, and a few phone calls to family each month.
Average annual budget
Since our respondents reported making on average less than $0.25 per hour, or about $31 per month, from in-prison employment, none could reach a monthly “living wage” without regular support from friends and family. Out of the fifty-one people we interviewed for this study, only eighteen said they could count on steady financial support from their loved ones, while twenty-two said they received some support but that it was not regular and/or not always sufficient to cover basic needs. Eleven participants reported receiving little to no support during most of their sentences. The experiences of the individuals with no financial resources are discussed in the following sections.
What kind of financial support did people receive from friends and family?
Number of respondents
Received steady support
Received irregular/insufficient support
Received little/no support
Food insecurity and health consequences
Hunger was the first thing most of our participants mentioned when talking about what it was like to be poor in prison. The food provided by the prison, everybody agreed, was insufficient, unhealthy, and sometimes inedible. To get by, people who had no external support invested the little money they earned from in-prison employment in a “survival kit” consisting of peanut butter, jelly, and a few ramen soups, which they would use to integrate—or at times replace—prison meals. These individuals were more likely to report health problems such as gastrointestinal diseases, foodborne illness, and drastic weight loss, as well as frequent headaches and chronic fatigue. Tim1, who was incarcerated for seven and a half years with little family support, for instance, remembered feeling constantly hungry during his last incarceration, to the point that he was often too weak or too ill to even leave his cell:
“When I was hungry, man, I had to lay—I just got to go and lay down. Because yeah you get, I got headaches, you know? I got headaches, I got cranky, I got moody, you know? Yeah, you get real moody when you want something to eat, believe me.”
Steven, who spent thirteen years in New York State prisons, said lack of access to food caused him to miss out on the few educational and training opportunities in the prison:
“I could never accomplish much while I was in there, he explained, because my stomach was always hurting, I could never get my body physically right. I was just deteriorating, day after day.”
Isolation from friends and family
While all incarcerated people experience dramatic disruption of social and intimate relationships, those who are unable to have regular contact with their loved ones during their prison sentence suffer its effects more acutely. Although costs of in-prison phone calls have significantly declined over the past decade—thanks to political action by families and to rate caps introduced by the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) – people who live off their wages from prison labor still cannot afford regular contact with family. Some of our participants reported speaking to family only a few times and receiving less than one visit per year during their incarceration. For many, the two free postage stamps provided by the facility each month offered the only means of communication with loved ones outside. Such an extreme and prolonged social disconnection is likely to heighten feelings of isolation and loneliness, and to negatively affects both people’s well-being inside carceral facilities and their re-entry after prison, when they must rely on family members for emotional and material support.
Monthly expenses for phone calls
Amount spent per month
Number of respondents
$0 – 49
$50 – 99
$100 – 199
Psychological consequences of prison poverty
Not being able to shop at commissary, or to regularly call home, can also affect how people experience the emotional and psychological harms of incarceration. Cooking their own meals or wearing their own clothes helps to counter some of the daily degradations of prison life. Having to continually eat unappetizing food or wear worn-out uniforms makes it harder to maintain a sense of self. Even more so than their peers, our interviewees who were indigent reported feeling stripped of their dignity and humanity by the prison system. For Steven, for instance, not being able to shop at commissary meant not just being constantly hungry, but also being unable to cook something nice on special occasions:
“I would not celebrate Thanksgiving, nor any other holiday. I don’t even celebrate holidays. I don’t celebrate New Year’s. I don’t celebrate any of that stuff, not in prison. I did no celebrating in prison. Every day was a living hell.”
For those with no access to personal resources, the inability to mitigate against material deprivation negatively affected their psychological well-being.
The carceral system has become even more unjust: incarcerated individuals have no access to gainful employment, and yet are required to pay for their basic necessities. While this system affects all incarcerated people, those who do not have the resources to cover basic needs experience its effects more acutely. Without regular access to commissary and telecommunications, people are more vulnerable to the negative health and psychological harms associated with a prison sentence. As a consequence, individuals and their families often face an impossible choice: drain the household’s resources to support their loved ones inside or leave them exposed to the most brutal forms of deprivation. This modern-day “prisoner’s dilemma” harms the well-being of the most disadvantaged people in prison and amplifies the negative impacts of incarceration far past the prison gate by draining financial resources from already vulnerable families and communities.
The authors are members of the New York University Prison Education Program Research Collective, a collaboration between faculty and formerly incarcerated students at NYU conducting research on the true costs of incarceration on families and communities in New York State.
All names have been changed to protect the privacy of research participants ↩
The COVID-19 pandemic is far from over, particularly inside prisons and jails. The death rate from COVID-19 in prisons is more than double that of the general U.S. population.1 In state and federal prisons across the country, over 2,800 people have died of COVID-19 and almost 438,000 people in prison have been infected, and thousands of additional cases are linked to individual county jails. As the more contagious Delta variant ravages parts of the nation, public health officials continue to recommend prison population decreases as a primary method of risk reduction. Our data show that with just a few exceptions, state and local leaders are continuing to fail to reduce their prison and jail populations.
The federal Bureau of Prisons, state governments and departments of corrections, and local officials have a responsibility to protect the health and lives of those who are incarcerated. After 18 months of outbreak after outbreak in prisons and jails, it is clear correctional authorities must be held accountable for their failure to reduce their populations enough to prevent the illness and death of those who are incarcerated and in surroundingcommunities.
Even in states where prison populations have dropped, there are still too many people behind bars to accommodate social distancing, effective isolation and quarantine, and increased health care requirements. For example, although California has reduced the state prison population by about 18% since the start of the pandemic, it has not been enough to prevent large COVID-19 outbreaks in the state’s prisons. In fact, as of October 6th, 2021, California’s prisons were still holding more people than they were designed for, at 112% of their design capacity (and up from 103% in January 2021). Considering the continued overcrowding in the California prison system, it’s not surprising that the state is responsible for seven out of the ten largest COVID-19 prison clusters.
Figure 1. Prison population data for 50 states prison systems as reported directly from the state Departments of Correction and the Marshall Project and federal data as published weekly by the federal Bureau of Prisons. For the available population data for these 50 states and the Bureau of Prisons, see Appendix A.
Many states’ prison populations are the lowest they’ve been in decades, but this is not because more people are being released from prisons. The limited data available from eleven states shows that the average number of monthly prison releases have actually decreased since 2019.
Figure 2. These eleven states published monthly release data for 2019, 2020, and the beginning of 2021. Although we cannot be certain that this analysis is representative of the other 39 state prison systems and the federal Bureau of Prisons, these data do show us a pattern of responses to the COVID-19 pandemic: fewer people have been released from these state prisons in response to COVID-19 in 2020 than in 2019, and, in 2021, prison releases are even lower than the two prior years.
Instead, data suggest most of the population drops we’ve seen over the past 18 months are due to reduced prison admissions, not increasing releases. In the ten states for which we have data, both admissions and releases have decreased in recent years, making clear that prisons are not using all available tools at their disposal to stop the spread of the virus in their facilities. Reducing the number of people admitted to correctional facilities is critical to reducing the number of people behind bars, but to quickly decarcerate, states should release far more people, too.
Figure 3. These ten states publish monthly release and admission data for 2018, 2019, 2020, and at least the first half of 2021. Although we cannot be certain that this analysis is representative of the other 40 state prison systems and the federal Bureau of Prisons, these data do show us a pattern of responses to the COVID-19 pandemic: reducing prison admissions, while releasing fewer people from prison.
Thankfully, some states have recognized the inefficiency of case-by-case releases and the necessity of larger-scale releases. For example, in New Jersey, Governor Phil Murphy signed bill S2519 in October 2020, which allowed for the early release of people with less than a year left on their sentences. A few weeks after the bill was signed, more than 2,000 people were released from New Jersey state prisons on November 4th.2 In February 2021, North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper announced plans to release 3,500 people in state custody (with 1,500 of those releases to take place within 90 days). The releases were the result of a NAACP lawsuit challenging prison conditions in North Carolina during COVID-19. The state said it would release people using discretionary sentence credits (similar to “good time credits”), home confinement, and post-release supervision. But these are the only two instances we are aware of where large-scale release efforts are actually taking place in state prison systems.
Jail populations, like prison populations, are lower now than they were pre-pandemic. Initially, many local officials — including sheriffs, prosecutors, and judges — responded quickly to COVID-19 and reduced their jail populations. In a national sample of 415 county jails of varying sizes, most (88%) decreased their populations from March to July of 2020, resulting in an average change of a 24% population decrease across all 415 jails. These population reductions came as the result of various policy changes, including police issuing citations in lieu of arrests, prosecutors declining to charge people for “low-level offenses,” courts reducing cash bail amounts, and jail administrators releasing people detained pretrial or those serving short sentences for “nonviolent” offenses.
But later in the pandemic, those trends reversed. Between July 2020 and January 2021, the populations of 69% of the jails in our sample increased, reversing course from the earlier months of the pandemic. As of October 2021, 29% of the jails in our sample have higher populations now than they did in March 2020.3 Overall, the average population change across these 415 jails since March 2020 has diminished to only a 7% decrease, suggesting that the early reforms instituted to mitigate COVID-19 have largely been abandoned. For example, by mid-April 2020, the Philadelphia city jail population reportedly dropped by more than 17% after city police suspended low-level arrests and judges released “certain nonviolent detainees” jailed for “low-level charges.” But just two weeks later — as the pandemic raged on — the Philadelphia police force announced that they would resume arrests for property crimes, effectively reversing the earlier reduction efforts. Similarly, on July 10th, 2020, the sheriff of Jefferson County (Birmingham), Alabama, announced that the jail would limit admissions to only “violent felons that cannot make bond.” That effort was quickly abandoned when the jail resumed normal admission operations just one week later. The increasing jail populations across the country suggest that after the first wave of responses to COVID-19, many local officials have allowed jail admissions to return to business as usual.
Figure 4. Despite the continued dangers of COVID-19 and the Delta variant across the country, the number of people held in our sample of 415 county jails across the country has not continued to decrease over the past year, following initial reductions in early 2020. In fact, the data show a trend of jail populations slowly increasing. This graph contains aggregated data collected and provided by NYU’s Public Safety Lab and updates a graph in our June 2021 analysis. It includes all jails where the Lab was able to report data on March 10th and for at least 75% of the days in our research period, which ended October 7th, 2021. (Data are not available for all facilities for all days.) This graph presents the data as 7-day rolling averages, which smooths out most of the variations caused by individual facilities not reporting population data on particular days. The temporary population drops during the last weeks of May, August, and November 2020 and February 2021 and August 2021 are the result of more facilities than usual not being included in the dataset for various reasons, rather than any known policy changes. To see county level data for all 415 jails included in this analysis, see Appendix B.
In New York City, the jail population sharply declined after the pandemic was declared. Importantly, NYC jails – particularly Rikers Island – were some of the first jails in the country to witness a COVID-19 outbreak. And yet, across different demographics, NYC jail populations have slowly leveled out, suggesting that the policies responsible for the necessary decarceration are no longer in practice. In addition to suffering the effects of COVID-19, Rikers Island is also facing an unprecedented crisis following a history of over-incarceration and, according to a federal monitor, “decades of mismanagement.” At a time when jail populations should be at an all time low, Rikers Island’s confined population has surpassed the pre-COVID-19 population.
Figure 5. Graph showing the daily count of the NYC jail population by 5 key metrics. By all metrics, the NYC jail population dropped quickly at the start of the pandemic, but then started to rise again. As of July 29, 2021 the total NYC jail population was higher than before the pandemic. Critically, the number of people detained pretrial has actually grown — from 4,284 on January 1, 2020 to 5,152 people on October 1, 2021 — likely because of the rollback of significant bail reform efforts last year. The population drops in September 2021 are encouraging but are likely the consequence of Governor Hochul signing the Less is More Act, releasing people on technical violations from jail, and would therefore represent a helpful policy change that will reduce the population. However, the steep slope of the decline in September 2021 is unlikely to continue at that rate on its own without additional policy changes. Even with these reforms, the October 1st NYC jail population was only 3% below its pre-pandemic levels.
(Dotted lines connect periods with missing data, so the start of each dotted line and their bends represent specific historical data points.)
Even before COVID-19, prisons and jails were a threat to public health and considered notoriously dangerous places during any sort of viral outbreak. And yet, correctional facilities continue to be the source of a large number of infections in the U.S. The COVID-19 death rate in prisons is almost three times higher than among the general U.S. population, even when adjusted for age and sex (as the prison population is disproportionately young and male). Since the early days of the pandemic, public health professionals, corrections officials, and criminal justice reform advocates have agreed that decarceration is necessary to protect incarcerated people and the community at large from COVID-19. Decarceration efforts must include releasing more people from prisons and jails. Despite this knowledge, state, federal, and local authorities have failed to release people from prisons and jails on a scale sufficient to protect incarcerated people’s lives – and by extension, the lives of everyone in the communities where incarcerated people eventually return, and where correctional staff live and work.
Unfortunately, this major victory for public health was immediately undercut by the federal Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) agency which quickly arrested 88 people who were released under bill S2519. A spokesperson from ICE claimed that these 88 individuals were “violent offenders or have convictions for serious crimes such as homicide, aggravated assault, drug trafficking and child sexual exploitation.” However, these claims are brought into question when considering that the releases that took place under bill S2519 specifically excluded “people serving time for murder or sexual assault” and those serving time for sexual offenses. Although we did not include ICE facilities in our analysis, there is evidence that ICE detention facilities have a COVID-19 case rate that is up to 13 times higher than that of the general U.S. population. ↩
129 jails (29% of our sample) have higher populations now than they had before COVID-19. Some of those jails include large county jails with more than 500 people, including Wayne County, MI, Lubbock and Galveston Counties, TX, and St. Lucie County, FL. ↩
Appendix A: State and federal prison populations during COVID‑19
Prison populations for the federal Bureau of Prisons and all 50 state prison systems from January 2020 to October 2021. When available, we used point-in-time population counts from the last day of the month. If that data point was not available, we then used either the monthly average daily population (ADP) or the point-in-time population count for latest date available in each month.
Appendix B: County jail populations during COVID-19
This table shows the jail populations for 415 county jails where data was available where data was available for March 10th (the day the pandemic was declared) and for 75% of the days between March 10th, 2020 and October 7, 2021. (This table is a subset of the population data available for over 1,000 local jails from the NYU Public Safety Lab Jail Data Initiative.)
March 2020 population
July 2020 population
January 2021 population
July 2021 population
Most recent population
Date of March 2020 population
Date of July 2020 population
Date of January 2021 population
Date of July 2021 population
Date of most recent population
Percent change from March 2020 to July 2020
Percent change from July 2020 to January 2021
Percent change from January 2021 to July 2021
Percent change from July 2021 to most recent population
Net percent change from March 2020 to most recent population