Best of the blog

The first ever national survey of in-state jail phone rates finds some jails charge more than $1.50 a minute.

by Aleks Kajstura, January 19, 2017

Two recent submissions to the FCC shed new light on the high cost of in-state phone calls from jails. While the campaign to make phone calls from prison and jail more affordable for family and friends of incarcerated people has made significant progress, the new filings underscore how private companies continue to avoid regulation while charging unconscionable rates.

These submissions present new research which reveals that some in-state calls cost over $1.50 a minute, and finds pricing structures that “bear a remarkable similarity” to practices prohibited by the FCC.

In order to “highlight the current ICS [Inmate Calling Service] landscape” for the FCC, Lee Petro, counsel for the Wright Petitioners, and the Prison Policy Initiative (thanks to members of our Young Professionals Network) conducted a survey of jails served by the major ICS providers.

The most significant discovery made from reviewing the current pricing policies of the ICS providers was that several ICS providers have imposed a rate structure for intrastate ICS calls that bear a remarkable similarity to the now-prohibited “connection fee” which was prohibited in the 2015 Second Report and Order, and memorialized in Section 64.6080 of the Commission’s rules.

These pricing schemes have resulted in 15 minute calls that would cost $24.95 from the Arkansas County Jail via Securus and $17.77 from the Douglas County jail in Oregon via Global Tel*Link.

You can find the summary of the Comments submission findings in the Ex-Parte submission, and the rates for all of the jails surveyed in exhibits B and C of the Comments submission (starting on page 82), and exhibits A and D in an updated filing reflecting Legacy’s correction of their advertised rates.

2016 was another big year for powerful data visualizations from the Prison Policy Initiative. These are our 10 favorites.

by Peter Wagner and Wendy Sawyer, December 30, 2016

2016 was another big year for powerful data visualizations from the Prison Policy Initiative. These are 10 of our favorites:

1. The “whole pie”

We updated our most famous data visualization for 2016, 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 2016.

This year’s report included four slideshows of additional detail on different parts of the carceral system and some of the state-to-state comparisons.

Perhaps the most exciting addition was the report’s detailed dive into the population of people confined in jails, most of whom are legally innocent:

Pie chart showing the number of people locked up on a given day in the United States in jails, by convicted and not convicted status, and by the underlying offense, using the newest data available in March 2016.

In a major update to our graph first produced last year, we powerfully illustrated that virtually all of the growth in the jail population has been in the number of legally innocent people who are detained in jails:

Animated image showing the growth of the unconvicted population in jails compared to those convicted.

2. Every U.S. state is out step with the rest of the world

The Governors of 49 states can look at Louisiana and feel like their state is an enlightened bastion of moderation, at least on incarceration. But how do each of the 50 states compare to the countries of the world? Badly.

Preview of interactive chart showing rates of incarceration for U.S. states and nations of the world

On the theory that comparing Iowa to El Salvador (a country that recently endured a civil war and now has one of the highest homicide rates in the world) might not be fair, the report includes a graphical comparison of the U.S. incarceration rate to that of its closest allies, the founding members of NATO:

graph showing the incarceration rate per 100,000 in 2016 or the most recent year available for founding members of NATO

3. Looking at probation

Some of the seemingly less punitive states are actually the most likely to put their residents under some other form of correctional control, finds our report Correctional Control: Incarceration and supervision by state. The report builds off Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie, to provide the big picture of mass incarceration to produce versions of the pie chart for each state.

The centerpiece of the report is an interactive chart that ranks each state and D.C. by rate of total correctional control, which includes incarceration, probation, and parole.

Preview of interactive chart showing rates of correctional control for each state and D.C.

The report also includes an animation that illustrates just how dramatic the differences are between the states:

This gif shows that focusing on the national figures can obscure huge state variations. States vary in their use of probation.Thinking of the U.S. criminal justice system as one system can be a mistake. There are 50 state systems, plus one in each of the approximately 3,000 counties and often separate systems in the approximately 30,000 municipalities. These differences matter a great deal.

4. Bail perpetuates poverty

In May, Bernadette and Dan unlocked rare government data to show that the ability to pay money bail is impossible for too many defendants because it represents eight months of a typical defendant’s income. Detaining the Poor also showed how much harder it is for women and people of color to afford bail.

distribution of annual pre-incarceration incomes for people unable to meet bail and non-incarcerated people, 2015 dollars, 23-39 years oldPeople in local jails unable to meet bail are concentrated at the lowest ends of the national income distribution, especially in comparison to non-incarcerated people. As this graph shows, 37% had no chance of being able to afford the typical amount of money bail ($10,000) since their annual income is less than the median bail amount.

The report also includes a very helpful illustration of the path from arrest to pretrial detention:

This chart illustrates the possible paths from arrest to pretrial detention. Thirty-four percent of felony defendants were detained pretrial for the inability to post money bail in 2009. This report focuses on this important population: those who are detained pretrial because they could not afford money bail.Since the 1980s, there has been a significant, nationwide move away from courts allowing non-financial forms of pretrial release (such as release on own recognizance) to money bail, although this does vary substantially depending on jurisdiction. This chart illustrates the possible paths from arrest to pretrial detention. Almost all defendants will have the opportunity to be released pretrial if they meet certain conditions, and only a very small number of defendants will be denied a bail bond, mainly because a court finds that individual to be dangerous or a flight risk. The only national data on pretrial detention that we are aware of comes from the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ Felony Defendants in Large Urban Counties series. Nationally, in 2009, 34% of defendants were detained pretrial for the inability to post money bail. This report focuses on this important population: those who are detained pretrial because they could not afford money bail.

5. Probation fees

Court-ordered fines and fees have expanded dramatically as states have realized their revenue potential. But for the low-income people who are caught up in the system, these costs mean a greater risk of financial strain and even incarceration. In December, Wendy compared probation rates and incomes across Massachusetts and found that low-income communities are hit hardest by probation fees:

A graph of probation rates by income in MassachusettsThe District Court locations were grouped by the per capita income of the towns and cities they each serve. Probation rates are higher in court locations that serve populations with lower incomes.

In the appendix of the report, we created a interactive scatterplot comparing each District Court’s probation caseloads and per capita income:

screenshot of interactive graphic comparing probation rates with community income in Massachusetts
District Court locations (sized by probation caseloads)

6. Shining a light on jail suicides

To cast light on the avoidable epidemic of jail suicides, we updated last year’s graph with a new article:

Graph charts the suicide rates for local jails, state prisons, and the general American population from 2000 to 2014. The jail suicide rate is out of step with the nation and prisons.

Bernadette’s article on the life-threatening reality of short jail stays also includes a graph illustrating groundbreaking data collected by the Huffington Post showing that most suicides occur in just the first few days of detention in jail.

7. A crime wave?

The President-elect says there is a crime wave. Is there? We looked:

Graph showing the number of murders per year from 1985 to 2015 for the largest cities in the United States. The number of murders is much lower now -- and relatively constant -- compared to during the early 1990s when murder was much higher. For most cities, murder is much lower now than during the 1980s or 1990s. The data for 1985-2014 comes from the FBI. The FBI has not published the 2015 full year data yet, so we relied on data from the Major Cities Chiefs Association, which historically is very similar if slightly higher than the FBI’s figures. For that reason, this graph may overstate the increase in murder in 2015 in these cities.

For more on the need for city-specific crime data, see Wendy Sawyer’s analysis Making a mountain out of a molehill.

8. Public vs. private prisons

We’ve long argued that prisons owned and run by corporations that contract with state governments get far more attention than they deserve. But another huge provider of contractual prison services gets almost no attention whatsoever: local jails.

Graph showing the number of people incarcerates under state and federal jurisdiction by facility type, 1999-2014 Since 1999, private prisons and local jails have housed roughly the same number of those serving state and federal prison sentences. But when those interested in justice reform talk about profiting off of mass incarceration, they almost always leave local jails out of the conversation.

For more on this topic, see our article: Some private prisons are, um, public.

9. Beyond the crime bill

During the Democratic primary, many people blamed the Clintons for mass incarceration by pointing to the 1994 crime bill. But that was perhaps the least important of seven major bills. One of the most harmful, and the least discussed, was the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. In May, we made this data visualization of data collected by law professor Margo Schlanger for her article Trends in Prisoner Litigation, as the PLRA Enters Adulthood to make the magnitude of this change clear:

Graph showing the court filing rate for incarcerated people
The filing rate by incarcerated people dropped significantly after the passage of the Prison Litigation Reform Act. And ironically, despite Congress’ fears of a prison lawsuits flooding the courts, this data that controls for the size of the prison population shows that in 1996, when the Prison Litigation Reform Act was passed, fewer lawsuits per 1,000 incarcerated people were being filed than during the ten year period of 1979-1988.

10. The Crippling Effect of Incarceration on Wealth

A fascinating study by Khaing Zaw, Darrick Hamilton, and William Darity Jr. shows that incarceration has a staggering effect on the accumulation of wealth over the course of a lifetime. To accompany our blog post on the original article, we made a data visualization of the data — including detail by racial group — published in the original article:

Graph showing the increasing wealth disparity by race and ethnicity between incarcerated and non-incarcerated young men starting at age 14. Whites who have never been incarcerated have the highest incomes, followed by Hispanic never incarcerated, Whites who have been incarcerated, Blacks who have never been incarcerated, Hispanics who have been incarcerated and Blacks who have been incarcerated.

2016's most useful and under-exposed research that contributed to our movement's understanding of key issues in criminal justice.

by Wendy Sawyer, December 29, 2016

As 2016 comes to a close, the Prison Policy Initiative wanted to highlight some of our colleagues’ research that we thought was the most useful and the most under-exposed and contributed to our movement’s understanding of key issues in criminal justice:

  • Growing Up Locked Down
    ACLU of Nebraska
    January 2016
    The psychological and physical harms of solitary confinement are so much worse for children who are still developing. The ACLU of Nebraska finds that the state overuses “the most inhumane correctional practices” of solitary confinement in every one of its juvenile justice facilities. Children there were placed alone in cells as punishment for minor offenses, like talking back or having too many books. The report calls attention to the “serious mental health impacts of solitary confinement for vulnerable youth” and the pressing need for policy reform.
  • The Gavel Gap: Who Sits in Judgment on State Courts?
    by Tracey E. George and Albert H. Yoon for the American Constitution Society
    June 2016
    In a democratic society, the courts should reflect the communities they serve. This report is the first to give a crystal clear picture of just how un-representative state court judges are by gender, race and ethnicity. To support further research and advocacy, it provides a new dataset of biographical information about state court judges. The report makes the case that if courts’ want to increase both their understanding of the communities they serve and public confidence in their decisions, courts must close these wide gender and racial “gavel gaps.”
  • America’s Top Five Deadliest Prosecutors: How Overzealous Personalities Drive the Death Penalty
    Fair Punishment Project
    How is it possible that five prosecutors were responsible for 440 death sentences? The Fair Punishment Project details the bloodlust, racism and willful misconduct that made it possible for each of these notorious prosecutors to win scores of death penalty sentences. This report shows that the death penalty is an unusual punishment sought by a small number of zealots in just a few parts of the country.
  • Paying the Price: Failure to Deliver HIV Services in Louisiana Parish Jails
    Human Rights Watch
    March 29, 2016
    Recognizing that the populations at risk of HIV and the incarcerated populations overlap, this report illustrates the urgent need for reform in Louisiana, which it describes as “‘ground zero’ for the dual epidemics of HIV and incarceration.” An accompanying video on the website gives voice to stakeholders by including interviews with formerly incarcerated people, HIV and health services providers, and representatives of the criminal justice system.
  • Punishment Rate Measures Prison Use Relative to Crime
    Pew Charitable Trusts
    March 23, 2016
    This report looks beyond imprisonment to offer a new metric, “the punishment rate,” with which to gauge punitiveness. By comparing the size of prison populations to the frequency and severity of crime reported, rather than to the number of residents, Pew shows that the U.S. has become more punitive than traditional analysis suggests. Extending this analysis to individual states, Pew finds that Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming are all significantly more punitive than their imprisonment rates suggest.
  • Race, Wealth and Incarceration: Results from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, Race and Social Problems
    Originally published in Race and Social Problems, Vol. 8, Issue 1, 2016. The final publication is available at Springer Link
    By Khaing Zaw, Darrick Hamilton, and William Darity, Jr.
    March 2016
    The authors of this study examine the wealth disparity between young men who experience prison and those who never do, using a survey that follows a group of young men for 27 years. They find that the men who are incarcerated have less wealth to begin with and, over time, accumulate only a small fraction of the wealth accumulated by their peers who are never incarcerated. (This is consistent with our findings that pre-incarceration incomes of incarcerated people are 41% lower than their peers.) We blogged about this report and produced two graphics based on it: The Crippling Effect of Incarceration on Wealth.
  • Get To Work or Go To Jail
    By Noah Zatz, Tia Koonse, Theresa Zhen, Lucero Herrera, Han Lu, Steven Shafer, and Black Valenta at UCLA Labor Center
    March 2016
    Work at a terrible job, or go to jail. Those are the two choices for many people on probation and parole, as outlined by this research brief. Probation and parole conditions, as well as court orders to find work to pay court debts or child support, can force people to choose between bad (or unpaid) jobs and jail time. The threat of jail depresses labor standards and legal protections, which create cascading effects on all workers. The report provides estimates of incarceration for “failure to work” and links this threat to the practice of incarcerating people who fail to pay court fines and fees – something we discussed in our report on probation fees.
  • Roadblocks to reform: District Attorneys, Elections, and the Criminal Justice Status Quo
    ACLU of Oregon
    April 2016
    District Attorneys have the power to make the justice system more progressive. But this report concludes that uncontested elections and appointments in Oregon lead DAs to block progressive criminal justice reform and maintain the status quo for their own self-interest. The ACLU makes a powerful case for why the national movement needs to pay more attention to DA races.
  • Unlicensed & Untapped: Removing Barriers to State Occupational Licenses for People with Records
    by Michelle Natividad Rodriguez and Beth Avery with the National Employment Law Project
    April 2016
    Not only do people with criminal records face discrimination from employers, they also often face barriers in obtaining occupational licenses to work as a barber, hairdresser, health care worker, or teacher – even decades after their sentence ends. This report evaluates the effectiveness of state laws intended to ensure fairness for applicants with records and it provides recommendations for states, including a model law.
  • Louisiana Death Sentence Cases and Their Reversals, 1976-2015
    Originally published in The Southern University Law Center Journal of Race, Gender, and Poverty, Vol. 7, 2016.
    by Frank R. Baumgartner and Tim Lyman
    April 26, 2016
    An analysis of 241 death sentence cases in Louisiana since Gregg v. Georgia reinstated the death penalty in 1976 finds that the death penalty is still applied in discriminatory ways, and the frequency of reversals suggests the death penalty process is rife with errors and ultimately arbitrary in application.
  • Correcting Food Policy in Washington Prisons: How the DOC Makes Healthy Food Choices Impossible for Incarcerated People & What Can Be Done
    Prison Voice Washington
    From Washington state, a troubling example of how incarcerated people suffer when states try to cut costs. By eliminating all fresh, natural food in favor of processed products from a single prison food factory, the state has created “food deserts” in its prisons, failing to provide food that meet minimum standards for nutrition and increasing healthcare expenditures. This report shows how a nation that recognizes nutrition as a public health issue continues to neglect its incarcerated population.
  • Incarceration Trends
    Vera Institute of Justice
    December 2015
    Vera’s Incarceration Trends project was technically launched in 2015, but it came out after we wrote last year’s list of best reports and it is too useful to ignore. A combination of two written reports and an interactive data tool, Vera’s research involved aggregating county-level data from 1970 to the present so that local incarceration rates can be compared over time and across jurisdictions. While also calling attention to racial and gender disparities, Vera’s Trends project is an incomparable resource that sheds historical light on the local face of mass incarceration.

2016 was a year of big victories for the Prison Policy Initiative. Read about some of the biggest wins in our campaigns this year.

by Kim Cerullo, December 23, 2016

2016 was a year of big victories for the Prison Policy Initiative. Our campaigns took some big steps forward and, in some cases, those victories culminated in major policy changes.

Here are some of the biggest wins in our campaigns this year:

Prison Gerrymandering

  • A federal Judge declared prison gerrymandering in rural Jefferson County, Florida to be an unconstitutional violation of the principle of “one person one vote.” Our staff were expert witnesses in the case.
  • In April, Tennessee passed legislation to allow rural counties to avoid prison gerrymandering.
  • We organized 100,000 people to submit comments to the Census Bureau demanding an end to prison gerrymandering. This movement was also supported by a letter from 13 U.S. Senators. We are awaiting a decision from the Census Bureau about where incarcerated people will be counted in the 2020 Census.

Driver’s License Suspensions

Protecting Letters from Home

  • We followed up on our previous report on postcard-only mail policies in jails this year with Protecting Written Family Communication in Jails, A 50-State Survey.
  • Supported by our reports, the movement to end letter bans grew this year. Sheriffs in Macomb County, Michigan and Flagler County, Florida agreed to lift postcard-only policies, and lawsuits are underway to challenge postcard-only policies in Knox County, Tennessee and Wilson County, Kansas.

Other research

We also published a record number of ground-breaking reports to push the national conversation about mass incarceration and over-criminalization. Our most notable reports include:

  • Correctional Control: Incarceration and supervision by state
    Prison is just one piece of the correctional pie, and we often overlook the leading type of correctional control: probation. This report is the first of its kind and aggregates data on all of the types of correctional control: federal prisons, state prisons, local jails, juvenile incarceration, civil commitment, Indian Country jails, parole, and probation.
  • States of Incarceration: The Global Context 2016
    Our report and infographic directly situate individual U.S. states in the global context. This updated version reveals that the use of incarceration in every state – even those with relatively progressive policies – is out of step with the international community.
  • Detaining the Poor: How money bail perpetuates an endless cycle of poverty and jail time
    Detaining people because they are poor is an offensive idea, but until this year it was difficult to prove that this is exactly what the American system of cash bail does. This report uses an obscure and underutilized government dataset to show that the typical bail amount in the U.S. is equivalent to eight months of income for the typical defendant. Our report not only proved the obvious, but we helped reframe the debate to show why modest changes in bail amounts won’t be enough to reverse the tremendous rise in the population of people detained before trial.
  • Punishing Poverty: The high cost of probation fees in Massachusetts
    In Massachusetts, probation is a much bigger part of the correctional control pie than incarceration. Our new report reveals that being on probation comes at a price: probation service fees in the state cost probationers more than $20 million every year, a cost that largely falls on those who are too poor to pay.

New BJS data shows suicide is still the leading cause of death in local jails. And most suicides occur shortly after jail admission.

by Bernadette Rabuy, December 22, 2016

As we wrote last year, suicide in jails is an overlooked national crisis. The rate of suicide in local jails — which generally hold people detained pretrial or convicted of low-level offenses — is far greater than that of state prisons or the American population in general.

Graph charts the suicide rates for local jails, state prisons, and the general American population from 2000 to 2014. The jail suicide rate is out of step with the nation and prisons.

According to Bureau of Justice Statistics data released last week, the rates of suicide for 2014 were the highest rates of suicide in either prisons and jails in the fifteen years since the Bureau of Justice Statistics started collecting mortality data. Distressingly, suicide continues to be the leading cause of death in local jails.

Graph showing mortality rates for local jails by cause of death from 2000-2014. Suicide is consistently the leading cause of death.

In comparison to prisons, local jails experience far higher proportions of unnatural deaths, which include suicides, drug/alcohol intoxication, homicides, and accidents. For example, in 2014, 11% of deaths in state and federal prisons were due to unnatural causes while almost half (49%) of deaths in jails were unnatural. There are a number of reasons for why this could be true such as the disproportionate number of people in jails suffering from mental health challenges or substance abuse or because people are sometimes being booked into jails in their most desperate state.

One positive consequence of Sandra Bland’s tragic 2015 death in a Texas jail has been increased attention on jail deaths. For example, the Huffington Post began a groundbreaking project gathering names, cause of death, dates of arrest and death, and other key details for more than 800 people who died in jails and police lockups in the year following Bland’s death. The Huffington Post’s jail deaths database builds on the Bureau of Justice Statistics annual reports to provide more in-depth information on this national crisis. The data shines light on the particular jails in the U.S. with above average numbers of deaths and tells the stories of the people whose deaths might have been initially missing from the mainstream media.

While the Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that 41% of jail deaths occurred within the first week of a person’s jail stay, the Huffington Post’s data goes further, to show that even a few days in jail can be life threatening. The Huffington Post found that 26% of jail suicides occurred within just three days.

Graph showing number of people who committed suicide by number of days since jail admission. Most suicides occur shortly after jail admission.

Studying the datasets raises urgent questions about the way that jails function such as whether jails are adequately evaluating mental health during intake, how jail staff communicates with family members of the incarcerated during periods of incarceration and when a death occurs, and whether there is appropriate oversight of the thousands of local jails in the U.S.

The data also raises broader, but just as pressing, questions about the dehumanizing experience of incarceration. The high rate of jail suicide should prompt our country to consider whether increasingly popular jail visitation policies that replace in-person visits with video will only increase the isolation of incarceration. The data also supports the idea that mental health services could be more effectively delivered in the community and renews the call for more programs that divert people with mental illness from going to jail in the first place. Further, the high number of suicides that occur within the first few days since jail admission emphasizes why the detention of those awaiting trial, even for a few days, should be treated as a human rights crisis.

Jail suicides are yet another example of how interactions with our criminal justice system can become questions of life or death.

The state brings in over $20 million in revenue from monthly probation fees each year. The problem? Probation rates are highest in the lowest-income communities.

December 8, 2016


Wendy Sawyer
wsawyer [at]
(413) 527-0845

Easthampton, MA – The state brings in over $20 million in revenue from monthly probation fees each year. The problem? Probation rates are highest in the lowest-income communities, according to a new report by the Prison Policy Initiative. Punishing Poverty: the high cost of probation fees in Massachusetts analyzed probation cases and income data for the state’s 62 District Court locations.

“The state is charging monthly probation fees to the people who can least afford to pay them,” said Wendy Sawyer, the author of the report, “and setting them up for failure.”

In Massachusetts, there are currently about 67,000 people on probation who are charged a monthly fee of $50-65. The report explains that it is harder for people who cannot afford these monthly probation fees to succeed in meeting the conditions of their probation. When someone on probation fails to pay their fee, it counts as a “probation violation,” which can lead to more fees, license suspension, arrest, and can even land them back in jail.

The Prison Policy Initiative’s report adds to the growing body of research on the harms of the state’s court-imposed fines and fees. The report follows on the heels of two recent reports by the Trial Court and by the Senate, which explain the problems with court-imposed fines and fees that can lead to incarceration for people who fail to pay.

Punishing Poverty offers a comprehensive look at probation fees, including their roots in 1980s “tough on crime” politics and the problems they cause for probationers and courts.

The report unearths a long-forgotten legislative research brief from 1988 that explains how this policy came to pass. Probation fees were instituted as a misguided attempt to plug a budget in crisis, passed by legislators capitalizing on the “tough on crime” political climate. The 1988 brief also reveals that legislators understood the inherently coercive nature of probation fees.

The state faces a budget shortfall again in FY 2017, but Sawyer argues that charging probationers fees they cannot afford is no solution. “The state needs to recognize that the people in the criminal justice system are among the state’s poorest,” she says. “Fines and fees just make their situations worse, not to mention making more work for the courts.”

Punishing Poverty provides recommendations for far-reaching reforms for the legislature, judiciary, and probation. An appendix includes detailed information comparing each court location’s probation and income data. The most striking findings from the report’s analysis of probation and income data are large disparities between the probation rates of the state’s wealthiest and poorest communities:

  • The courts serving the populations with per capita incomes below $30,000 have probation rates 88% higher than in those serving the populations with incomes over $50,000.
  • Just ten court locations where the population has below-average incomes account for a full third of District Court probation cases.
  • Residents of Holyoke are sentenced to probation at a rate more than three times higher than in Newton. But Holyoke’s probationers can scarcely afford to pay this regressive tax; the average income in that area is $21,671.

The Easthampton, Massachusetts-based Prison Policy Initiative was founded in 2001 to expose the broader harm of mass criminalization. The organization is most well known for sparking the movement to end prison gerrymandering and for its big picture data visualization “Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie.”

The new report, Punishing Poverty: the high cost of probation fees in Massachusetts, is available at:

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s new regulations increase protections for people released from prison and jail, who are often forced to use release cards.

by Aleks Kajstura, October 5, 2016

Today, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau issued a final rule on prepaid debit cards. Last year, the Prison Policy Initiative and other groups urged the CFBP to use this rulemaking to address abusive practices related to prepaid debit cards issued to people upon their release from prison or jail. The CFPB’s decision today is a partial win, but more work remains to be done.

The good news is that release cards will be covered by the new consumer protections contained in the final rule. Specifically, correctional facilities will have to provide clear fee disclosures, card issuers will have to provide reliable access to account histories, and cardholders will have some ability to dispute inaccurate charges.

Prison Policy Initiative had argued that correctional facilities should be prohibited from requiring that people receive their money on prepaid cards. The CFBP declined to impose such a prohibition at this time. Instead, the Bureau acknowledged the concerns about release cards, but said more research would need to be done before it could consider taking action.

Finally, the CFPB ruling clarified that at least some release cards should be conforming to existing (and new) regulations:

[T]o the extent that… prison release cards are used to disburse consumers’ salaries or government benefits…, such accounts are already covered … and will continue to be so under this final rule.

As the CFPB proceeds with the “additional public participation and information gathering about the specific product types at issue”, correctional facilities are increasingly using these expensive cards to repay people they release — money in someone’s possession when initially arrested, money earned working in the facility, or money sent by friends and relatives.

Before the rise of jail release cards, people were given cash or a check. Now, they are instead given a mandatory prepaid Mastercard, which comes with high fees that eat into their balance. These cards charge for basic things like:

  • Having an account (up to $3.50/week)
  • Making a purchase (up to $0.95)
  • Checking your balance (up to $3.95)
  • Closing the account (up to $30.00)

To put this into perspective, if someone is released with $125, a $2-per-week maintenance fee is equivalent to a finance charge of 77% per year. If that same hypothetical cardholder makes ten purchases of $12 each, then a $0.50 per-transaction-fee would amount to $5, or 4% of the entire card balance (on top of maintenance fees). If the cardholder wishes to convert a prepaid card into cash, he or she must pay $10 to $30 (8% to 24% of the entire deposit amount) merely to close the account.

But while the new CFPB regulations take a more robust stance on fee disclosure, allowing many people to avoid predatory pricing, they won’t help incarcerated people, who have the cards foisted on them with no choice.

Prison Policy Initiative's new report, "States of Incarceration: The Global Context 2016," compares the incarceration rates of individual U.S. states to that of other countries.

June 16, 2016


Alison Walsh
awalsh [at]

Easthampton, MA — How does your state compare to the international community when it comes to the use of incarceration? Not very well, says a new report and infographic by the Prison Policy Initiative.

“When compared against each other, some U.S. states appear to be far more restrained in their use of incarceration than high incarcerators like Louisiana,” said Peter Wagner, Executive Director of the Prison Policy Initiative and co-author of the report. “But all U.S. states are out of step with the rest of the world.”

Preview of interactive chart showing rates of incarceration for U.S. states and nations of the world

This report, “States of Incarceration: The Global Context 2016,” updates our 2014 briefing that, for the first time, directly situated individual U.S. states in the global context.

“Massachusetts and Vermont have the lowest incarceration rates in the U.S.,” said Alison Walsh, report co-author and Policy & Communications Associate. “Compared to Louisiana, these states look progressive. But if these states were independent nations, they would rank as the 11th and 12th greatest users of incarceration on the planet, following the United States and a group of nations whose recent history often includes wars, military coups and genocides.”

The report includes an interactive graphic showing the incarceration rates for individual U.S. states and the District of Columbia and all countries with a population of at least 500,000. The report also includes a separate graphic comparing the incarceration rates of the U.S. to several NATO nations.

“I hope that this data helps all states prioritize further criminal justice reforms. Lower incarceration rates are not only possible, in the rest of the world they are a reality,” said Wagner.

The report and infographic draw international figures on incarceration from the Institute for Criminal Policy Research’s World Prison Brief and state-level figures from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the Bureau of Prisons and the U.S. Census Bureau.

The Easthampton, Massachusetts-based Prison Policy Initiative was founded in 2001 to expose the broader harm of mass criminalization and spark advocacy campaigns to create a more just society. The organization is most well known for sparking the movement to end prison gerrymandering and for its big picture data visualization “Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie.”

The report, “States of Incarceration: The Global Context 2016,” is available at:

Private prisons get all the attention, but the hidden truth is that many county jails are profiting off incarceration too.

by Peter Wagner, June 9, 2016

Prisons owned and run by corporations that contract with state governments get far more attention than they deserve. But another huge provider of contractual prison services gets almost no attention whatsoever: local jails.

Yes, local jails. Nationally in 2014, 5.2% of those sentenced to prison were placed in county jails under contracts between state prison officials and local jails (compared to 8.4% with private prisons). In some states, this is big business for jails. In 2014, a whopping 51% of Louisiana’s state prison population was imprisoned in local jails. Or to say it another way, 75% of the jail cells in Louisiana parish (county) jails are used not for people serving jail sentences but are instead rented out to the state. And Louisiana isn’t alone:

State Percent of jail beds rented to state/federal prisons
Louisiana 75.5%
Mississippi 55.1%
Kentucky 45.6%
Arkansas 41.3%
Tennessee 30.8%
Oklahoma 25.5%
Utah 25.2%
Virginia 25.1%
West Virginia 25.0%
Texas 19.5%
Idaho 18.7%
Montana 17.8%
Alabama 15.7%
Minnesota 14.5%
Georgia 12.8%

In 15 states, over 10% of the local jail population was made up of people serving state or federal prison sentences in 2013. In 9 states, it was at or over a quarter of the jail population, in Mississippi it was over half, and in Louisiana the number was over 75%. Nationwide, 12% of the local jail population is actually there under contract with state or federal authorities. These figures were calculated from two Bureau of Justice Statistics data sources, the Mortality in Local Jails and State Prisons Series and National Prisoners Statistics Series.

The profit motive produces alarming effects. Local sheriffs rely heavily on state money to pad their law enforcement budgets and, as a result, have no incentive to support reforms to reduce the incarcerated population. In fact, the opposite is often true.

Graph showing the number of people incarcerates under state and federal jurisdiction by facility type in 2014In Louisiana, sheriffs and wardens trade incarcerated people from parish to parish in an attempt to keep their jail beds full and the state money rolling in. It’s common for jail wardens to “make daily rounds of calls” to other parishes looking for incarcerated people to fill their beds when their jails are under-capacity. One Louisiana parish warden told The Times-Picayune, “I stay on the phone a lot, calling all over the state, trying to hustle a few.” Hustle a few incarcerated people, that is.

In Oklahoma, local sheriffs receive $27 per day for each person they hold for the state prison system, this makes up about 7% of some counties’ budgets. Sheriffs have gotten so dependent on the money from the state that they complained to the press when the prison system implemented reforms to reduce the state prison population.

And in Mississippi, in addition to the $29.74 per diem, the state “demands that local jails house state convicts who perform labor for free”. In some cases, incarcerated people perform city services, like picking up residents’ garbage. The Mississippi sheriffs see corporate private prisons as their direct competitors for a share of the declining number of people sentenced to state custody. The president of one county’s Board of Supervisors told the Huffington Post, “I think it’s political favors going around, the reason they’re doing that”, referring to his suspicion that state contracts were being given to private corporations rather than local jails.

In the end, the real harm is being done to those incarcerated. Local jails with profit motives are incentivized to house increasing numbers of people, without regard for services or educational programs for those incarcerated. The Times-Picayune reports that in Louisiana, those stuck in local jails on state contracts “subsist in bare-bones conditions with few programs to give them a better shot at becoming productive citizens.”

Incarcerated people find themselves locked in local jails for months, or even up to 10 years in Louisiana, unable to get access to the programs and services that may help them successfully reenter society. For this reason The Times-Picayune says, “Ask anyone who has done time in Louisiana whether he or she would rather be in a state-run prison or a local sheriff-run prison. The answer is invariably state prison.”

It is time to accept the counter-intuitive truth: sometimes the government profits off of mass incarceration.

Graph showing the number of people incarcerates under state and federal jurisdiction by facility type, 1999-2014 Since 1999, private prisons and local jails have housed roughly the same number of those serving state and federal prison sentences. But when those interested in justice reform talk about profiting off of mass incarceration, they almost always leave local jails out of the conversation.

Seven deadly sins: the problem with Bill Clinton's criminal justice legacy isn't one bill, or two or even three, but at least seven bills.

by Peter Wagner, May 25, 2016

While many current and recent presidential candidates have called for ending mass incarceration and have been critical of the “Clinton crime bill,” their proposals have been short on specifics. Even more troubling however, is their narrow view — and that of many journalists — of Bill Clinton’s criminal justice legacy. The problem isn’t one bill, or two or even three but at least seven bills. (And we probably missed some. Please leave a discussion of bills we missed in the comments section below.)

Of course, some of the bills were so bad they have already been partially repealed by Congress, and most states have already formally rejected the offensive idea of using criminal records to deny hungry people food. And, of course, some of the provisions of some of the bills have since expired.

But here is our list of where a review of the criminal justice legacy of the Clinton era should begin:

  • 1994: Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act put 100,000 more police on the streets and created federal economic incentives for states to make their own laws more punitive. This law also made low-income incarcerated people ineligible for Pell Grants to pay for higher education courses.
  • 1996: The Prison Litigation Reform Act made it harder for incarcerated people to use the federal courts to protect their civil rights, and made it easier for prisons and jails to escape oversight of their operations.
  • 1996: The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act made it harder for wrongly convicted people to prove their innocence. (Liliana Segura at The Intercept has an excellent article about the political machinations behind the effort to gut the ancient right of habeas corpus.)
  • 1996: Megan’s Law required states to share law enforcement’s databases of people who have committed sex offenses with the public. While no doubt well-intended, there is no evidence — despite years of scholarly effort — to indicate that these laws reduce sex offender recidivism. In fact, they seem increasingly likely to be exacerbating it while wasting resources and time that could be spent on other, more effective law enforcement activities.
  • 1996: The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, aka the bill to “end welfare as we know it,” also included provisions that banned, for life, people with drug felony convictions from ever receiving food stamps.
  • 1997: The Adoption and Safe Families Act required states to move more quickly to terminate parental rights and place children who are in foster homes up for adoption. One side effect of this law is it made it more likely that any incarcerated parent with a sentence of at least 15 months — even if their crime did not involve their children — could lose their children forever.
  • 1998: The Higher Education Amendments of 1998 delayed or denied federal financial aid for college to anyone with a misdemeanor or felony drug conviction.

While Megan’s Law continues to be expanded, some of these laws have expired or are in one way or another rolling back. For example:

  • The federal grants in the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 that supported prison construction and the hiring of more police have long since expired. And there is now a pilot program to once again give incarcerated people access to Pell grants.
  • 44 states, most recently Texas in September 2015 and Alabama in February 2016 have partially or fully opted out of the requirement to deny hungry people with past drug convictions access to food stamps.
  • Some states like Washington and New York have implemented the Adoption and Safe Families Act in a way that protects the parental rights of families temporarily separated by incarceration.
  • In 2006, the Higher Education Act was amended to limit the prohibition of people with drug convictions from receiving federal aid to only those who were convicted while they were receiving federal aid.

Ending mass incarceration will require far more than repealing one – or seven – of Bill Clinton’s crime bills. But one test of whether an elected official is serious about ending mass incarceration is whether he or she recognizes the complexity of how mass incarceration came to be and can put forth sufficiently complex remedies to undo that harm.

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