Best of the blog

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

by Lucius Couloute, January 30, 2018

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

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

assaults.staff assaults.contraband.disciplinary infractions.

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

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

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

2017 was another big year for powerful data visualizations from the Prison Policy Initiative. These are our 9 favorites.

by Peter Wagner, December 29, 2017

2017 was another big year for powerful data visualizations from the Prison Policy Initiative. These are 9 of our favorites:

1. The “whole pie”

We updated our most famous data visualization for 2017, Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie:

Pie chart showing the number of people locked up on a given day in the United States by facility type and the underlying offense using the newest data available in March 2017.

This report also included four slideshows of additional detail on different parts of the carceral system — including the under-discussed world of jails — and some state-to-state comparisons.

2. The “whole pie” of women’s incarceration

In partnership with the ACLU, we produced Women’s Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie to aggregate the disparate systems of confinement and illustrates where and why 219,000 women are locked up in the U.S.:

pie chart showing the number of women locked up on a given day in the United States by facility type and, where available, the underlying offense

3. Following the money of mass incarceration

In the first-of-its-kind report accompanying this graphic, we find that the system of mass incarceration costs the government and families of justice-involved people at least $182 billion every year. In this report and visualization, we follow the money:

Excerpt of a larger graph showing the $182 billion system of mass incarceration and the relative size of its sub-parts from policing, to courts to private companies. Private prisons are a very small part of the total.Please click to see the full visualization.

4. The short-sighted cruelty of charging incarcerated people high fees for their own medical care

If your doctor charged a $500 co-pay for every visit, how bad would your health have to get before you made an appointment? You would be right to think such a high cost exploitative, and your neighbors would be right to fear that it would discourage you from getting the care you need for preventable problems. In a 50-state analysis of medical co-pays in prison, we find that this is the hidden reality of prison life:

Graph showing how much minimum wage earners in each state would pay if a single co-pay took as many hours to earn as a co-pay charged to an incarcerated person does. The average equivalent co-pay is about $200 and in West Virginia, it's over $1,000.

5. Putting the emphasis of criminal justice reform where it belongs: on state and local policies

The federal government gets all the attention, but the real story of mass incarceration is at the state and local levels. We’ve been continuing to update this key visual:

Image charts the incarcerated populations in federal prisons, state prisons, and local jails from 1925 to 2015. The state prison and jail populations grew exponentially in the 1980s and 1990s, and began to decline slowly after 2008, while federal prison populations show less change over time.

For more on this perspective, see our blog post President Obama’s parting reminders on criminal justice reform.

6. Tracking this country’s priorities

For a blog post Tracking the impact of the prison system on the economy, we highlighted one key and unfortunate shift in our nation’s economic priorities:

Graph showing the portion of the civilian labor force that works in agriculture or for the justice system from 1971 to 2012. In 1971, about 4% of the workforce was in agriculture. The number of agricultural workers have declined as the number of justice system employees has grown, and by 2001, the number of police, corrections and judicial employees was higher than the number of agricultural workers. The 2.3 million incarcerated people in the United States are, of course, excluded from the labor force and therefore are not reflected in analyses of labor force participation. Including them would make the portion of the workforce that is involved in the mass incarceration system even larger.

7. Racial discrimination and use of force in “stop and frisk” policing

President Trump supports “stop and frisk” policing; but a return to the violent police tactic would be – to use some of the president’s favorite Twitter words – “a disaster!” In this visualization and report (you’ll need to click through to get the full effect) we explore the ineffectiveness of the police tactic and the racial disparities in who is stopped, who is frisked and who has force used against them by the police:

thumbnail of data graphic showing the numbers of Blacks/Latinos, Whites and people of other races and ethnicities stopped by the New York City Police in 2011, along with whether they were also frisked and whether force was used. Blacks and Latinos are dispropionately stopped, frisked and have forced used against them.Please click to see the full visualization in its original context.

8. Exploring the causes of jail growth

For our report Era of Mass Expansion: Why State Officials Should Fight Jail Growth we started with the big picture view of the two reasons why jail populations are growing:

Figure 1. Most state policymakers are not tracking jails in the first place, and the jails’ frequent practice of renting cells to other agencies makes it difficult to draw conclusions from the little data that is available. This report offers a new analysis of federal data to offer a state-by-state view of how jails are being used and we find that, even more than previous research has implied, pre-trial populations are driving “traditional jail” growth. The data behind this graph is in Table 1.

9. The rise of the “prosecutor politician”

Fordham University historian Jed Shugerman has finally made it possible to examine the scale of prosecutors’ influence on American politics and justice throughout history. At great effort, he produced the data and made it available to the public. To draw more attention to it, we made a visualization to accompany our blog post about the data:

50 state chart showing which states have had a senator, governor, and/or attorney general with prosecutorial experience in office between 2007 and 2017In at least 38 states, a senator, governor, and/or attorney general holding office in the past 10 years was once a prosecutor. This chart may understate the prevalence of these “prosecutor politicians,” since the source is a work in progress and has no data for some positions in five states as of July 7, 2017, and does not include changes in all offices after January 2017.

Journalists who use our research in new, creative ways play a crucial role in engaging the public with criminal justice issues. These are some of our favorite stories of 2017 that feature our work.

by Wendy Sawyer, December 28, 2017

One of our goals here at the Prison Policy Initiative is to engage the public in current criminal justice issues. Journalists who use our research in new, creative ways play a crucial role in that process. These are some of our favorite stories of 2017 that feature our work, starting with the most recent:

  • press clipping thumbnailThe end of American prison visits: jails end face-to-face contact – and families suffer
    Shannon Sims
    The Guardian
    December 9, 2017

    For three years, we’ve been tracking the quiet spread of virtual jail “visits” in jails across the country; fortunately, a surge of hard-hitting journalism is pushing back, building off of our research and exposing the harms of eliminating family visits in favor of video calls. In Shannon Sims’ deep dive into the video calling industry for The Guardian, she investigates the switch from in-person family visits to expensive video calls in one jail outside of downtown New Orleans. The Guardian’s article raises another important point that we haven’t raised in our own work or seen raised elsewhere: does international human rights law require jails to allow in-person visitation? According to Sims, this is one more reason that using video calling as a replacement for real visits is bad policy.
  • Bloomberg News thumbnailNBA Pistons Owner Under Fire for Deal on Inmate Phone Service
    Todd Shields
    July 24, 2017

    When the sale of prison and jail telecom giant Securus Technologies to Platinum Equity was announced in May, we joined with other advocates to ask the FCC to block the sale and investigate the company’s ongoing defiance of FCC regulations. We also questioned why Platinum’s owner Tom Gores – who has built a reputation for helping recovery efforts in Detroit and Flint – would invest in a company that charges Michigan residents as much as $8.20 for a single minute of a call from an incarcerated loved one. Bloomberg picked up the story and ran with it, in the process producing a comprehensive review of the biggest news related to the prison and jail phone industry in the past year.
  • press clipping thumbnailWhat’s actually driving local jail growth?
    Mark Bennett
    June 4, 2017

    Vigo County, Indiana, like many counties around the country, has plans to build a new, larger jail to accommodate its growing jail population. Indiana reporter Mark Bennett uses our report Era of Mass Expansion to explore the underlying causes of jail growth in the state, like its high rate of pretrial detention and the fact that 14% of its jail beds are held for outside authorities. Bennett’s reporting gives local and state authorities plenty of reasons to reconsider jail expansion.
  • press clipping thumbnailThe plunder of the American prison system
    Ryan Cooper
    The Week
    January 25, 2017

    Ryan Cooper elegantly summarizes our Following the Money of Mass Incarceration report, with all its data intricacies, and pulls out the most salient threads for discussion. Going further, he connects the massive growth and abuses of the criminal justice system to the political economy of incarceration, concluding “the profit motive… tends to dissolve moral considerations.”
  • thumbnailDriver’s Licenses, Caught in the War on Drugs
    The Editorial Board
    The New York Times
    January 3, 2017

    The New York Times Editorial Board responds to our December 2016 report, Reinstating Common Sense, unequivocally denouncing laws that automatically suspend driver’s licenses for drug offenses unrelated to driving and then charge costly reinstatement fees: “These laws… are simply cruel and stupid, and it is past time to expunge them from the books.” Strong editorial support like this fuels our advocacy work and the work of advocates in the remaining states that have yet to eliminate these outdated and counterproductive laws.

Investigative reporters are illuminating little-known facets of the criminal justice system. We share our favorite work from 2017.

by Wanda Bertram and Wendy Sawyer, December 28, 2017

Each year, investigative news reporters find new ways to shed light on the complicated problems of the criminal justice system. These are some of the in-depth stories and analyses that impressed us most in 2017:

  • Ability to vote compromised for thousands behind bars
    La Risa Lynch
    The Chicago Reporter
    July 10, 2017

    A timely Chicago Reporter investigation this year raised the question: How many people are disenfranchised by the criminal justice system, not because of a felony record, but because they are in jail awaiting trial? Of the 700,000 people in jail in 2015, 63 percent were still eligible to vote, and poor Black and Latino defendants were overrepresented among them. The Chicago Reporter story reveals that local sheriffs and election officials hold the keys to empowering eligible voters in jail to vote, and how inconsistent their efforts are to facilitate registration and voting. Adding a new dimension to the problem of disenfranchisement by the criminal justice system, this piece calls attention to America’s jail problem at a time when it is urgently needed.

  • Foster Care as Punishment: The New Reality of ‘Jane Crow’
    Stephanie Clifford and Jessica Silver-Greenberg
    The New York Times
    July 21, 2017

    The American foster care system is famously troubled, but a New York Times investigation this year revealed that New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services often punishes poor parents by taking their children away in “emergency removals” aided by the police. According to public defenders, poor Black and Hispanic mothers are most affected – held to unreasonably high standards in court, closely watched by caseworkers, and sometimes even arrested. The practice is so widespread that landlords have weaponized it, threatening to call Children’s Services on lower-paying tenants. This is an alarming example of the criminalization of poverty via implicit biases at government agencies.

  • A 911 plea for help, a Taser shot, a death- and the mounting toll of stun guns
    Peter Eisler, Jason Szep, Tim Reid and Grant Smith
    August 22, 2017

    Reuters left no stone unturned in its six-part series on Taser stun guns this year. In this first piece alone, the investigative team examined over 1,000 deaths that followed police use of Tasers, finding that a quarter of those who died were suffering from a mental health crisis or neurological disorder at the time. In more than 100 cases, police had initially been called to respond to a medical emergency. At a time when police use of force is headline news, Reuters shows that even “safer” alternatives to firearms can be excessive, and even deadly. (See Part 6 for a similar analysis of the use of Tasers on incarcerated people.)

  • When Junk Science About Sex Offenders Infects the Supreme Court
    David Feige
    New York Times
    September 12, 2017

    To date, the U.S. Supreme Court has approved draconian restrictions on people accused of sex offenses because the odds of committing another offense are “frightening and high” and “as high as 80%”. On what did the court base that finding? Legal scholars Ira and Tara Ellman followed the footnotes to find that it’s based on basically nothing at all.

    David Feige mentions this story very briefly in his 2016 Untouchable documentary, and goes deeper in this September New York Times op-ed and 8-minute documentary to meet the people behind those early articles.

    At the risk of ruining the documentary’s narrative arc, the “frightening and high” language comes from an article not in a science magazine, but in a popular magazine. At the time (in 1986) there wasn’t much research on sex offense recidivism, and the studies ranged from rates of 35% to 80%. So what does the author of that original article think about using his article to say that all people convicted of sex offenses recidivate at 80%? He says “That’s absolutely incorrect. It’s wrong. It’s not true.” And the idea that laws were based on his writing in a non-scientific magazine? He’s appalled. The documentary raises the question: now that modern research says that the recividism rate is in the range of 1% to 3%, why do the courts insist on citing the more dramatic, if completely wrong, figure?

  • Amid Opioid Crisis, Insurers Restrict Pricey, Less Addictive Painkillers
    Katie Thomas and Charles Ornstein
    The New York Times
    September 17, 2017

    The New York Times and ProPublica collaborated on this investigation of the role insurers play in the ongoing opioid crisis. In their analysis of Medicare prescription plans and interviews with patients and professionals, they found that insurers often restrict access to safer, more expensive treatments, and leave patients with chronic pain few options but to take cheaper, more addictive drugs. Insurers often made it easier to get addictive substances than to get non-drug treatments and even treatment for addiction. While this article doesn’t touch upon the criminal justice implications, there are more than 1 million arrests for drug possession each year and two-thirds of people in jail have a history of a substance use disorder – even though it’s clear that the deck is stacked against people who need safe treatment, not punishment.

  • They confessed to minor crimes. Then City Hall billed them $122k in ‘prosecution fees’
    Brett Kelman
    The Desert Sun
    November 15, 2017

    Silver and Wright, a private law firm contracted as city prosecutor for two southern California towns, has been using its power to take residents to court for minor crimes and then hand them sky-high bills for their own prosecution. A Desert Sun investigation found that the cities billed 18 defendants more than $120,000 in prosecution fees – defendants mostly charged with public nuisance crimes, like overgrown weeds – and threatened to take away their homes if they did not pay. Brett Kelman details one of the most egregious recent examples of the privatization of justice functions leading to the exploitation of defendants.

  • How Trump’s Hands-Off Approach to Policing Is Frustrating Some Chiefs
    Steve Eder, Ben Protess and Shaila Dewan
    The New York Times
    November 21, 2017

    President Trump’s Justice Department, which has treated excessive force by police as a non-issue, announced in September that it would scale back a program that offered guidance to troubled police departments. The Justice Department calls its new approach “hands off,” but a New York Times deep dive found that many police chiefs are pushing back, saying the program was collaborative and useful. Resistance from police chiefs of all stripes points to a “growing consensus” that building bridges with underserved communities should be a public safety priority.

  • More women are jailed in Texas, even though arrests have dropped. Why?
    Cary Aspinwall
    The Dallas Morning News
    December 3, 2017

    The Dallas Morning News combed through monthly data from sheriffs’ offices to discover an alarming trend: The number of unconvicted women in Texas jails has climbed by 48 percent since 2011. Cary Aspinwall profiles jailed women who are part of this upward trend, and explains that what’s driving women’s jail growth in Texas is that women “keep going back, trapped in a cycle of debt and poverty and drug addiction.” The piece represents growing awareness of the problem of women’s mass incarceration in local correctional facilities. (To learn about women’s incarceration in your state, stay tuned for our next report, The Gender Divide, due out in January 2018.)

GTL has purchased competitor Telmate, meaning higher prices for families and facilities. We examine GTL and Securus domination of the industry.

by Peter Wagner, August 28, 2017

The largest phone provider in prisons and jails, which incarcerated people use to call home, has just gotten bigger. GTL (formerly Global Tel*Link) has purchased its competitor Telmate.

In the broken market that is the prison and jail telephone business, families pay high costs because the companies compete not on the basis of low prices or high quality, but on which company will share the most revenue with the facility that awarded the company the monopoly contract. That’s how, in an era of unlimited long distance and free Skype calls, costs to receive a call from an incarcerated loved one have surpassed $1/minute.

By purchasing Telmate, GTL has eliminated a small but very quickly growing competitor. Telmate had contracts with two state prison systems (Montana and Oregon) and contracts with almost a hundred local jails. The company was one of the more innovative companies in the space, although their biggest contribution to the market might have been various kinds of creative accounting tricks that transferred money from customers’ pockets to Telmate without federal and state tax collectors or correctional facilities catching on.

Now that the number of major national companies competing for contracts has declined to just two (GTL and Securus), it will be that much harder for facilities that want to lower prices to do so. How bad is GTL and Securus’ domination of the industry? Our research associate Alex Clark determined each company’s market share as of July 2017 and prepared this chart:

Table 1 Market dominance of prison telephone providers prior to GTL purchase of Telmate. Percentage of market is calculated by the most recently available reported population of each county facility or state prison system. This table shows a range of values because some providers have outdated information on their websites about who has a given contract and we were not always able to confirm which provider to credit with that contract. The actual values should therefore lie within the range given. Each jail system is counted as one contract even if the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ Census of Jails separately counted individual facilities in that jail system. Similarly, each state prison system was counted as one contract regardless of the number of facilities in the state prison system.
Phone vendor Number of contracts Percent of market
Private companies
GTL 377-586 46.0% – 52.9%
Securus 635-794 15.0% – 19.4%
CenturyLink 6-20 10.6% – 11.5%
ICSolutions 129-288 3.7% – 6.3%
Telmate 101-157 1.9% – 3.1%
Paytel 151 1.3%
NCIC 169-170 0.9% – 1.0%
CenturyLink & ICSolutions working together in Nevada 1 0.7%
Legacy Inmate 46-61 0.4% – 0.6%
Regent 15-44 0.2% – 1.0%
AmTel 26-29 0.2% – 0.3%
Reliance 145-154 0.2%
Government-run systems
Bureau of Prisons (has their own system) 1 7.90%
Iowa Department of Corrections (has their own system, buys bandwidth wholesale from from ICSolutions) 1 0.40%
Maine Department of Corrections (has their own system, with assistance from Legacy Inmate) 1 0.10%
None of the above 709 1.80%


Fewer companies will mean less choice for facilities

Because the primary differentiation between vendors is cost, having fewer companies compete for contracts will mean less choice for the facility that awards the contracts and less of an incentive for the companies to offer good deals.

Continue reading →

Each year in prison takes 2 years off an individual's life expectancy. With over 2.3 million people locked up, mass incarceration has shortened the overall U.S. life expectancy by 5 years.

by Emily Widra, June 26, 2017

New research expands the notions of collateral consequences beyond post-release barriers and discrimination. Two studies show that incarceration shortens life expectancy, at both the national and individual levels.

Nationally, there are so many people living behind bars that the average life expectancy for the total U.S. population has taken a hit. In 2014, the life expectancy at birth in the U.S. was 78.8 years, while most comparable nations (Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Italy, Japan, France, Germany, Canada, Australia, Austria) had life expectancies above 81 years.

A 2016 study by Professor Christopher Wildeman offers us an explanation for the U.S. falling behind on measures of population health, like life expectancy: mass incarceration. In comparison to other developed democracies, Wildeman finds that from 1981 to 2007, the U.S. life expectancy would have increased by more than five years – from 74.1 to 79.4 years – if not for mass incarceration. Without so many people behind bars, he argues, the life expectancy at birth would have increased 51% more than it actually did from 1981 to 2007. The sheer magnitude of how many people are locked up shortens our entire nation’s life expectancy.

This isn’t just problematic from a population health standpoint; the reduced life expectancy resulting from incarceration impacts individuals, families, and communities on a personal level. In her 2013 analysis of New York state parole data, Professor Evelyn Patterson identified a linear relationship between incarceration and life expectancy: for each year lived behind bars, a person can expect to lose two years off their life expectancy. In the parole cohort she studied, five years in prison increased the odds of death by 78% and reduced the expected life span at age 30 by 10 years. Time served has a direct correlation to years of life lost.

Although both studies suggest that incarceration affects life expectancy, neither study identifies the pathways by which this happens. Incarceration itself may be harmful enough to explain these effects, or it may be one of many adverse experiences putting vulnerable populations at risk. Either way, it’s important to address the appalling conditions of incarceration and the lack of opportunities and services for at-risk communities. Most importantly, we need to put less people behind bars. As Professor Patterson points out, unlike many collateral consequences of incarceration, “death cannot be reversed”.

If Tom Gores and Platinum Equity are trying to improve lives, Securus is the wrong investment. As the second-largest prison and jail telecom company in the country, is arguably one of the most exploitative companies profiting from mass incarceration.

by Wendy Sawyer, May 18, 2017

Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores has styled himself a hometown hero in Michigan, but his company’s current bid to acquire prison telecom company Securus Technologies suggests he cares far more about profits than he does people.

“It’s really Tom’s idea that [the Pistons] are a great platform, they’re a community asset and, with that, requires us to be socially responsible…. It’s about inspiring our youth, unifying our community, and improving the lives of others.” – Arn Tellem, vice chairman of Palace Sports & Entertainment (owned by Platinum Equity)

If Gores is trying to improve lives, Securus is the wrong investment. As the second-largest prison and jail telecom company in the country, it is arguably one of the most exploitative companies profiting from mass incarceration. It’s certainly among the worst of the bunch for the people forced to use their ever-expanding array of criminal-justice-related “services.” (See sidebar)

Securus stands out from other prison and jail telecom companies for the extremes it will go to generate revenue from the families and friends of incarcerated people:

Securus exploits the need for incarcerated people and families to maintain contact, charging extremely high rates and fees for phone calls. Some of the money goes back to the prison or jail in the form of commissions, so the incentive for Securus and the facilities is to charge as much as possible. In Michigan, that means a 15-minute in-state call can cost families over $22. In response to objections, rival company GTL has lowered rates in Michigan state prisons to about 20 cents per minute, but Securus continues to charge over $1 per minute.

And who are the people paying Securus those high rates and fees? Family and friends, many of whom are low-income and people of color – and the same community members whom Mr. Gores supports through his charitable endeavors. A Detroit sports fan or concert-goer might question the sincerity of Mr. Gores’ philanthropic efforts when the outrageous fees they pay Securus end up lining his pockets.

So why is Gores’ private equity firm, Platinum Equity LLC, interested in Securus, when its exploitative practices are well-documented and bound to invite criticism? Platinum is either ignorant of the company’s exploitative business model (unlikely) or it sees an opportunity too good to pass up.

Over the past 10 years, Securus has expanded its business to avoid pesky regulations that might restrict exploitative practices, and the current political climate may reward this strategy. Between 2007 and 2015 the company shifted from 100% regulated businesses to 65% deregulated businesses within the expansive world of “user-funded” criminal justice services, like telemedicine, commissary, probation and parole supervision, and GPS monitoring.

Securus’ remaining regulated business, its large phone provider service, may also be shielded from federal oversight under the new FCC chair, Ajit Pai. The FCC’s recent change in leadership ended the government agency’s willingness to defend the caps it placed on prison phone calls in 2015. That change improved the odds that prison phone calls will continue to yield steady profits for people and companies willing to ignore the impact on the people forced to pay obscene rates and fees.

By investing in Securus, Tom Gores’ Platinum Equity joins the ranks of those companies that care about social responsibility – only when it does not affect their bottom line.

As sheriffs consider eliminating in-person visitation in jails, the firsthand experiences of incarcerated people and their families remind us that in-person visitation is crucial to the reentry process and reducing recidivism.

by Emily Widra, May 9, 2017

A little more than a year ago, I wrote a blog post about the psychological research on the difference between video communication and face-to-face communication. Throughout the literature, I found that video communication – and therefore video visitation – falls short of face-to-face, in-person interactions.

The Prison Policy Initiative has been following the disturbing trend of jails ending in-person visitation and replacing it with video visitation. The problems with eliminating in-person visits come up again and again in the news coverage; but every time, the people behind bars and their families say it best. When looking for reasons to protect in-person visitation, all we need to do is listen to them:

“They’re probably less than 500 feet away from you and you feel like they’re still in another state…You can never look someone in the eye. It’s impossible.”
Richard Fisk, on video visitation with his mother, after she travelled 1,700 miles to sit at a video screen in the Travis County Correctional Facility, where he was incarcerated

“Those personal, intimate aspects of someone who loves you — that doesn’t show.”
Jorge Renaud, on his experience with video-visitation in a Texas jail in 2014

“Even if it’s through plexiglass, at least you can have some kind of live interaction with your loved one… That would have made it better for me and him to maintain that human contact. Just because someone committed a crime doesn’t stop the love you have with them.”
Susan Gregory, on her visits with her husband, who was incarcerated for six months in an Arizona facility where in-person visitation was eliminated

“It’s not something you can quantify… Eye contact is a huge deal. It’s blowing them kisses and putting your hand to the glass. The kids get lost with the video terminals. It’s just not the same experience. It’s a disconnected feeling.”
Lauren Johnson, on her family’s decision to travel and wait for in-person visitations instead of opting for video visitation at the Travis County Correctional Facility, prior to the elimination of in-person visitation

“As a kid, I went to prison. The environment in there, you are depraved of contact from family… Just seeing someone from the glass and putting your hand up there makes a positive difference for inmates. You cannot do that with video visitation.”
Josh Gravens, Soros Justice Fellow, previously incarcerated at age 12 for three years, discussing the psychological and emotional benefits of in-person visitation

These stories illuminate the real-life deficits of video visitation that explain why families prefer in-person, through-the-glass visits. As I found last year, research shows that video communication hinders the natural flow of conversation, slows the process of establishing trust, impedes the intimacy and social connection of in-person interactions, shortens conversations, and restrains interactivity and responsiveness. As these quotes show, incarcerated people and their families maintain trust, relationships, and community connection through eye-contact and face-to-face interactions.

As sheriffs in New Jersey and California consider eliminating in-person visitation in jails, the firsthand experiences of incarcerated people and their families remind us that in-person visitation is crucial to the reentry process and reducing recidivism.

When we consider the relative cost of medical co-pays to incarcerated people who typically earn 14 to 62 cents per hour, it's clear they can be cost-prohibitive. Co-pays that take a large portion of your paycheck make seeking medical attention a costly choice.

by Wendy Sawyer, April 19, 2017

If your doctor charged a $500 co-pay for every visit, how bad would your health have to get before you made an appointment? You would be right to think such a high cost exploitative, and your neighbors would be right to fear that it would discourage you from getting the care you need for preventable problems. That’s not just a hypothetical story; it’s the hidden reality of prison life, adjusted for the wage differential between incarcerated people and people on the outside.

In most states, people incarcerated in prisons and jails pay medical co-pays for physician visits, medications, dental treatment, and other health services. These fees are meant to partially reimburse the states and counties for the high cost of medical care for the populations they serve, which are among the most at-risk for both chronic and infectious diseases. Fees are also meant to deter people from unnecessary doctor’s visits. Unfortunately, high fees may be doing more harm than good: deterring sick people from getting the care they really do need.

A $2-5 medical co-pay in prison or jail may not seem expensive on its face. But when we consider the relative cost of these co-pays to incarcerated people who typically earn 14 to 63 cents per hour, it’s clear how they can be cost-prohibitive. To compare the cost of medical co-pays in prisons and jails to what people pay on the outside (relative to the wages available to each population), I first calculated how many hours of work it would take a low-paid incarcerated person in each state to pay for one co-pay. Then, I translated this hourly cost into the wages earned by a minimum wage, “free world” worker in the same state.

Graph showing how much minimum wage earners in each state would pay if a single co-pay took as many hours to earn as a co-pay charged to an incarcerated person does. The average equivalent co-pay is about $200 and in West Virginia, it's over $1,000. See the table below for co-pay fees and minimum wages in each state. Policy details and sourcing information can be found in the Appendix. For another perspective, I also graphed what percent of the lowest-paid incarcerated person’s monthly earnings is taken by a single co-pay in each state.

In West Virginia, a single visit to the doctor would cost almost an entire month’s pay for an incarcerated person who makes $6 per month. For someone earning the state minimum wage, an equivalent co-pay that takes the same 125 hours to earn would cost an unconscionable $1,093. In Michigan, it would take over a week to earn enough for a single $5 co-pay, making it the free world equivalent of over $300. I found that fourteen* states charge a medical co-pay that is equivalent to charging minimum wage workers more than $200.

The excessive burden of medical fees and co-pays is most obvious in states where many or all incarcerated people are paid nothing for their work: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas. Texas is the most extreme example, with a flat $100 yearly health services fee, which some officials are actually trying to double to $200. People incarcerated in these states must rely on deposits into their personal accounts – typically from family – to pay medical fees. In most places, funds are automatically withdrawn from these accounts until the balance is paid, creating a debt that can follow them even after release.

Co-pays in the hundreds of dollars would be unthinkable for non-incarcerated minimum wage earners. So why do states think it’s acceptable to charge people making pennies per hour such a large portion of their earnings? Some might argue that incarcerated people have nothing better to spend wages on than medical care. But wages allow incarcerated people to buy things they need that the prison does not provide: toiletries, over-the-counter medicine, additional clothes and shoes, as well as phone cards, stamps, and paper to help them maintain contact with loved ones. Co-pays that take a large portion of prison wages make seeking medical attention a costly choice.

Part of the justification for charging incarcerated people medical co-pays is to force them to make difficult choices. Administrators want to deter “frivolous” medical visits. The National Commission on Correctional Health Care (NCCHC), however, argues that abuses of sick call can be managed with “a good triage system,” without imposing fees that also deter necessary medical services. And although providers must treat people regardless of their ability to pay, incarcerated people with “low health literacy” may not understand this right. The NCCHC warns that co-pays may actually jeopardize the health of incarcerated populations, staff, and the public.

Out-of-reach co-pays in prisons and jails have two unintended but inevitable consequences which make them counterproductive and even dangerous. First, when sick people avoid the doctor, disease is more likely to spread to others in the facility – and into the community, when people are released before being treated. Second, illnesses are likely to worsen as long as people avoid the doctor, which means more aggressive (and expensive) treatment when they can no longer go without it. Correctional agencies may be willing to take that risk and hope that by the time people seek care, their treatment will be someone else’s problem. But medical co-pays encourage a dangerous waiting game for incarcerated people, correctional agencies, and the public – which none of us can afford.

For details and sourcing information on co-pays (and what happens when incarcerated patients can’t afford them), see the Appendix.

This table includes co-pay fees for non-emergency, patient-initiated visits with medical staff. The co-pay average excludes Texas, which charges on a yearly basis rather than per-service. For details and sourcing information on co-pays, see the Appendix. For information on wages, see “How much do incarcerated people earn in each state?” State minimum wage information was obtained from the National Conference of State Legislatures. Exceptions: for states with no minimum wage law or minimum wages below the federal law, I used the federal minimum wage. For states with two tiers of minimum wages for free-world workers, I used the higher wages that apply to larger businesses (Minn., Mont., Ohio, and Okla.). For Nevada, I used the lower of the two minimum wage tiers, which applies to jobs with health benefits.
Co-pay or fee Prison job minimum wage Hours of work required to afford one co-pay State minimum wage Equivalent co-pay at minimum wage
(hours x minimum wage)
Alabama $4.00 $0.00 n/a $7.25 n/a
Alaska $5.00 $0.30 16.67 $9.80 $163.33
Arizona $5.00 $0.15 33.33 $10.00 $333.33
Arkansas $3.00 $0.00 n/a $8.50 n/a
California $5.00 $0.08 62.50 $10.50 $656.25
Colorado $3.00 $0.13 23.08 $9.30 $214.62
Connecticut $3.00 $0.13 23.08 $10.10 $233.08
Delaware $4.00 n/a n/a $8.25 n/a
Florida $5.00 $0.00 n/a $8.10 n/a
Georgia $5.00 $0.00 n/a $7.25 n/a
Hawaii $3.00 $0.25 12.00 $9.25 $111.00
Idaho $5.00 $0.10 50.00 $7.25 $362.50
Illinois $5.00 $0.09 55.56 $8.25 $458.33
Indiana $5.00 $0.12 41.67 $7.25 $302.08
Iowa $3.00 $0.27 11.11 $7.25 $80.56
Kansas $2.00 $0.09 22.22 $7.25 $161.11
Kentucky $3.00 $0.13 23.08 $7.25 $167.31
Louisiana $3.00 $0.04 75.00 $7.25 $543.75
Maine $5.00 n/a n/a $9.00 n/a
Maryland $2.00 $0.15 13.33 $8.75 $116.67
Massachusetts $3.00 $0.14 21.43 $11.00 $235.71
Michigan $5.00 $0.14 35.71 $8.90 $317.86
Minnesota $5.00 $0.25 20.00 $9.50 $190.00
Mississippi $6.00 $0.00 n/a $7.25 n/a
Missouri $0.00 $0.05 0.00 $7.70 $0.00
Montana $0.00 $0.16 0.00 $8.15 $0.00
Nebraska $0.00 $0.16 0.00 $9.00 $0.00
Nevada $8.00 n/a n/a $7.25 n/a
New Hampshire $3.00 $0.25 12.00 $7.25 $87.00
New Jersey $5.00 $0.26 19.23 $8.44 $162.31
New Mexico $0.00 $0.10 0.00 $7.50 $0.00
New York $0.00 $0.10 0.00 $9.70 $0.00
North Carolina $5.00 $0.05 100.00 $7.25 $725.00
North Dakota $3.00 $0.19 15.79 $7.25 $114.47
Ohio $2.00 $0.10 20.00 $8.15 $163.00
Oklahoma* $4.00 $0.05 80.00 $7.25 $580.00
Oregon $0.00 $0.05 0.00 $9.75 $0.00
Pennsylvania $5.00 $0.19 26.32 $7.25 $190.79
Rhode Island $3.00 $0.29 10.34 $9.60 $99.31
South Carolina $5.00 $0.00 n/a $7.25 n/a
South Dakota $2.00 $0.25 8.00 $8.65 $69.20
Tennessee $3.00 $0.17 17.65 $7.25 $127.94
Texas $100.00 per year $0.00 n/a $7.25 n/a
Utah $5.00 $0.40 12.50 $7.25 $90.63
Vermont $0.00 $0.25 0.00 $10.00 $0.00
Virginia $5.00 $0.27 18.52 $7.25 $134.26
Washington $4.00 n/a n/a $11.00 n/a
West Virginia $5.00 $0.04 125.00 $8.75 $1,093.75
Wisconsin $7.50 $0.09 83.33 $7.25 $604.17
Wyoming $0.00 $0.35 0.00 $7.25 $0.00
Federal $2.00 $0.12 16.67 $7.25 $120.83
Average* $3.47 $0.14 25.09 $8.30 $208.25

*Updated April 28, 2017 with information from a new source on wages for Oklahoma’s regular prison jobs (non-industry). The source I used when this was first posted did not state a minimum prison wage, only a maximum. According to DOC policy, however, the minimum wage for regular jobs is $7.23 per month, or about 5 cents per hour. A $4 co-pay for someone earning that much is the equivalent of a $580 co-pay charged to a non-incarcerated minimum wage earner in Oklahoma. The table, text, and graphs in this post have been updated to reflect the new information.

Research confirms that prison food is not just gross; it is often nutritionally inadequate. A recent report from Washington provides new evidence and our policy analyst examines the public health costs.

by Wendy Sawyer, March 3, 2017

Prison Voice Washington report coverThis past fall, a new report from Prison Voice Washington detailed the decline in food quality served in the state’s correctional facilities. While incarcerated people often voice complaints about (very real) quality-of-life issues related to food service, there is a broader public health concern here: the long-term health consequences of forcing incarcerated people to consume unhealthy food.

The Prison Voice Washington report

The report from Prison Voice Washington reveals how changes in food service at the Washington Department of Corrections violate the state’s own Healthy Nutrition Guidelines. Since turning over food service to the Department’s business arm, Correctional Industries, the quality of food has deteriorated and culinary job opportunities that require actual cooking skills have dried up. People incarcerated in Washington are now being forced to eat unhealthy, processed food from its central food factory.

The downturn in prison food quality can be blamed on larger trends toward industrialization and privatization. Industrialization, as exemplified by Washington state prisons, replaces cooking from scratch with processed foods that may only require reheating before serving. “When the Department of Corrections turned over responsibility for food services to Correctional Industries…, it substituted 95% industrialized, plastic-wrapped, sugar-filled ‘food products’ for locally prepared healthy food.”

Highly processed and hastily prepared food is typical of privatized food service as well. Nationally, much of prison food is outsourced to two large private corporations, Aramark Correctional Services and Trinity Services Group, the targets of increasing numbers of inmate grievances and embarrassing lawsuits. While under contract with Aramark, for example, kitchens in Michigan and Ohio prisons reportedly “served food tainted by maggots… rotten meat… food pulled from the garbage…[and] food on which rats nibbled.”

What’s especially disheartening about the state of food in Washington’s prisons is that not long ago, incarcerated people in each facility were preparing food fresh from scratch, using ingredients grown at the prisons or bought from local farmers. According to Prison Voice Washington, “Prisons grew their own food, maintained dairies and bakeries, and the food… was cooked locally.” Today, there is just one massive farm, which Correctional Industries touts as part of its “closed-loop grain-to-baker-to-prison food chain.” The most recent harvest it reports online is 200 acres’ worth of dry peas. There are still gardening programs at some facilities, but according to Prison Voice Washington, “a few small gardens… [present] a rosy veneer of sustainability and fresh produce to circumvent any real scrutiny of the bleak food reality.”

Their point? The Department is capable of doing a better job, and had done so as recently as 2009. Short-sighted administrators looking to save a few cents per meal have made a bad deal with Correctional Industries, trading a fresh, healthy food service program for highly processed foods that make incarcerated people sick.

To make their case, the authors of the Prison Voice Washington report include an incredible amount of evidence including invoices, nutrition labels, and four appendices of order forms and menus. They show that:

  • Incarcerated people in Washington do not receive minimum requirements for fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, or milk.
  • Incarcerated people are fed more than the recommended amounts of refined starches, added sugars and sodium.
  • The DOC is fully aware of the nutritional shortcomings of its menu, so it supplements meals with fortified drink powders. These are often left untouched, so even those supplements do little to make up for the lack of nutrients in the actual food served.
  • Besides the prison menu, the only other choices incarcerated people have are the products available through the commissary, where more than 90% of available products “are very unhealthy, and are categorized as ‘Avoid’ in the [State’s] Healthy Nutrition Guidelines for Vending Machines.” Even the instant oatmeal is the highly sweetened, low fiber variety on the “not recommended” list.

Again, this is all at odds with Washington’s ostensible commitment to improving nutrition. In most states, correctional agencies follow federal guidelines (or attempt to), without so much as lip-service to providing anything above a minimum standard. Washington, however, has the most comprehensive food standards of any state, although many other cities and states have adopted their own standards for food served or sold at other public agencies. The only other state with nutritional standards that apply to correctional facilities is Massachusetts; New York City and Philadelphia have sweeping city-wide nutritional standards that apply to correctional facilities as well. The Prison Voice Washington report should serve as a model to hold other agencies accountable and ensure healthy foods are available to people in correctional facilities.

Other studies of prison food show that Washington’s failings are not unique

Washington’s DOC is certainly not unique; prisons and jails are notorious for serving terrible food. Prison meals are a favorite subject for colorful photo projects and personal experiments — even Buzzfeed has made one of their trademark videos about it. And research confirms that prison food is not just gross; it is often nutritionally inadequate:

  • A menu analysis from a large county jail in Georgia found incarcerated people there were served a diet too high in cholesterol, saturated fat, and sodium, and too low in fiber and several micronutrients — all factors linked to an increased risk of heart disease.
  • An analysis in South Carolina found similar deficiencies, and like the Washington study, found the menu too stingy in fruits, vegetables, and milk, and too reliant on starches.
  • In a Michigan report, correctional officers reported frequent deviations from the menu, especially watering down recipes and serving small portions, making it impossible for people to get the nutrients agreed upon by contract.
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that sodium is off the charts in U.S. prisons: in 1989 (the most recent year of available data) federal prisons were serving a diet with 10,000 mg of sodium per day; by 1995, their goal was to reduce it to 6,520 mg per day — still almost three times the recommended upper limit.

So yes, prison food tastes bad. But more importantly, it’s really bad for you.

The links between chronic disease and nutrition mean that prison nutrition matters

Incarcerated people are at increased risk of chronic diseases, but rather than using Food Services to help control both health problems and the costs of medical treatment, prisons exacerbate illnesses by serving and selling unhealthy foods. Half of all incarcerated people in state and federal prisons report having had a chronic illness and are “potentially at risk for future medical problems.” Nearly as many — 40% — report a current chronic condition. Considering 1) the prevalence of chronic illness in prisons, 2) the documented impact of diet on these diseases, and 3) the much lower cost of food compared to medical treatment, it is irresponsible and shortsighted of correctional agencies to prioritize cost-cutting over nutrition.

The most problematic correlations between prison food and health include:

  • Weight: The most obvious link between food services and health is weight. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that three quarters of people incarcerated in state and federal prisons are overweight or obese. Other researchers have found that each period of incarceration increases an individual’s Body Mass Index, which is a measure of overweight and obesity. Prison food is part of the reason why: as we’ve seen, menu analyses have found that prisons and jails serve highly processed, unwholesome food, and offer primarily high-fat and sugary options for purchase. Even when the menu fits nutritional guidelines on paper, it is often prepared in ways that make it less healthy: Prison Voice Washington reports that food service workers “attempt to fry” ingredients, so entrees like meatloaf end up “literally soaked in oil and margarine.”
  • Chronic diseases: In addition to excess weight, incarcerated people suffer disproportionately from chronic health conditions. 30% of incarcerated people have hypertension, 10% heart problems, and 9% diabetes — all higher rates than the general population. As the American Heart Association’s diets for heart disease and hypertension make clear, conditions like these can be prevented or even reversed to some extent by a nutritious diet. Instead, they are made worse by menus with too much sodium and fat and not enough fiber and essential nutrients from fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
  • Racial health disparities: African Americans are more likely to suffer from hypertension and diabetes, and research points to disproportionate incarceration of African American men as a cause of these health disparities. “Incarceration may help structure obesity disparities,” according to one study, and “part of the reason African American men suffer worse health is that they spend more time on average in prison, a place that undermines health,” concludes another. By ignoring the negative effects of the unhealthy prison diet on this vulnerable population, states are willingly putting them at greater risk for premature death. Each year of incarceration reduces life expectancy by two years, and this is especially true for black men.

To be sure, prisons do provide “therapeutic” or “medical” diets, prescribed by health services staff. Unfortunately, the Washington study reveals that even the “lighter fare” diet would do little to help someone with a chronic illness; it includes an extra serving of vegetables, but even less protein. In any case, when half of the incarcerated population has a chronic illness, it would make sense for a nutritious, health-services-approved diet to be the norm, not the exception. (Thankfully, some agencies have figured this out for themselves: Pennsylvania uses the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ diabetic diet for its regular menu standards, and Massachusetts has created a healthier menu to minimize the number of special dietary menus needed.)

The budget is no excuse

The fact is, serving decent food is cheaper than serving unhealthy and unappetizing food in the long run. Considering the additional costs associated with poor food quality, the cost-cutting measures correctional agencies have taken around food services are fiscally short-sighted. For one thing, deteriorating food quality causes frequent security problems: when incarcerated people see that they are getting worse — or less — food than before, they protest in various ways — from dumping bad potatoes on the floor to strikes. Additional guards may be required to manage food service, not to mention the risks associated with large-scale protests like the coordinated prison strikes in the fall of 2016.

health care costs correctional agencies $12.3 billion while food costs $2.1 billionFood costs are also dwarfed by healthcare costs in prisons, so improving the nutritional quality of prison food would be a cost-effective way to improve inmate health. In our recent analysis of criminal justice costs, we found that correctional agencies spend almost six times more on health care than on food. Prison Voice Washington found that food costs make up less than 4% of the daily cost of incarcerating a prisoner — compared with healthcare, which accounts for 19% of the cost.

As the Washington authors note, even doubling the state food budget wouldn’t cost very much for the total budget and would be well worth it considering the additional healthcare costs related to chronic illness. The American Diabetes Association, for example, estimates that healthcare costs are 2.3 times higher for incarcerated people with diabetes. And overall, 86% of healthcare spending is for people with at least one chronic condition. As Prison Voice Washington concludes, “In the short run, healthy food does cost a little more — but unhealthy people cost a great deal more.”

Moreover, some states have begun to recognize that even “cost saving” moves toward industrialization and privatization aren’t worth the problems with food quality, security, and long-term health consequences. An audit of Florida’s Aramark contract found that its food costs were lower, quality was better, and more inmates actually ate the food when the Department operated its own food services program. And after struggling with a private contractor, Minnesota decided to return food services to in-house control in 2015, “providing real food for inmates even if it costs more money.”

Before long, incarcerated people’s health problems become community health problems

People who believe prison should be as punishing as possible may see little reason for facilities to serve much more than bread and water. But there is a practical reason to care about the food served in prisons: people incarcerated in state prison return to our communities sooner than you might think. As we found in an analysis last year, the median time served in state prison is 16 months and the average is 29 months. That’s more than enough time for a poor diet to cause long-term health effects. Research shows just four weeks of eating an unhealthy, high-calorie diet can lead to long-term increases in cholesterol and body fat.

When people are released from prison, their health problems become community health problems — and a financial burden on the local public health system. Preventing and helping treat chronic illnesses by serving nutritious food is cheaper than medical treatment, both during incarceration and after release.

As the Washington report demonstrates, prison food has managed to get even worse over time — and more and more people have been forced to subsist on it as the prison populations have exploded. And now, states and communities must face the long-term health consequences — and resulting healthcare costs — of feeding large numbers of incarcerated people unhealthy food. Far from a frivolous complaint, unhealthy prison food is actually a public health concern likely costing states and taxpayers far more than it saves.

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