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I co-founded the Prison Policy Initiative to put the problem of mass incarceration — and the perverse incentives that fuel it — on the national agenda. Over the last 16 years, our campaigns have protected our democracy from the prison system and protected the poorest families in this country from the predatory prison telephone industry. Our reports untangle the statistics and recruit new allies.

But now, more than ever, we need your help to put data & compassion into the conversation. Any gift you can make today will be matched by other donors and go twice as far.

Thank you.
—Peter Wagner, Executive DirectorDonate

Best of the blog

by Peter Wagner, September 9, 2014

Today the Dallas County Commissioners Court refused to approve a proposed contract with prison telephone giant Securus. The contract would have required the jail to end visiting hours and instead force families to pay for expensive video visits via computer.

After County Judge Clay Jenkins courageously spoke out against the proposed contract, a movement quickly came together, coordinated by Texas CURE, to urge the other County Commissioners to support Judge Jenkins. (In Texas, the county legislature is called a “Commissioners Court” and the person elected county-wide to be the county’s chief administrator is called the County Judge. For more, see this wikipedia article. )

As I argued in a New York Times Room for Debate feature, prison and jail video communication has the potential to offer additional avenues for critical family communication, but charging unconscionable sums and banning free in-person visits is a step in entirely the wrong direction.

Today, after several hours of eloquent and unanimous testimony and the submission of more than 2,000 petitions from SumOfUs and other petitions collected on NationInside and Change.org, we beat back this horrible proposal!

Now things got a little complicated procedurally, but this was a big, albeit interim, win. The Commissioners Court didn’t approve Judge Jenkins’s order to reject this contract and start over with completely new criteria that would prioritize getting the best service possible for both families and Dallas County, but the Court soundly rejected the two most critical parts of the proposed contract: the ban on in-person visitation and the collection of commissions for video visitation. (At least one commissioner supports commissions in the phone context, but many are opposed there as well.)

As I understand it, the Commissioners Court voted to propose changes to the contract to:

  • protect in-person visitation
  • renounce the commission on video visitation
  • seek clarity on other details, including the number of video visitation terminals that would be provided.

The County proposed to, at next week’s meeting, approve a new request for “Best and Final Offers” based on the county’s new and improved understanding of the importance of keeping families together, and then to send these new requirements out to all of the bidders on the contract to solicit new proposals.

Obviously, some details remain to be worked out, but what seemed clear to us watching the video of the hearing is that the Commissioners Court now understands that in-person visitation is important and that it shouldn’t let Securus — or any vendor — entice the county into breaking up families just to make an extra buck.

Stay tuned for how we can ensure that Dallas finalizes a contract that supports families and benefits all residents of the County, and stay tuned for our forthcoming report on the video visitation industry.

June 11, 2014

report thumbnailJune 11, 2014 — How does your state compare to the international community when it comes to the use of incarceration? Not very well, says a new infographic and report by the Prison Policy Initiative and data artist Josh Begley.

This report, “States of Incarceration: The Global Context,” recognizes that while there are important differences between how U.S. states handle incarceration, incarceration policy in every region of this country is out of step with the rest of the world.

“It is essential to focus on the incarceration practices of individual states,” said Peter Wagner, Executive Director of the Prison Policy Initiative. “Most criminal justice policy decisions are made at the state level and the vast majority of the people locked up are locked up for violating state laws,”

This report is the first to directly situate individual U.S. states in the global context. The report and infographic draws international figures on incarceration from the International Centre for Prison Studies and state-level data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

“Compared to Louisiana, most U.S. states appear to have reasonable rates of incarceration, but it is disturbing to see where these ‘reasonable’ states stack up in the broader carceral landscape,” said data-artist and co-author Josh Begley.

The non-profit, non-partisan Prison Policy Initiative produces cutting edge research to expose the broader harm of mass incarceration, and then sparks advocacy campaigns to create a more just society. Josh Begley, a graduate of the Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University, is most famous for creating an iPhone app that tracks every reported United States drone strike. Past collaborations between Mr. Begley and the Prison Policy Initiative have included an infographic about whether the states that bar the most people from the polls should in fact be picking the next president and Prison Map, a website exploring the geography of incarceration.


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by Peter Wagner and Leah Sakala, May 28, 2014

Today, the Prison Policy Initiative released two new briefings and a brand new way to access useful data about incarceration in your state.

We released:

Also today, we launched 50 state profiles (and a national one) giving you one-click access both to the findings of these two new briefings and to the highlights of all of our work over the last 13 years on each state:

All told, we produced 316 new graphs for you to use, including these two never-seen-before graphs from the U.S. profile page:

graph showing the incarceration rates per 100,000 for (separately) United States state prisons, federal prisons and local jails from 1925 through 2012, showing that the state rate is the most important part

2010 graph showing incarceration rates per 100,000 people of various racial and ethnic groups in the United States

As we explain on our national profile page,

With over two million people behind bars at any given time, the United States has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world.

We spend about $82.4 billion every year — not to mention the significant social cost — to lock up nearly 1% of our adult population. To be able to evaluate this policy choice, our communities must have access to reliable and up-to-date information about the trajectory and scope of our nation's experiment with mass incarceration. With this page, and the accompanying 50 State Incarceration Profile series, we hope bring some of the most important and under-discussed national facts into the public discourse.

by Leah Sakala, May 15, 2014

We are thrilled and honored to announce that our Executive Director, Peter Wagner, has been selected as the winner of the American Constitution Society’s 2014 David Carliner Public Interest Award. This award “recognizes outstanding public interest lawyers whose work best exemplifies its namesake’s legacy of fearless, uncompromising and creative advocacy on behalf of marginalized people.”

Peter will accept the award at the American Constitution Society’s 2014 National Convention next month in Washington D.C.

by Peter Wagner, April 5, 2014

We’re thrilled to have helped Hank Green of Vlog Brothers, Kurzgesagt, and Visual.ly produce this amazing under-4-minute video about Mass Incarceration in the United States.

March 12, 2014

Ever wonder exactly how many people are locked up in the U.S. and why? Many people, interested citizens and policy wonks alike, find that seemingly simple question to be frustratingly difficult to answer. Until now.

Today, the Prison Policy Initiative releases its newest briefing, Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie, that includes the first graphic we’re aware of that aggregates the disparate systems of confinement in this country into one big-picture chart:

How many people are locked up in the United States?

As we discuss in our briefing, this broader context pulls back the curtain and reveals answers to questions such as:

  • How many people are behind bars for drug offenses?
  • Which system holds more people: state prisons, federal prisons, or local jails?
  • How many kids are locked up for offenses that most people don’t even think of as crimes?
  • Where do we even have to look to find everyone who’s behind bars for immigration-related issues?

At the end of the day, locking up the more than 2.4 million people represented on this pie chart gives the United States the dubious distinction of being the number one incarcerator in the world. Policymakers and the public both have a pressing responsibility to take a good hard look at each slice of this pie and weigh any potential benefit of keeping those people behind bars against the significant social and fiscal cost.

by Leah Sakala, February 28, 2014

Peter Wagner in Room for Debate

Prison Policy Initiative Executive Director Peter Wagner weighed in this week on a New York Times Room For Debate discussion about video visitation in prisons and jails. As Peter explained,

With proper regulation and oversight, prison and jail video communication has the potential to offer additional avenues for critical family communication. But if left unregulated, this market could follow the trajectory of the infamously broken prison telephone industry, dominated by the same corporations.

For more of our work on the prison and jail video visitation industry, check out our FCC filing on the subject and the New York Times editorial that it inspired.

by Peter Wagner, December 5, 2013

Nelson Mandela visits Robben Island

Nelson Mandela (1918-2013) was a South African freedom fighter and one of the longest held political prisoners in the world. He led the fight to abolish Apartheid and was elected President in the first multi-racial election in 1994. This photo was taken that same year when he revisited his prison cell at the infamous Robben Island (Photo: Getty Images).

Nelson Mandela has died at the age of 95. He was recently hospitalized battling a recurring lung infection no doubt related to the tuberculosis he contracted in a dank prison cell decades before. He was an anti-Apartheid freedom fighter, one of the longest-held political prisoners in the world, and the first Black South African to be elected President of that country. Mandela was an inspiration to people fighting for freedom around the world, and one of the main inspirations for my own prison activism.

In high school in the late 1980s, I was a peace and anti-apartheid activist. Although South Africa’s history is largely forgotten here in the U.S., in the late 1940s the white minority government of South Africa put in place a political system of strict racial segregation and oppression called Apartheid. Opposition parties and dissent were banned. The majority-Black population of South African resisted through the African National Congress and other organizations. In August of 1962, a tip from the CIA led to Nelson Mandela’s arrest. He was tried, convicted and sentenced to life in prison for his activities as a leader of the African National Congress.

The international community responded to the totalitarian racism of Apartheid by nearly unanimously shunning South Africa for decades. I came of political age in the mid 1980s, when the divestment movement was continuing to pick up steam despite the strong opposition of President Ronald Reagan, and an international campaign demanding the release of Nelson Mandela was underway. At that time, South African teams that did not allow Blacks to participate where excluded from most international competitions, including the Olympics. Celebrities responded to pressure from fans to boycott South Africa. Governments and shareholders urged companies to refuse to do business with the South African regime.

To jump forward in the story, by the late 1980s the internal resistance and international pressure finally forced the white-minority South African government to negotiate. On February 2, 1990, after 27 years in prison, Nelson Mandela was freed unconditionally, and the banned political parties were legalized. After further negotiations to reestablish a democratic government, Nelson Mandela was elected president in the first multi-racial election in South Africa’s history.

Apartheid was ending as I was preparing to graduate from high school. Nelson Mandela went on a brief global tour to organize support for continuing the international pressure on South Africa to continue reforms. I saw Mandela speak in Boston at the Hatchshell about the need to retain “sanctions until democracy”.

Nelson Mandela in Boston, 1990

Nelson Mandela addresses the crowd at the Boston Hatch Shell, June 23, 1990 (Photo: Paul W. Locke).

A few months later, when I was in college, I came to the frightening realization that there was something quite like Apartheid in this country: the prison system.

I was shocked to learn that the U.S. locks up African-Americans at a rate 6 times higher than Whites, and in fact locks up a higher portion of its Black population than South Africa ever did. I came to see that criminal justice reform is integral to the struggle for racial justice here in the United States.

Nelson Mandela was a leader of his people before prison, for 27 years within prison, and then as president of his country. And in his autobiography he set forth a challenge to other world leaders to consider their own prison practices:

“It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”

It is time for the United States to take up Mandela’s challenge.

by Peter Wagner, June 18, 2013

On Sunday, some families had to choose between wishing dad a Happy Father’s Day on the telephone and putting food on the table. These days, most telephone calls are practically free, but for the 2.7 million kids in the United States who have an incarcerated parent, a call home can break the bank.

Most prisons and jails give their telephone contract to a single company that charges up to $17 for a 15 minute call. Phone bills are high in part because the prisons and jails demand that the phone companies kick back up to 84% of the revenue to the facility, and in part because the Federal Communications Commission has stalled on regulating the industry for more than a decade.

Continue reading →

by Peter Wagner, May 28, 2013

report cover thumbnailSeveral phone companies have been keeping busy in the couple of weeks since we released our new report exposing the hidden fees in the prison phone industry, mostly for the better.

I’m proud to report that, as a result of the report, at least two companies, Turnkey and NCIC, made several clarifications and improvements to their fee policies:

Continue reading →

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