Board of Directors archives

Jennifer Sellitti, Deputy Public Defender in Essex County, NJ, shares her thoughts on her work and why she joined our board.

by Leah Sakala, February 3, 2014

Jennifer Sellitti

We are thrilled to begin a blog series introducing several accomplished new members of the Prison Policy Initiative board! We spoke with each of them about their important work and thoughts on the Prison Policy Initiative.

First up, Jennifer Sellitti, who is Assistant Deputy Public Defender in Essex County, New Jersey.

Why did you decide to join the PPI board?

Jennifer Sellitti: Although I currently work as a criminal defense attorney, I began my career in prisoners’ rights. I guess you could say that the mission of prison reform has been and always will be in my professional blood. It is unacceptable to me that what passes for justice in this country is a broken, unrelenting, and soulless system of mass incarceration. I am honored to be a part of an organization that not only brings attention to some of the most pressing issues in prison reform but also leads the way in proposing groundbreaking solutions to the American prison crisis.

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

JS: As an assistant deputy public defender for the State of NJ, my work focuses on the criminal defense of indigent people accused of felonies in the NJ Superior Court. In my experience, busy criminal defense attorneys often forget that our clients live with the repercussions of their cases long after the case is resolved and the file is closed. Whether our clients go to prison, spend time on probation, or go back into their communities, their lives will be forever impacted by the choices their attorneys help them make. Through my work at PPI, I hope to spread the message to my colleagues in the criminal defense bar that we should be just as concerned about broader legal issues as we are about individual cases. These issues include prison conditions, attorney and family access, sentence enhancements, solitary confinement, provision of rehabilitative programs and other concerns that directly impact both the quality of life and the futures of our clients and their families.

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

JS:This is not your parents’ prison reform. By that I mean what makes PPI unique is that, unlike other prisoners’ rights organizations, it does not try to tackle every issue in criminal justice reform at the same time. It takes a more tailored, surgical approach that maximizes resources and organizational efficiency. By focusing on key areas – such as prison gerrymandering, high rates of prison and jail telephone calls, and sentence enhancement zones – PPI can make a tremendous impact and see results in a shorter amount of time.

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

JS: PPI Executive Director Peter Wagner and I began our careers together as student interns at the same prisoners’ rights organization. I have many fond memories of our talks, most of which took place in prison waiting rooms, about our plans to take on the justice system in our own distinct ways. Peter was passionate about bringing attention to “prison gerrymandering,” his discovery that the size of the prison population was combining with an outdated Census Bureau rule to undermine electoral fairness. When we reconnected recently, I was amazed to see how Peter’s idea has transformed PPI from a law student’s dream into one of the nation’s leading criminal justice policy organizations. What did not surprise me is that Peter still has the same passion, energy and enthusiasm for the work that he did all those years ago and that same zeal is now reflected in his talented staff and my fellow board members.

Neelum Arya, Research Director at the David J. Epstein Program in Public Interest Law and Policy at UCLA School of Law, shares her work and why she joined PPI's board.

by Leah Sakala, November 21, 2013

Neelum Arya is Research Director of the David J. Epstein Program in Public Interest Law and Policy at UCLA School of Law. Prior to joining UCLA she was the Research and Policy Director for the Campaign for Youth Justice, a national nonprofit devoted to removing youth from the adult criminal justice system.  She has published extensively about the dangers of incarceration for youth focusing on the impact on families and communities of color. For her work she was named a Harvard Wasserstein Public Interest Fellow in 2011. Neelum joined the PPI board in 2012.

Neelum Arya

Why did you join the Prison Policy Initiative board?

Neelum Arya: I have admired PPI for a long time, starting with their work on prison gerrymandering. I joined the Board to help PPI expand their reach to new constituencies. If you are active in the justice-reform movement you are aware of PPI and rely on their work. I joined the Board to help bring more people into the movement.


What’s unique about PPI?

NA: PPI is a nimble organization that always seems to be on the cutting edge of identifying ways that we are harmed by mass incarceration. They produce amazing reports with critical information and graphics, and then get the word out through traditional media and social media. Plus they are fast, fast, fast.


What’s something that most people don’t know about PPI?

NA: Most people probably don’t know that PPI is a small nonprofit based in Western Massachusetts. Given the amount of work that PPI produces, I think most people think PPI is a much bigger organization based in New York or DC.

Heather Ann Thompson, professor in the Departments of African American Studies and History at Temple University, shares her work and why she joined PPI's board.

by Leah Sakala, November 21, 2013

Heather Ann Thompson is an associate professor of history in the Department of African-American Studies and the Department of History at Temple University. She is currently writing the first comprehensive history of the Attica Prison Rebellion of 1971, and also writes regularly on the current crisis of incarceration. She joined the PPI board in 2012.

Heather Ann Thompson

What research projects are you currently working on?

Heather Ann Thompson: I am completing a history of the Attica Prison uprising of 1971 for Pantheon books. I’m also continuing to write contemporary pieces on the current incarceration crisis and the history of how we got here.

How have you used the PPI Research Clearinghouse in your scholarship?

HT: PPI’s Research Clearinghouse has been invaluable to the talks that I have been giving around the nation as well as in other countries on the carceral crisis. When I speak of the ways in which incarceration impacts communities in various states, for example, I rely on the important research PPI provides in that regard. I also cite PPI research regularly in the contemporary pieces that I write on this issue. My latest piece in the Atlantic depended on the important work PPI has done on prison gerrymandering.

How can other academics and advocates benefit from the Research Clearinghouse as well?

HT: For academics who seek to remain abreast of the most important research out on the carceral state and the criminal justice system, there is no site better for them to check regularly than the PPI site. Not only will they find an endless supply of articles and reports that will help their own scholarship to be better informed and completely up to date, but they will also find original research done by PPI staffers that is invaluable to them.

Drew Kukorowski, attorney at the Council for Children's Rights, shares how he began working with PPI and why he joined PPI's board.

by Peter Wagner, November 21, 2013

Drew Kukorowski is an attorney at the Council for Children’s Rights. He graduated from University of North Carolina School of Law and joined the PPI board in 2013.

Drew Kukorowski
Drew Kukorowski delivering 36,690 petitions that we collected with SumOfUs to FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn.

Why did you write your first report on the prison phone industry?

Drew Kukorowski: After graduating from law school, I returned to work with PPI on the project to end prison gerrymandering. During this time I became outraged that phone companies were colluding with state prison systems to rip off poor families. I saw a real need for a comprehensive policy paper, so in the evenings, on my own time, I wrote “The Price To Call Home: State-Sanctioned Monopolization In The Prison Phone Industry.”

What prompted the FCC to rule to regulate the industry

DK: After 13 years, the FCC finally responded to the tidal wave of political pressure from families, from advocates, from the public, from the media, and from members of congress.

What are the next steps for the movement for fair prison and jail phone charges?

DK: We need to ensure that the FCC enforces its ruling, expands the regulation to apply to in-state calls, and closes the door on any loopholes that allow companies to charge unreasonable fees to deposit money, request refunds, or even just to have an account.

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