Board of Directors archives

by Alison Walsh, August 23, 2016

We are excited to welcome Nora Demleitner to the Prison Policy Initiative board! Nora is a Professor of Law at Washington and Lee University School of Law. We asked her a few questions about her work on sentencing and comparative criminal law, as well as what motivated her to become involved with the Prison Policy Initiative.

Nora Demleitner

Why did you decide to join the Prison Policy Initiative board?

Nora Demleitner: Peter’s courage and vision impressed me when he started the Prison Policy Initiative. He is the model of a law graduate on a mission, willing to do what it takes to make a goal become reality. He has built the Prison Policy Initiative from a fledgling single-issue one-man operation into a multi-faceted research and advocacy organization with great impact. How could I not want to be working with a smart and insightful group of people on issues of enormous importance to the country?

What does your work focus on? And what’s the connection between that work and the Prison Policy Initiative?

Nora Demleitner: My research focuses on sentencing and collateral sanctions, often with a comparative angle. I have worked on sentencing issues for over two decades, after a law school sentencing seminar and the prison project there inspired me to learn more and to help bring a different attitude to our criminal justice system. I joined the Federal Sentencing Reporter as an editor, and later became the lead author on a casebook on sentencing, Sentencing Law and Policy.

On my collateral sanctions work, I initially focused on felon disenfranchisement and then turned to restrictions on sex offenders. I also looked at the panoply of collateral sanctions that make it virtually impossible for someone with a criminal record to be ever again recognized as a full member of our society. That perpetual exclusion carries a host of negative consequences for the individual, their families and communities, and ultimately for all of us.

Frequently I compare our practices to those of other countries, especially in Western Europe. Our punitiveness and our unwillingness to accept someone who made a mistake back into society stand out. We are our own worst enemy, and I want to support the Prison Policy Initiative in helping bring about necessary change. We need to learn from best practices here and abroad and infuse our criminal justice system again with humanity. Change is necessary as the current approaches too frequently penalize the poor and disadvantaged, minority and other diverse communities. Our criminal justice system cannot and should not be expected to remedy other social ills, ranging from failing schools to an ineffective mental health system.

What do you think is most unique about the Prison Policy Initiative and the projects it takes on?

Nora Demleitner: The Prison Policy Initiative is the mouse that roars. How can such a small organization, located outside the typical locations for successful not-for-profits makes such a difference? I credit Peter’s vision, the team he has built, tenacity and grit, an intuitive sense of how to proceed to make the most difference, and a drive for results. The Prison Policy Initiative has taken on topics of great import – the Census count of inmates or the actions of the prison phone industry, for example – and worked on changing unfair practices. That success breeds recognition and further success. It also focuses attention on exploitative and unfair practices in novel ways. The Prison Policy Initiative’s attention is as often focused on improving the lot of the individual offender and their families as it is on protecting core values of our society, such as equal representation.

It is exciting to see an organization that is constantly keeping an eye out for topics that fit its mission. In addition, the Prison Policy Initiative has been spreading its wings in other ways. The relatively recent addition of the Research Clearinghouse, a database of empirical criminal justice reports, is one such example. I love the e-mails that assure that I won’t miss leading reports and relevant information on a host of criminal justice topics.

What’s something that you wish more people knew about the Prison Policy Initiative?

Nora Demleitner: For the Prison Policy Initiative it is not about garnering accolades and acclaim. It is about results, about being a catalyst for positive change in the criminal justice area, and about distributing knowledge and insight.

Two things stand out for me: First, it has been invigorating to see how a single person with the drive to tackle injustice and abuse can do so successfully. What a role model Peter is! I wished more law students and young lawyers knew about him and his story.

Second, even those who may ideologically disagree or be uncertain about their position on some of the issues for which the Prison Policy Initiative advocates, should know about the Research Clearinghouse. It is an amazing resource, and I encourage everyone to sign up – today.

Supporting the Prison Policy Initiative makes you feel good because they get results on issues that matter.

by Alison Walsh, July 25, 2016

We are pleased to welcome Dan Kopf to the Prison Policy Initiative board. Dan is a data scientist in California and a writer at Priceonomics who has been a member of our Young Professionals Network since February 2015. He is the co-author of several Prison Policy Initiative reports, including The Racial Geography of Mass Incarceration, Separation by Bars and Miles: Visitation in state prisons, Prisons of Poverty: Uncovering the pre-incarceration incomes of the imprisoned, and Detaining the Poor: How money bail perpetuates an endless cycle of poverty and jail time.

Dan Kopf

Why did you decide to join the Prison Policy Initiative board?

Dan Kopf: The Prison Policy Initiative does incredible work advocating for the end of mass incarceration and the humane treatment of those who are incarcerated – and they do it on a shoestring. I joined the board because I wanted to support, in whatever way possible, an organization I admire.

What does your work focus on? And what’s the connection between that work and the Prison Policy Initiative?

Dan Kopf: I am a data journalist focused on reporting statistical trends in society. Just like the Prison Policy Initiative, my work entails communicating complex topics clearly and in a manner that excites the public.

What do you think is most unique about the Prison Policy Initiative and the projects it takes on?

Dan Kopf: I have been most impressed by the dedication and combination of skills of the staff. This is a group of people that have the rare combination of communication skills, facility with technology and data, and passion.

by Bernadette Rabuy, September 9, 2015

We are very excited to introduce a member of the Prison Policy Initiative board: Khalilah L. Brown-Dean. Khalilah L. Brown-Dean is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Quinnipiac University. Check out the interview below to learn why Khalilah was drawn to the PPI board:

Khalilah L. Brown-Dean headshot

Why did you decide to join the PPI board?

Khalilah L. Brown-Dean: Academics tend to work in silos. We focus in on a particular problem or set of problems and are rarely in conversation with those beyond our discipline. Joining the PPI Board provides a meaningful opportunity to learn from and work with others who are committed to dismantling our reliance on punishment. I envision my role as helping to bridge the gap between scholars, activists, philanthropists, and legislators.

What does your work focus on? And what’s the connection between that work and the Prison Policy Initiative?

KBD: My work is driven by a central question: How can we make the democratic experience more meaningful? I address this question through the lens of American Politics with a particular emphasis on mass political behavior, public policy, and law. I recently co-authored a report for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies on the contemporary status of voting rights in the United States entitled “Fifty Years of the Voting Rights Act: The State of Race in Politics.” I had the opportunity to present the key findings during the 50th Anniversary of the Bloody Sunday March in Selma, Alabama. Our research addressed how issues such as disenfranchisement, gerrymandering, and hyperincarceration pose monumental challenges to sustaining voting rights and representation. It’s a perfect fit with the work of PPI.

I’m currently completing a project that centers the experiences of African Americans and murder victims’ families within the death penalty repeal movement; two groups disproportionately affected yet grossly underrepresented within this policy space. I advance a concept called “authentic power” to explain how those detrimentally impacted by a policy can get policymakers and other government officials to change the policy in question to their benefit. The work grows out of my experience advocating on behalf of victims’ families whose needs often go overlooked in the realm of criminal justice reform. I also serve on the Board of the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven. This year we launched two major funding initiatives to support community-based re-entry and immigration.

What do you think is most unique about the Prison Policy Initiative and the projects it takes on?

KBD: My Graduate School mentor, Dr. William E. Nelson, Jr., once told me that research is only meaningful if it helps address a deceptively simple question, “So what?” PPI’s work directly addresses that question by using data to tell a complex story about the myriad ways punishment policies widen the gap between the principle and the practice of American democracy. I greatly admire PPI’s ability to make its work timely, relevant, and accessible to multiple audiences.

What’s something that you wish more people knew about the Prison Policy Initiative?

KBD: I wish people knew that PPI is a small organization with a big mission and an even bigger commitment to advancing the cause of justice. Before I joined the Board I assumed PPI had a massive staff with unlimited resources given the many cutting-edge and widely-cited reports it produces. I was wrong!

by Bernadette Rabuy, April 15, 2015

We are very excited to introduce the newest member of the Prison Policy Initiative board: Jason Stanley. Jason Stanley is a Professor of Philosophy at Yale and an author of four books. His fourth book, How Propaganda Works, will be coming out this May. Check out the interview below to learn why Jason joined the board:

Jason Stanley headshot

Why did you decide to join the PPI board?

Jason Stanley: During my research for my book over the past several years, I was astonished at the number of complicated ways in which mass incarceration is embedded into the moral, political, and economic life of our country. I decided I wanted to get involved, and went looking for an effective organization that untied the complex knots for me. I started from scratch, looking at a number of organizations, local and national. I chose PPI for many reasons. My research suggested that they are the organization that does the most with the least; they are incredibly effective, and they need funders.

I had no personal connections with them, but I reached out and asked how I could help. There has been a 500% increase in my lifetime in the US prison population. My view is that this is an issue where my generation has some moral responsibility in causing the problem, and maybe we can get together and contribute to trying to solve it.

I’ve done the research to find this organization — I really started with a lot of potential ones, and ended up with PPI. This is a great organization that really puts donations to effective use.

What do you think is most unique about the Prison Policy Initiative and the projects it takes on?

JS: First, as academics can appreciate, they are drawn to the complexities of mass incarceration, rather than the obvious stuff that draws funding. For example, PPI is the nation’s leader on prison gerrymandering, which incentivizes rural communities with few residents to bid for prisons and push for harsher sentencing; they regularly uncover and litigate the most devious ways in which the impoverished prison population is used as source of cash for the unscrupulous; and they have become perhaps the central source for online information about mass incarceration.

Second, because they are drawn to the ignored complexities, they are unafraid to go after wildly popular policies, such as school drug zone laws, that in fact function as mechanisms to allow prosecutors to indiscriminately sentence residents of dense urban centers with extremely harsh sentences (I have heard that every place in New Haven except for somewhere on the Yale Golf course is in a school zone, defined here as ‘within 1500 feet of a school’).

While Jason just joined our board a few days ago, he’s already been hard at work to support PPI. Jason is generously donating royalties from the sales of his upcoming book How Propaganda Works to PPI and on Monday, May 11, 2015 we’ll be holding a book launch party in Harlem, New York. Ticket sales will also support PPI’s work. We hope that you’ll consider joining us! For more information and tickets, visit:

by Leah Sakala, January 20, 2015

Next up in our blog series introducing several accomplished new members of the Prison Policy Initiative board: Amanda Alexander. Amanda is a Soros Justice Fellow and attorney in the University of Michigan Law School Child Advocacy Law Clinic. She directs the U of M Law School Prison & Family Justice Project, which serves families divided by incarceration and the foster care system using a combination of direct representation, know-your-rights education, targeted litigation, and advocacy.

Amanda Alexander headshot

What does your work focus on?

Amanda Alexander: As a lawyer and advocate, my work focuses on helping families thrive by fighting for change in our criminal justice system. Two years ago I moved home to Michigan to start the Prison & Family Justice Project, which serves families impacted by incarceration. A single arrest can trigger all sorts of consequences for a family—it might cause a mother to lose her job or housing, or cause children to enter foster care. The Prison & Family Justice Project represents incarcerated parents who may be at risk of losing their parental rights, and offers family law workshops in jails, prisons, and re-entry centers to help parents maintain ties with their children and provide for their care. The project also trains Department of Human Services workers and other child welfare professionals on how to engage incarcerated parents. My work also involves systemic advocacy around several of the issues PPI tackles, such as removing barriers to communication and visitation for families with incarcerated loved ones.

Why did you decide to join the PPI board?

AA: I admire PPI’s work. Whenever they put out a new report, I’m eager to read it and share it with friends and colleagues who I know will find it useful in their own work. Spreading the word about PPI comes naturally, so I’m honored to support its work as a board member.

What do you think is most unique about the Prison Policy Initiative and the projects it takes on?

AA: PPI is about results. It takes on very targeted projects, does excellent research, and puts out a bold message—the result is often concrete policy change within a short period of time. PPI shaped the conversation about prison gerrymandering, and won victories in Maryland and New York that it’s now replicating around the country. PPI’s role in the Prison Phone Justice campaign can’t be overstated—they played a key role in capping the cost of inter-state prison phone calls. Now they have their sights set on capping the cost of in-state calls, which will be a huge victory for families. PPI takes on ambitious fights — and wins.

What’s something that you wish more people knew about the Prison Policy Initiative?

AA: It’s amazing to me that Peter and the PPI staff are so clued in to what’s happening at the federal level and at very local levels. They manage to stay on top of what’s happening in county jails around the country, and to support local partners in struggles at the city level. I wish more people knew the breadth of PPI’s network, and what a great partner it is to organizations at the local and national levels.

Amanda also chatted with us on camera recently about how she uses PPI’s work and why she joined our board:

by Peter Wagner, September 22, 2014

Next up in our blog series introducing several accomplished new members of the Prison Policy Initiative board: Rachel Bloom. Rachel is Director of Membership and Special Projects at the Funders’ Committee for Civic Participation. We are so glad to have her on our team here at PPI.

Rachel Bloom

Why did you decide to join the PPI board?

Rachel Bloom: I have long been an admirer (and colleague of PPI) and have worked with them over the years. I was working on state criminal justice reform for several years at the national office of the ACLU. As I transitioned to a new job I wanted to continue to work on criminal justice reform. Joining the PPI board seemed like the perfect step.

What does your work focus on? And what’s the connection between that work and PPI?

RB: I work at the Funders’ Committee for Civic Participation, a philanthropic network for foundations that support civic engagement work. Two of the issues I focus on supporting our membership with are the census and redistricting. I find it fitting that the issues that first introduced me to PPI — felony disfranchisement and prison gerrymandering — are still ones that I work on now 8 years later.

What do you think is most unique about the Prison Policy Initiative and the projects it takes on?

RB: I think that PPI has taken on some very distinct projects that no one else was willing to step up to the plate on. I am so proud of PPI for working on such important issues and moving the needle forward on them.

What’s something that you wish more people knew about the Prison Policy Initiative?

RB: I wish that people understood just how broad of a reach PPI has, how many issues we work on and how impactful we are – especially considering the size of our staff and budget. I was first introduced to PPI while working on felony disfranchisement and prison gerrymandering and thought that was the sum total of PPI, little did I know how wrong I was.

by Leah Sakala, April 16, 2014

We are thrilled to announce that historian and Prison Policy Initiative board member Heather Thompson has been chosen by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency as a 2014 Media for a Just Society Award Finalist for her fantastic piece in The Atlantic, “How Prisons Change the Balance of Power in America.”

Heather’s piece reveals the many ways that our nation’s unprecedented use of incarceration has distorted our political landscape. As she explained,

…locking up unprecedented numbers of citizens over the last forty years has itself made the prison system highly resistant to reform through the democratic process. To an extent that few Americans have yet appreciated, record rates of incarceration have, in fact, undermined our American democracy, both by impacting who gets to vote and how votes are counted.

Of course, one of the ways mass incarceration distorts democracy is via prison gerrymandering:

Today, just as it did more than a hundred years earlier, the way the Census calculates resident population also plays a subtle but significant role. As ex-Confederates knew well, prisoners would be counted as residents of a given county, even if they could not themselves vote: High numbers of prisoners could easily translate to greater political power for those who put them behind bars.

Congratulations, Heather!

by Leah Sakala, April 1, 2014

Ruth Greenwood

Next up in our blog series introducing several accomplished new members of the Prison Policy Initiative board: Ruth Greenwood. Ruth is a voting rights attorney and Fellow at the Chicago Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. We are so glad to have her on our team here at PPI.

Why did you decide to join the PPI board?

Ruth Greenwood: I am really excited to have joined the PPI Board. I first heard about PPI through its work to end prison based gerrymandering. I saw Peter Wagner explain the concept in Gerrymandering: the movie, and couldn’t believe that a modern democracy with access to all sorts of technical data had not fixed the problem. Once I had discovered the great work of PPI in this area, I started reading about all the other work it does to highlight the problems of mass incarceration. The thing I like most about PPI is that it doesn’t just explain the problems clearly, but sets out workable solutions and then works to implement them.

What does your work focus on? And what’s the connection between that work and PPI?

RG: The work of PPI directly intersects with my work. I am a voting rights attorney and I focus on redistricting. In particular, I look at ways to improve minority representation in the United States. Ending prison gerrymandering would improve minority representation in my state of Illinois because pre-trial detainees can vote in the districts from which they come, yet are counted in the district where they are awaiting trial (sadly, there are tens of thousands of pre-trial detainees in Illinois and many await trial for years). I really hope PPI can end prison gerrymandering by 2020, so in 2021 when state and congressional districts are drawn again, we will have removed at least one of the distortions to our democracy.

What do you think is most unique about the Prison Policy Initiative and the projects it takes on?

RG: I like that PPI chooses “bite size” pieces of problems to expose and solve. There is a clear overall goal (reducing the negative effects of mass incarceration on public welfare), and fixing each issue PPI focuses on takes us a step towards that goal. I love that PPI is so good at clearly explaining complex issues and is always ready to provide additional research and advice to help out state advocates like me.

What’s something that you wish more people knew about the Prison Policy Initiative?

RG: I was shocked to find out that PPI does all that it does with so few staff members and such a small budget. It really made me realize that even though I’m a public interest lawyer and don’t have a big budget for charitable donations, my donations go a long way with PPI. I like knowing that I am helping a small organization do big things.

by Leah Sakala, March 13, 2014

Michael Leo Owens

We are thrilled that Professor Michael Leo Owens has joined our Board of Directors this year. Professor Owens teaches in the Political Science department of Emory University, and specializes in urban, state and local politics, political penology, governance and public policy processes, religion and politics, and African American politics. We asked him a few questions about his work and involvement with PPI:

Why did you decide to join the PPI board?

Michael Leo Owens: As the piece of political science wisdom goes, “People participate when they can, when they want to, or when they’re asked.” My participation with PPI’s board covers all three bases! And I made a deliberate decision to leave another board of directors for PPI’s board. The switch is a better fit of interests, passions, and concerns.

What does your work focus on?

MLO: I’m a scholar of American politics and pubic policy. The politics of punishment and the civic effects of mass incarceration fill a big portion of my research, teaching, and service portfolio. In particular, I’m writing a book, Prisoners of Democracy, about the ways in which punitive public policies and ambivalent public opinion diminish the citizenship of people with felony convictions and undermine the positive reintegration of formerly incarcerated people. Additionally, I serve on the advisory boards of two other organizations that confront the challenges and consequences of “penal harm” – the Georgia Justice Project and Foreverfamily. The former provides defense counsel, social services, and advocacy for indigent persons. The latter, formerly known as Aid to Children of Imprisoned Mothers, is an Atlanta-based but national youth development organization, one that among other activities provides children with monthly visitations with their incarcerated parents.

What do you think is most unique about the Prison Policy Initiative and the projects it takes on?

MLO: What makes PPI unique is its moxie. It takes on BIG issues for a small organization and it’s successful in tackling them. Plus, by using data in a democratic way it increases the likelihood of community-based groups getting involved and taking the lead on their own behalf. Few data-driven organizations truly empower other groups. I’m glad PPI is one of them.

What’s something that you wish more people knew about the Prison Policy Initiative?

MLO: I wish more people knew that PPI is about more than prison gerrymandering. I also wish that more policymakers, especially in the South, knew of its existence and successes at making criminal justice more just and effective.

by Leah Sakala, February 5, 2014

Sarah Walker

The Minnesota Women’s Press has published a wonderful profile of Sarah Walker, Prison Policy Initiative board member and founder of the Minnesota Second Chance Coalition.

Sarah tirelessly advocates to improve our criminal justice system, and her work includes projects to end prison gerrymandering, remove barriers to participation in our democratic process, promote gender-responsive justice policy, and overcome harmful racial disparities.

Congratulations, Sarah!

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