Welcome to Research Analyst, Leah Wang.

by Jenny Landon, May 19, 2021

Leah Wang

We’re excited to introduce Prison Policy Initiative Research Analyst, Leah Wang! Leah holds a M.S in Sustainability Science from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and a B.A in Economics and Environmental Studies from Bowdoin College. Prior to joining the Prison Policy Initiative, Leah was an analyst at the Massachusetts Department of Correction, and has worked in agriculture, local food systems, and outdoor education. Leah has spent several years teaching and working with prison and jail education programs, like Petey Greene and The New Garden Society.

Welcome to the team, Leah!


Most states did not prioritize incarcerated people in their vaccination plans. As a result, seven months since the first vaccines were distributed, just 55% of people in prison have been vaccinated, leaving them vulnerable to infection.

by Tiana Herring and Emily Widra, May 18, 2021

This report has been updated with more recent information about COVID-19 vaccines in prisons.

Throughout the pandemic, prisons have been a hotspot for COVID-19, with case rates in prisons between four to five times higher than in the general population. Despite being disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, however, most states did not prioritize incarcerated people in their vaccination plans. As a result, seven months since the first vaccines were distributed, just 55% of people in prison have been vaccinated,1 leaving them vulnerable to infection.

Using data from the UCLA Law COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project, The Marshall Project/AP, and other state-specific sources,2 we calculated the current rate of vaccinations among incarcerated people in 48 state prison systems and the federal Bureau of Prisons.3 For our measure of vaccination, we counted anyone who had received at least one dose of a vaccine as of May 14, 2021.4 Our findings are disheartening:

  • In 17 state prison systems and the Bureau of Prisons, less than half of incarcerated people have received a vaccine.
  • Vaccination rates are the worst in Utah, South Carolina, and Alabama where 20% or less of the prison population has received the first dose of a vaccine.
  • And two states – Florida and Wyoming – have not released any vaccination information at all. Their lack of transparency makes it impossible to hold these Departments of Corrections accountable and ensure they are doing all they can to limit the spread of the virus.

As we recently reported, many states prioritized correctional staff for early vaccine access, under the misguided assumption that a fully-vaccinated staff would act as a preventative “barrier” between incarcerated people and the communities surrounding prisons. With many correctional staff refusing to be vaccinated, the median staff vaccination rate across the country was still just 48% at last count. To meaningfully protect people in prison, incarcerated people need to be vaccinated at much higher rates than we’re seeing thus far.

A map showing about half of people in state and federal prisons are vaccinated.
Figure 1. Data compiled from the UCLA Law COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project, The Marshall Project, and several state-specific data sources (see footnote 1). See the appendix to this article for a table with details about all 48 prison systems for which we gathered data.

Only ten states have vaccinated more than 70% of people incarcerated in their prison systems. Some of these states – Massachusetts, Oregon, and California – included incarcerated people in the early phases of their vaccination schedules. Had more states prioritized vaccinating people in prisons, vaccination rates would be higher across the board.

Vaccinating incarcerated people may be one of the only fast and effective mitigation strategies available to prevent the spread of the virus and save lives: The inability to socially distance in prisons combined with the higher rates of chronic health issues among incarcerated people has led to prison mortality rates two to three times higher than that of the general population.

Since vaccinations started in the U.S., there have been too many avoidable deaths. In Nevada, for example, one-third of COVID deaths in prisons occurred this year (after vaccines became available). Similarly, New Hampshire’s first COVID prison death didn’t occur until December 30, 2020, and there have since been two more deaths in 2021. In Oklahoma, incarcerated people became eligible to receive the vaccine late last year, but vaccinations did not start until March; and since January, at least 11 people may have died from COVID-19. Although the number of new cases each day has gone down in the United States since January, incarcerated people are still unprotected and dying, even when we have effective vaccines available.

The dark history of the prison medical system could be a huge barrier to vaccine uptake in prisons. Many incarcerated people are wary of the prison medical system, and for good reason: prison medical systems have long been notorious for unethical experimentation and inadequate medical care. According to the results of a survey published by The Marshall Project in February, more than half of incarcerated respondents did not believe the prison was acting in their best interest by making the vaccine available, and very few respondents believed medical staff would provide accurate information about the vaccine.

To address these concerns, public health experts have been clear: education is crucial to vaccine acceptance behind bars. There are educational resources designed specifically for COVID-19 vaccine education for people in prisons that can be used to address common questions and concerns. The reality is that vaccine education needs to be more than just handing out flyers and hanging up posters: to combat distrust in the prison system, prisons should bring in outside experts and trusted community members to discuss the vaccines with incarcerated people. Correctional staff – who have shown widespread reluctance to take the vaccine themselves – should not be relied up on to deliver accurate information about vaccines.

Nearly 397,000 people in prisons have tested positive for COVID-19 since March 2020, and the virus will only continue to spread without widespread vaccinations behind bars. For more than a year, incarcerated people have dealt with devastating consequences of the virus, ranging from the inability to see their loved ones, to the unnecessary use of solitary confinement, to death. Lack of visitation and the use of solitary confinement, as well as discontinued programming and limited access to health care are all incredibly dangerous, in addition to the dangers of COVID-19. States need to start investing in and accelerating vaccine education and administration for people in prisons.

 
 

Appendix

Prison System Number of incarcerated people who have received at least one dose Total prison population Percentage of incarcerated people who have received at least one dose Source for vaccination counts in prisons Source for total prison population Notes/Clarifications
Alabama 3,508 17,454 20% UCLA Law Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project The Marshall Project/AP
Alaska 3,137 4,523 69% UCLA Law Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project The Marshall Project/AP
Arizona 27,654 37,396 74% COVID Prison Project The Marshall Project/AP
Arkansas 7,438 47% The Associated Press n/a We’ve opted to use the vaccination numbers reported by the Associated Press on 5/9/21 because the Arkansas Department of Corrections hasn’t provided The Marshall Project with updated data since 4/20/21. The article provides the number of doses and the percentage of people who have recieved the vaccine, but not the total population.
California 68,445 91,341 75% UCLA Law Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project The Marshall Project/AP
Colorado 9,877 13,558 73% UCLA Law Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project The Marshall Project/AP
Connecticut 4,600 9,053 51% UCLA Law Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project The Marshall Project/AP
Delaware 2,020 4,677 43% UCLA Law Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project The Marshall Project/AP
Federal 61,335 143,416 43% UCLA Law Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project The Marshall Project/AP
Georgia 21,901 47,027 47% UCLA Law Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project The Marshall Project/AP
Hawaii 1,380 4,200 33% The Marshall Project/AP The Marshall Project/AP The Marshall Project/AP does not include the number of people who have received the one dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine; we’ve added these vaccinations, however, for accuracy and consistency with the UCLA data.
Idaho 2,613 7,025 37% UCLA Law Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project The Marshall Project/AP
Illinois 18,895 29,151 65% UCLA Law Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project The Marshall Project/AP This number reflects the total number of completed vaccinations, not just the number of first doses.
Indiana 10,265 23,745 43% The Marshall Project/AP The Marshall Project/AP
Iowa 4,192 7,489 56% The Marshall Project/AP The Marshall Project/AP Vaccine data was last updated on 5/12/21. The Marshall Project/AP doesn’t include the number of people who have received the one dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine; we’ve added these vaccinations, however, for accuracy and consistency with the UCLA data.
Kansas 6,380 8,665 74% UCLA Law Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project The Marshall Project/AP
Kentucky 6,602 69% The secretary of the Gov. Andy Beshear’s executive cabinet as reported by WDRB.com n/a This article from 4/12/21 reports the number of vaccines distributed and the percentage of people who have recevied the vaccine, but not the total number of incarcerated people.
Louisiana 8,877 14,134 63% The Marshall Project/AP The Marshall Project/AP
Maine 727 1,679 43% UCLA Law Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project The Marshall Project/AP
Maryland 8,616 18,426 47% UCLA Law Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project The Marshall Project/AP
Massachusetts 4,647 6,524 71% UCLA Law Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project The Marshall Project/AP
Michigan 20,171 33,370 60% UCLA Law Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project The Marshall Project/AP
Minnesota 4,379 7,315 60% UCLA Law Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project The Marshall Project/AP
Mississippi 10,844 15,294 71% The Marshall Project/AP The Marshall Project/AP Vaccine data was last updated on 5/12/21.
Missouri 12,216 23,037 53% UCLA Law Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project The Marshall Project/AP
Montana 1,584 3,686 43% The Marshall Project/AP The Marshall Project/AP Vaccine data was last updated on 5/5/21.
Nebraska 2,000 5,265 38% Lincoln Journal Star The Marshall Project/AP This article from 5/16 reports that almost 2,000 incarcerated people have been vaccinated.
Nevada 5,754 11,007 52% The Marshall Project/AP The Marshall Project/AP
New Hampshire 1,409 2,107 67% UCLA Law Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project The Marshall Project/AP
New Jersey 8,551 12,800 67% UCLA Law Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project The Marshall Project/AP
New Mexico 2,920 5,817 50% The Marshall Project/AP The Marshall Project/AP
New York 9,044 33,376 27% The Marshall Project/AP The Marshall Project/AP The Marshall Project/AP doesn’t include the number of people who have received the one dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine; we’ve added these vaccinations, however, for accuracy and consistency with the UCLA data.
North Carolina 16,327 29,321 56% UCLA Law Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project The Marshall Project/AP
North Dakota 1,100 1,211 91% UCLA Law Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project The Marshall Project/AP
Ohio 23,443 43,665 54% UCLA Law Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project The Marshall Project/AP
Oklahoma 11,801 21,665 54% The Marshall Project/AP The Marshall Project/AP Vaccine data was last updated on 5/6/21. This number reflects the total number of completed vaccinations, not just the number of first doses.
Oregon 9,156 12,753 72% The Marshall Project/AP The Marshall Project/AP First dose vaccine data was last updated on 4/6/21.
Pennsylvania 26,630 40,088 66% UCLA Law Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project The Marshall Project/AP
Rhode Island 1,670 2,118 79% The Marshall Project/AP The Marshall Project/AP Vaccine data was last updated on 4/16/21. The Marshall Project/AP doesn’t include the number of people who have received the one dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine; we’ve added these vaccinations, however, for accuracy and consistency with the UCLA data.
South Carolina 2,442 15,700 16% The Marshall Project/AP The Marshall Project/AP Vaccine data was last updated on 5/4/21.
South Dakota 2,164 3,145 69% The Marshall Project/AP The Marshall Project/AP
Tennessee 13,279 19,510 68% UCLA Law Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project The Marshall Project/AP
Texas 58,893 120,873 49% Email exchange with TDCJ on 5/14. The Marshall Project/AP This number reflects the total number of vaccines distributed, not just the first dose.
Utah 377 5,485 7% The Marshall Project/AP The Marshall Project/AP Vaccine data was last updated on 5/5/21.
Vermont 737 1,281 58% The Marshall Project/AP The Marshall Project/AP Vaccine data was last updated on 4/20/21.
Virginia 17,495 23,811 73% UCLA Law Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project The Marshall Project/AP
Washington 6,636 14,660 45% UCLA Law Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project The Marshall Project/AP
West Virginia 1,345 3,987 34% UCLA Law Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project The Marshall Project/AP
Wisconsin 11,191 19,783 57% UCLA Law Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project The Marshall Project/AP
Total (all jurisdictions with available data) 566,667 1,021,613 55%

 
 

Footnotes

  1. It’s important to note that states do not report vaccination data consistently, so we made every effort to avoid double-counting people and overestimating vaccination rates. Specifically, we typically defined people receiving “at least one dose” of a vaccine as those who were reported as “partially” vaccinated, or having “initiated” vaccination or “received first dose.” This is because many states record vaccinated people twice – once when a two-dose vaccine schedule is started and once when it’s completed; those receiving the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine may be included in both categories as well (as a “first dose” and as “completed”). In states where the available data suggested a different definition, we have noted those differences in “notes/clarifications” in the appendix table.  ↩

  2. Source notes: In addition to the data from UCLA and The Marshall Project/AP, we sought vaccination data for people in prison from state Department of Corrections websites and news articles. Our vaccination rates are calculated based on prison populations reported in The Marshall Project/AP dataset. Data from UCLA, The Marshall Project/AP, and state Department of Corrections websites were accessed on May 17, 2021.  ↩

  3. Readers who want to conduct their own analysis can access data from previous weeks and months from both UCLA and The Marshall Project/AP.  ↩

  4. For Texas and the states with vaccinations counts from UCLA’s dataset, the data are as of May 14. For most states with vaccination counts from The Marshall Project/AP dataset, the data are as of May 11. In the appendix table, we noted the date of the data for states that have vaccination counts for only earlier than May 11.  ↩


Incarceration can trigger and worsen symptoms of mental illness — and those effects can last long after someone leaves the prison gates.

by Katie Rose Quandt and Alexi Jones, May 13, 2021

We often talk about the disturbingly high numbers of people with mental health disorders locked up in prisons and jails. But less attention is paid to the ways in which incarceration itself perpetuates this problem by creating and worsening symptoms of mental illness. Research shows that, while it varies from person to person, incarceration is linked to mood disorders including major depressive disorder and bipolar disorder.

The carceral environment can be inherently damaging to mental health by removing people from society and eliminating meaning and purpose from their lives. On top of that, the appalling conditions common in prisons and jails — such as overcrowding, solitary confinement, and routine exposure to violence — can have further negative effects. Researchers have even theorized that incarceration can lead to “Post-Incarceration Syndrome,” a syndrome similar to PTSD, meaning that even after serving their official sentences, many people continue to suffer the mental effects.

Incarceration itself is inherently harmful to people’s health

Many of the defining features of incarceration are linked to negative mental health outcomes, including disconnection from family, loss of autonomy, boredom and lack of purpose, and unpredictability of surroundings. Prof. Craig Haney, an expert on the psychological effects of imprisonment and prison isolation, explains, “At the very least, prison is painful, and incarcerated persons often suffer long-term consequences from having been subjected to pain, deprivation, and extremely atypical patterns and norms of living and interacting with others.” And as Dr. Seymour L. Halleck has observed, “The prison environment is almost diabolically conceived to force the offender to experience the pangs of what many psychiatrists would describe as mental illness.”

Family disconnection

By its very nature, incarceration separates people from their social networks and loved ones. In 2018, when researchers at the University of Georgia analyzed the relationship between prison conditions and mental health in 214 state prisons, they found that people incarcerated more than 50 miles from home were more likely to experience depression. This isn’t surprising: Psychologists have long known that people with social support and positive family relationships tend to have better psychological wellbeing.

Similarly, in a 2015 review of the research on the impact of prisons on mental health, separation from family and friends emerged as a major stressor for incarcerated people; it was also associated with psychological distress. In fact, many people described this separation as the most challenging aspect of their incarceration. Goomany and Dickinson, who authored the review, found that even when incarcerated people receive visits from family members, the prison environment makes it harder for them to connect. Correctional facilities are built and operate around the goal of security, and these “regulations and security measures inevitably impact on the relationships between prisoners, their families, and children.”

Separation from children can be especially distressing for incarcerated women. As one 1998 article in Behavioral Sciences & the Law noted, “Separation from children is one of the most stressful conditions of incarceration for women and is associated with feelings of guilt, anxiety, and fear of losing mother-child attachment.” A 2005 study found that “most mothers described an intense focus on feelings of distress, depression, or guilt.” One mother in that study explained her feelings: “All I’d do was cry. It is horrible being away from your kids, especially when they the only people who care for you.” Another said, “I was very hurt, depressed, crying constantly, and worried.” The study noted that 6 percent of the mothers interviewed described themselves as suicidal early in their incarceration; as their separation from their children continued, 22% “continued to focus intensely on their distress.”

Loss of autonomy & lack of purpose

Incarcerated people have virtually no control over their day-to-day lives, including when they wake up, what they eat, what their jobs are, and when they have access to recreation. This can lead to feelings of dependence and helplessness. The three main studies included in Goomany and Dickinson’s review all concluded that this loss of autonomy harms mental health. Once again, this makes sense; we know people feel better and have better mental health outcomes when they have control over their surroundings.

Similarly, incarceration is often characterized by boredom, monotony, and lack of stimulation. Many incarcerated people have limited access to education, job training, and other programming that can fill their time and become a meaningful part of their lives. In a 2003 study of incarcerated people in England, participants reported that lack of activity and mental stimulation leads to extreme stress, anger, and frustration. Some reported using unhealthy coping mechanisms to manage boredom, including substance abuse. The 2018 University of Georgia study mentioned earlier also found that people in prisons with limited access to work assignments experienced higher levels of depression. Once again, this fits with psychological research that shows meaninglessness and a lack of purpose can lead to symptoms of anxiety, depression, and hopelessness.

Unpredictability

These feelings of anxiety and depression can be exacerbated by the unpredictable nature of the carceral environment. As the Behavioral Sciences & the Law article mentioned above explains, there are numerous rules in prisons and jails that do not exist in the free world — many of which are ambiguous and only enforced erratically. The authors note that “institutional rules are enforced selectively, depending on factors such as inmate-staff relationships, staff member’s mood, the severity of the rule violation, and the convenience of rule enforcement.” This lack of clarity and predictability can contribute to feelings of uncertainty and stress.

Cruel conditions make a negative environment worse

Even a relatively “humane” prison or jail can contribute to negative mental health outcomes for the reasons outlined above. But the reality is that poor conditions in prisons and jails cause significant additional suffering and trauma. As the World Health Organization explains, “There are factors in many prisons that have negative effects on mental health, including: overcrowding, various forms of violence, enforced solitude or conversely, lack of privacy, lack of meaningful activity, isolation from social networks, insecurity about future prospects (work, relationships, etc.), and inadequate health services, especially mental health services.” This list of mentally damaging conditions accurately describes most U.S. jails and prisons.

Overcrowding & punitiveness

Many jails and prisons throughout the country are overcrowded, which makes the inherently negative carceral environment even worse. Overcrowding often means more time in cell, less privacy, less access to mental and physical healthcare, and fewer opportunities to participate in programming and work assignments. Correctional administrators may respond to overcrowding by forgoing screening and monitoring of vulnerable people. A 2005 study found that overcrowding is highly correlated with prison suicide.

The 2018 study from the University of Georgia similarly found that overcrowding and punitiveness are correlated with depression and hostility. The researchers noted that punitive environments “likely set inmates on edge, making them overly hostile or even depressed.”

Solitary confinement

Being put in solitary confinement, which is a common practice in many prisons and jails, is especially harmful to mental health. As we discussed in a briefing last year, the stress caused by spending time in solitary confinement can lead to permanent changes to people’s brains and personalities. Depriving humans — who are naturally social beings — of the ability to interact with others can cause ‘social pain,’ which affects the brain in the same way as physical pain. A 2000 study found that people were significantly more likely to develop psychiatric disorders while in solitary confinement than while housed in non-solitary units.

Trauma from experiencing and witnessing violence

Prisons and jails are extremely violent places. People often experience traumatic verbal or physical assaults and dehumanization at the hands of correctional officers. And the various stressors in a carceral environment also increase the chances of violence between incarcerated people. Researchers in a 2009 study found that experiencing violence during incarceration was significantly related to “aggressive and antisocial behavioral tendencies as well as emotional distress.”

In fact, even witnessing violence behind bars can be traumatizing, as we have discussed previously. Exposure to violence in prisons and jails can exacerbate existing mental health disorders or even lead to the development of post-traumatic stress symptoms like anxiety, depression, avoidance, hypersensitivity, hypervigilance, suicidality, flashbacks, and difficulty with emotional regulation.

Lasting effects

Some researchers suggest that the trauma people experience behind bars can lead to Post-Incarceration Syndrome, a syndrome that shares characteristics with PTSD. A 2013 study of 25 released lifers found that participants experienced a specific cluster of mental health symptoms, including institutionalized personality traits (like distrusting others, difficulty maintaining relationships, and problems making decisions), social-sensory disorientation (issues with spatial reasoning and difficulty with social interactions), and social and temporal alienation (the feeling of not belonging in social settings).

Similarly, a 2019 literature review found that incarcerated people experience high rates of Potentially Traumatic Events, often shortened to PTEs. The review further revealed that experiencing PTEs behind bars was strongly correlated with rates of PTSD upon release.

We often think of incarceration as something people live through and from which they can ultimately be released. But the reality is that time spent in prisons and jails can create a host of collateral consequences that haunt individuals even after release. As the research shows, incarceration can trigger and worsen symptoms of mental illness — and those effects can last long after someone leaves the prison gates.


Please join us to welcome Emile DeWeaver, the Prison Policy Initiative Senior Strategist in Advocacy.

by Jenny Landon, May 7, 2021

Emile DeWeaver

We’re excited to welcome Emile DeWeaver, who will serve as the first ever Prison Policy Initiative Senior Strategist in Advocacy. Emile is a community organizer, journalist, and literary writer who co-founded Prison Renaissance while serving a life sentence in prison. While incarcerated in California, Emile successfully organized for the passage of Senate Bills 260, 261, and 394 which together create a second chance for people who were given extreme sentences for crimes committed before they turned 26. His writing has been featured by the Brennan Center, Mercury News, SF Chronicle, SF Bay View, Colorlines, and TruthOut. Prior to his work with the Prison Policy Initiative, Emile worked as a consultant for social justice organizations like the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and Prison Law Office.

Welcome, Emile!


The most important statistics about the incarceration of mothers and pregnant women.

by Wanda Bertram and Wendy Sawyer, May 5, 2021

This report is has been updated with a new version for 2022.

This Mother’s Day — as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to put people behind bars at serious risk — nearly 150,000 incarcerated mothers will spend the day apart from their children.1 Over half (58%) of all women in U.S. prisons are mothers, as are 80% of women in jails, including many who are incarcerated awaiting trial simply because they can’t afford bail.

Most of these women are incarcerated for non-violent offenses. Most are also the primary caretakers of their children, meaning that punishing them with incarceration tears their children away from a vital source of support. And these numbers don’t cover the many women who will become mothers while locked up this year: An estimated 58,000 people every year are pregnant when they enter local jails or prisons.2

Most incarcerated mothers are locked up in local jails

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

Graph showing number of women jailed each year and percentage who are mothers.Estimates have been rounded for this graphic. Sources: Federal Bureau of Investigation, Crime Data Explorer (2019 table “Female Arrests by Age”) and Vera Institute of Justice, Overlooked: Women in Jails in an Era of Reform.

80% of the women who will go to jail this year are mothers — including 55,000 women who are pregnant when they are admitted. Beyond having to leave their children in someone else’s care, these women will be impacted by the brutal side effects of going to jail: Aggravation of mental health problems, a greater risk of suicide, and a much higher likelihood of ending up homeless or deprived of essential financial benefits.

How incarceration — and life after incarceration — hurts mothers and their children

Women who are pregnant when they are locked up have to contend with a healthcare system that frequently neglects and abuses patients. In a 50-state survey of state prison systems’ healthcare policies, we found that many states fail to meet even basic standards of care for expectant mothers, like providing screening and treatment for high-risk pregnancies. In local jails, where tens of thousands of pregnant women will spend time this year, healthcare is often even worse (across the board) than in state or federal prisons.

More challenges await incarcerated mothers and pregnant women when they are released from jail or prison. Formerly incarcerated women experience extremely high rates of food insecurity, according to a 2019 study. And as we previously reported, the 1.9 million women released from prisons and jails every year have high rates of poverty, unemployment, and homelessness, confirming what many advocates already knew: that there is a shortage of agencies and organizations able and willing to help formerly incarcerated women restart their lives.

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

So would their kids. Keeping parents out of jail and prison is critical to protect children from the known harms of parental incarceration, including:

Incarceration punishes more than just individuals; entire families suffer the effects long after a sentence ends. Mother’s Day reminds us again that people behind bars are not nameless “offenders,” but beloved family members and friends whose presence — and absence — matters.

 
 

Footnotes

  1. Based on the most recent (2016) Survey of Prison Inmates, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) estimates 57,700 women in state and federal prisons are parents of minor children. We calculated approximately 88,400 pregnant women in local jails based on the Vera Institute of Justice report’s estimate that 80% of women in jail are mothers, and the BJS reports 110,500 women in local jails at mid-year 2019 (80% of 110,500 is 88,400). While jail populations dropped quite dramatically in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, we opted to use the more typical 2019 jail population for our estimate because other data sources show that jail populations have largely rebounded since mid-year 2020.  ↩

  2. These estimates are based on the following percentages, reported in the linked sources: 4% of women admitted to state and federal prisons annually, and 3% of women admitted to local jails, are pregnant at the time of admission. The estimated 55,000 women admitted to jails while pregnant each year is based on the number of women over age 18 arrested in 2017 (over 1.7 million women), as reported in the original source. The estimated number of pregnant women admitted to state and federal prisons in a year is based on the total number of female admissions in 2019 (73,586) as reported by the Bureau of Justice Statistics CSAT — Prisoners tool. The one-day prevalence of pregnancy at year-end 2016 (as opposed to the share of annual admissions) was 0.6% in prisons and 3.5% in local jails.  ↩


Cities jail people at rates that have little to no correlation to their violent crime rates, police budgets, or jail budgets.

by Tiana Herring, May 4, 2021

Why do some places incarcerate people at much higher rates than others? We considered this question in 2019, when we compared prison incarceration rates across U.S. counties, finding a wide range that loosely correlated to the respective state imprisonment rates. Now, we can do the same for jail incarceration rates. While it’s difficult to find jail incarceration data at the city level, this data is available by county in the Vera Institute of Justice’s Incarceration Trends Database. Using this database, we considered 63 highly populated cities,1 and calculated the overall jail incarceration rate and pretrial detention rate of each city’s surrounding county.2 We found that, like prison incarceration rates, jail detention rates vary significantly. But unlike our study of prison incarceration rates, we could find no obvious explanation: neither violent crime rates, local police budgets, nor local jail budgets explained the large differences from city to city. These variations mean that your chances of being put in jail can depend on something as arbitrary as the city you live in.

Jail and pretrial detention rates are important for showing just how deeply mass incarceration is affecting your local community. Jails are the “front door” of the criminal justice system. In 2019 alone, there were more than 10.3 million admissions into U.S. jails. Black and low-income people are disproportionately affected by repeat arrests, and are more likely to be held pretrial simply because they cannot afford bail, perpetuating the cycle of poverty and incarceration. Even short stays in jail can have a major impact on people’s livelihoods, threatening their ability to keep their jobs and housing, and straining familial relationships. This harm is unnecessary, though; as our research has shown, reforms that allow more people to return home pretrial were not associated with rising crime rates in the states, cities, and counties we analyzed.

Rates are per 100,000 county residents. In its database, the Vera Institute of Justice presents rates for counties per 100,000 residents aged 15-64. For our analysis, we recalculated the rates using the counties’ total populations, using population counts from the Vera Institute of Justice’s downloadable dataset, to make the figures comparable to other criminal justice data. The data exclude people held in jails on behalf of federal authorities, such as U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Marshals Service.
City State County Jail detention rate (per 100,000 county residents) Pretrial detention rate (per 100,000 county residents)
Memphis Tenn. Shelby County 491 245
New Orleans La. Orleans Parish 397 301
St. Louis Mo. None 393 395
Philadelphia Pa. Philadelphia County 389 257
Nashville Tenn. Davidson County 361 191
Baltimore Md. None 331 330
Virginia Beach Va. None 328 148
Louisville Ky. Jefferson County 308 171
Fresno Calif. Fresno County 305 221
Jacksonville Fla. Duval County 297 119
Denver Colo. Denver County 295 205
Washington, D.C. D.C. None 294 158
Charleston S.C. Charleston County 286 229
Atlanta Ga. Fulton County 279 198
Colorado Springs Colo. El Paso County 279 111
El Paso Texas El Paso County 277 177
Little Rock Ark. Pulaski County 272 203
Newark N.J. Essex County 262 242
Jackson Miss. Hinds County 259 252
Charleston W. Va. Kanawha County 254 193
Las Vegas Nev. Clark County 251 132
Indianapolis Ind. Marion County 249 189
Birmingham Ala. Jefferson County 249 179
Tulsa Okla. Tulsa County 248 172
Billings Mont. Yellowstone County 246 224
Oklahoma City Okla. Oklahoma County 243 173
Milwaukee Wis. Milwaukee County 240 126
Sacramento Calif. Sacramento County 235 116
Boise Idaho Ada County 232 205
Wichita Kan. Sedgwick County 230 171
Omaha Neb. Douglas County 225 204
Cheyenne Wyo. Laramie County 223 201
Tampa Fla. Hillsborough County 211 145
Salt Lake City Utah Salt Lake County 208 191
Des Moines Iowa Polk County 206 174
Boston Mass. Suffolk County 201 118
Dallas Texas Dallas County 198 152
Austin Texas Travis County 195 143
San Antonio Texas Bexar County 195 184
Houston Texas Harris County 185 141
Albuquerque N.M. Bernalillo County 179 187
Tucson Ariz. Pima County 178 147
San Diego Calif. San Diego County 176 82
Sioux Falls S.D. Minnehaha County 174 174
San Jose Calif. Santa Clara County 172 127
Phoenix Ariz. Maricopa County 171 131
Los Angeles Calif. Los Angeles County 170 105
Columbus Ohio Franklin County 169 133
Fort Worth Texas Tarrant County 168 121
Fargo N.D. Cass County 154 155
Portland Maine Cumberland County 154 90
Miami Fla. Miami-Dade County 149 112
Charlotte N.C. Mecklenburg County 143 125
San Francisco Calif. San Francisco County 143 118
Kansas City Mo. Jackson County 140 120
Seattle Wash. King County 137 107
Portland Ore. Multnomah County 134 106
Chicago Ill. Cook County 126 113
Raleigh N.C. Wake County 111 101
Detroit Mich. Wayne County 107 64
Manchester N.H. Hillsborough County 100 53
Minneapolis Minn. Hennepin County 99 62
New York N.Y. 5 NYC Counties 98 71

 

Varying detention rates defy any logical explanation

We found that jail incarceration and pretrial detention rates vary greatly from city to city. There are some high outliers; Memphis, Tenn., for example, has a total jail detention rate of 491 per 100,000 residents, far above the average jail detention rate across the 63 cities of 225 per 100,000. On the other end of the spectrum, cities like New York and Minneapolis jail fewer than 100 residents per 100,000. Similarly, the pretrial detention rates in St. Louis and Baltimore (395 and 330 per 100,000, respectively) are more than double the average pretrial detention rate for the cities we studied, which was 163 per 100,000. We considered various possible explanations for the drastic differences from city to city, but didn’t find many consistent trends.

Local crime rates don’t consistently explain jail detention rates

First, we used the FBI’s Universal Crime Reporting program data to analyze the cities’ violent crime and total crime rates, to see if high rates of crime correlated with high rates of detention.3 Memphis, St. Louis, and Baltimore — all of which have notably high detention or pretrial detention rates — do in fact have the three highest violent and total crime rates of the cities for which we were able to obtain data.4 This pattern isn’t consistent across other cities, though. For example, Charleston, S.C., has some of the highest jail detention and pretrial detention rates, yet its violent crime and total crime rates rank among the lowest of these cities. On the other end of the spectrum, Detroit boasts very low detention rates, but has a relatively high violent crime rate.

It’s also difficult to know how directly violent crime is actually impacting detention rates because other factors likely influence both crime and incarceration. Poverty, addiction, and a lack of social services, for example, could contribute separately to high rates of both crime and jail detention. In fact, detention itself has been shown to increase the odds of future offending, which is counterproductive from a crime rate-defined public safety standpoint.

Local police and jail budgets don’t explain jail rates, either

Next, we explored whether police budgets were correlated with jail and pretrial detention rates. Using the Vera Institute of Justice’s police budget data, we examined the percent of city funds spent on policing and the number of city dollars per resident allocated to the police. Our analysis did not reveal any noteworthy connections between these measures and local jail rates, however.

The Vera Institute of Justice also provides data on the jail budgets in major cities and the number of county dollars spent per resident specifically on jails. Again, we found no strong correlations between jail budgets and jail incarceration rates. The only notable finding is a correlation between changes in jail population and changes in jail budgets since 2011: Cities that reduced their jail budgets (or avoided large increases) also reduced their jail populations more dramatically. While this may not be particularly surprising, it does suggest that cutting jail budgets could help communities reduce the number of people cycling through jails, while freeing up money to be used elsewhere, like schools.

scatterplot graph showing changes in jail budgets since 2011 versus changes in jail populations since 2011. Cities that reduced jail budgets also saw reduced jail populations.

In many places, the effects of bail reform remain to be seen

A number of cities and states included in this analysis, such as Philadelphia and Dallas, have enacted bail reforms in the past few years. However, since most of these changes occurred after 2018 — the most recent year for which the Vera Institute of Justice’s jail detention data are available — the data we used for this analysis do not yet show the effects of those reforms. Ultimately, these reforms should result in reduced pretrial detention rates. Current data show bail reforms have an impact on overall jail detention as well, since the pretrial population makes up about two-thirds of jail populations nationwide.

In New Jersey, for example, pretrial detention populations decreased by 50 percent from 2015 to 2018 – which was just one year after reforms were implemented. Additionally, New Jersey and San Francisco both saw at least 45 percent decreases in their overall jail populations after instituting bail reforms. We hope and expect these reforms (and others implemented more recently) will continue to lower rates of pretrial incarceration in cities and counties across the country.

While there isn’t a clear explanation for why jail incarceration and pretrial detention rates vary so much from city to city, it is clear that too many people cycle through jails each year, and reforms are long overdue. City leaders need to start investing in their communities instead of jails by expanding access to health care and social services, and implementing alternatives to incarceration.

 

Appendix

City State County Jail detention rate (per 100,000 county residents) Pretrial detention rate (per 100,000 county residents) Violent crime rate (per 100,000 county residents) Total crime rate (per 100,000 county residents) Policing budget Jail budget Jail population change since 2011 Jail budget change since 2011
Albuquerque N.M. Bernalillo County 179 187 no data no data $211,084,000 $77,707,756 -52% -13%
Atlanta Ga. Fulton County 279 198 no data no data $248,508,775 $90,484,158 8% 13%
Austin Texas Travis County 195 143 380 3,569 $491,265,529 $99,791,862 -31% 17%
Baltimore Md. None 331 330 1,843 6,116 $549,046,349 no data no data no data
Billings Mont. Yellowstone County 246 224 no data no data $27,017,423 $13,708,860 26% 69%
Birmingham Ala. Jefferson County 249 179 no data no data $92,775,797 no data no data no data
Boise Idaho Ada County 232 205 193 1,097 $70,561,456 $28,435,821 -8% 20%
Boston Mass. Suffolk County 201 118 no data no data $431,731,291 no data no data no data
Charleston S.C. Charleston County 286 229 196 1,384 $53,445,152 $40,081,245 -53% 9%
Charleston W. Va. Kanawha County 254 193 no data no data $22,489,588 $4,775,000 29% -4%
Charlotte N.C. Mecklenburg County 143 125 no data no data $285,877,585 $90,941,557 -31% -5%
Cheyenne Wyo. Laramie County 223 201 no data no data $14,493,787 $12,834,792 47% 35%
Chicago Ill. Cook County 126 113 497 2,076 $1,776,930,437 $437,932,791 -44% 40%
Colorado Springs Colo. El Paso County 279 111 461 3,254 $140,388,709 no data no data no data
Columbus Ohio Franklin County 169 133 no data no data $347,780,657 $82,811,353 -21% 19%
Dallas Texas Dallas County 198 152 406 2,275 $545,974,490 $143,920,841 -19% 20%
Denver Colo. Denver County 295 205 no data no data $277,927,093 $118,219,314 -29% 22%
Des Moines Iowa Polk County 206 174 342 2,344 $71,546,587 $38,268,987 -22% 10%
Detroit Mich. Wayne County 107 64 745 2,372 $318,193,356 $132,556,915 -43% 14%
El Paso Texas El Paso County 277 177 319 1,629 $157,607,718 $73,784,469 8% 1%
Fargo N.D. Cass County 154 155 326 2,595 $22,832,341 $14,171,961 2% 42%
Fort Worth Texas Tarrant County 168 121 201 1,417 $352,893,268 no data no data no data
Fresno Calif. Fresno County 305 221 no data no data $201,764,000 no data no data no data
Houston Texas Harris County 185 141 694 3,764 $899,879,053 no data no data no data
Indianapolis Ind. Marion County 249 189 no data no data $283,571,003 no data no data no data
Jackson Miss. Hinds County 259 252 no data no data $37,523,140 no data no data no data
Jacksonville Fla. Duval County 297 119 no data no data $481,594,597 $124,301,200 -18% 17%
Kansas City Mo. Jackson County 140 120 no data no data $262,247,405 $29,623,840 -15% 31%
Las Vegas Nev. Clark County 251 132 no data no data $173,702,925 $286,998,563 -12% 36%
Little Rock Ark. Pulaski County 272 203 875 4,385 $80,209,890 no data no data no data
Los Angeles Calif. Los Angeles County 170 105 346 1,442 $1,735,493,169 $1,347,462,000 -5% 44%
Louisville Ky. Jefferson County 308 171 602 4,014 $191,988,200 $56,639,000 -38% -1%
Manchester N.H. Hillsborough County 100 53 no data no data $25,285,675 no data no data no data
Memphis Tenn. Shelby County 491 245 1,382 5,906 $274,511,008 $138,591,511 -29% -8%
Miami Fla. Miami-Dade County 149 112 297 2,088 $281,251,000 $383,686,000 -35% 12%
Milwaukee Wis. Milwaukee County 240 126 842 2,444 $321,470,403 no data no data no data
Minneapolis Minn. Hennepin County 99 62 318 1,868 $193,360,000 $74,904,183 -44% 22%
Nashville Tenn. Davidson County 361 191 no data no data $216,790,900 $56,703,800 -33% -12%
New Orleans La. Orleans Parish 397 301 no data no data $206,887,632 $73,312,897 -73% -7%
New York N.Y. 5 NYC Counties 98 71 no data no data $11,036,298,140 $2,307,064,976 -58% -1%
Newark N.J. Essex County 262 242 no data no data $207,955,896 no data no data no data
Oklahoma City Okla. Oklahoma County 243 173 604 4,029 $226,626,456 no data no data no data
Omaha Neb. Douglas County 225 204 521 3,652 $159,838,743 $54,353,577 -4% 55%
Philadelphia Pa. Philadelphia County 389 257 no data no data $956,632,151 $220,169,920 -45% -18%
Phoenix Ariz. Maricopa County 171 131 no data no data $909,129,491 no data no data no data
Portland Maine Cumberland County 154 90 65 746 $17,757,540 $20,579,182 -28% 16%
Portland Ore. Multnomah County 134 106 464 4,917 $238,190,326 $109,598,622 -35% 18%
Raleigh N.C. Wake County 111 101 132 1,038 $109,694,902 $50,109,750 -7% 55%
Sacramento Calif. Sacramento County 235 116 365 1,950 $184,342,524 no data no data no data
Salt Lake City Utah Salt Lake County 208 191 189 1,876 $82,235,729 $105,080,518 -36% 32%
San Antonio Texas Bexar County 195 184 591 4,253 $479,091,284 $72,653,612 -3% 7%
San Diego Calif. San Diego County 176 82 201 1,141 $542,087,473 $387,184,895 -10% 63%
San Francisco Calif. San Francisco County 143 118 no data no data $706,182,301 no data no data no data
San Jose Calif. Santa Clara County 172 127 254 1,631 $473,208,901 $243,451,168 -38% 15%
Seattle Wash. King County 137 107 227 1,927 $440,240,547 $208,640,119 -39% 20%
Sioux Falls S.D. Minnehaha County 174 174 493 3,589 $41,028,140 $17,020,439 -6% 53%
St. Louis Mo. None 393 395 1,913 8,049 $154,870,227 $35,382,770 -46% -8%
Tampa Fla. Hillsborough County 211 145 235 1,479 $176,982,462 $192,045,470 -27% 4%
Tucson Ariz. Pima County 178 147 no data no data $193,274,430 $52,554,404 -2% 0%
Tulsa Okla. Tulsa County 248 172 647 4,080 $121,682,000 no data no data no data
Virginia Beach Va. None 328 148 129 1,885 $102,960,533 $40,694,736 -14% 21%
Washington, D.C. D.C. None 294 158 982 5,247 $655,379,632 $203,529,000 -51% 21%
Wichita Kan. Sedgwick County 230 171 885 4,967 $89,245,584 $33,793,490 -2% 6%

 

Footnotes

  1. These cities represent some of the 50 largest cities across the country, as well as the largest cities in each state.  ↩

  2. Four cities – Baltimore, St. Louis, Virginia Beach, Va., and Washington, D.C. – are independent cities not part of a county. In these cases, the Vera Institute of Justice reported the detention rate for the cities themselves.  ↩

  3. We calculated violent crime and total crime rates for the 38 cities and counties for which the FBI had complete data. We did this by adding the reported crime counts from the city police and corresponding county sheriff’s offices together. (For independent cities, we only used the crime counts from city police.) Then, to calculate the rates, we used the populations for each county as reported in the Vera Institute of Justice’s Trends dataset, which was the same population used to calculate the jail and pretrial detention rates in this briefing.  ↩

  4. It’s difficult to compare cities because there are a multitude of factors that could explain differing crime rates. However, the FBI’s UCR data is the closest we can get to having somewhat standardized data across multiple cities and counties.  ↩



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