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People in prisons have endured disadvantage and poverty all the way back to childhood, the Prison Policy Initiative's new report shows.

April 13, 2022

This morning, the Prison Policy Initiative published Beyond the Count, a report that examines the most recent and comprehensive demographic data about people in state prisons and provides a groundbreaking view of the lives of incarcerated people before they were locked up. The report’s findings make clear that solving this country’s mass incarceration crisis will require policy changes that begin outside the prison walls and tackle the inequities and disadvantages incarcerated people face early in their lives.

The report analyzes data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ “Survey of Prison Inmates,” collected in 2016 and released in late 2020. The data show what many in the criminal justice reform movement already know: that the U.S. criminal justice system today locks up the least powerful people in society. Key takeaways include:

  • Many, if not most, people in prison grew up struggling financially. 42% of survey respondents said their family received public assistance before they were 18. Respondents also reported uncommonly high levels of homelessness, foster care, and living in public housing before the age of 18.

childhood disadvantages graph

  • Most individuals in state prisons report that their first arrest happened when they were children. 38 percent of the people BJS surveyed reported a first arrest before age 16, and 68% reported a first arrest before age 19. The average survey respondent had been arrested over 9 times in their life.
  • The typical person in state prison is 39 years old and has a 10th grade education, a fact that is most likely linked to youth confinement, which disrupts a young person’s life and schooling.
  • Half (49%) of people in state prisons meet the criteria for substance use disorder (SUD), and 65% were using an illicit substance in the immediate lead-up to their incarceration, suggesting that many people who are not locked up for drug offenses are still victims of our country’s choice to criminalize substance use rather than treat it as a health issue.

The Prison Policy Initiative’s report includes more than 20 detailed data tables that allow readers to better understand the people who are in state prisons and the challenges they have faced in their lives. Beyond the Count also includes a section diving into the data on the race, age, gender identity, and sexual orientation of people in state prisons, explaining that a disproportionate number of incarcerated people are racial minorities, very young or very old, or LGBTQ. Many of the key demographic findings in Beyond the Count (such as incarcerated people’s age at first arrest) are also broken down by race or gender.

While the data in this report is about people in state prisons, it does not allow statistics to be broken out for individual states.

“What the data in our new report show is that this country is locking up the same people it has failed by not investing in things like good healthcare, housing, and education for all,” said report author Leah Wang. “What’s worse, the data show that most disadvantaged people’s encounters with the justice system begin during childhood, when they are arrested rather than given the care and attention they need as young people.”

The full report is available at

The report includes 31 visualizations of criminal justice data, exposing long-standing truths about mass incarceration in the U.S.

March 14, 2022

Today, the Prison Policy Initiative released Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2022, compiling national data sources to offer the most comprehensive view of how many people are locked up in the U.S. — and where they are being held — since the COVID-19 pandemic began. The report explains how the pandemic has impacted prison and jail populations, and pieces together the most recent national data on state prisons, federal prisons, local jails, and other systems of confinement to provide a snapshot of mass incarceration in the U.S.

A pie chart show where people are incarcerated in the U.S.

Highlights from the report include:

  • Prison populations fell by about 16% during the pandemic. However, 10% fewer people were released from prison during 2020 than in 2019, and preliminary data suggests that fewer still were released in 2021, meaning that people leaving prison did not drive the population drop. Instead, the reduction was due to reductions in prison admissions, largely due to pandemic-related slowdowns in the criminal legal system.
  • Local jail populations fell about 13% during the pandemic. Since then, a sample of over 400 jails shows that jail populations are returning to pre-pandemic levels and more than a quarter of jails have higher populations today than before COVID-19.
  • In total, roughly 1.9 million people are incarcerated in the United States.

“Even when the U.S. prison population was at a historically low point in the pandemic, we were still locking up far more people per capita than any other country on earth,” said Wendy Sawyer, Research Director for the Prison Policy Initiative and co-author of the report. “It’s important for people to understand that the temporary population drops during the pandemic were due to COVID jamming the gears of the criminal justice system — not because of any coordinated actions to reform the system.”

The report includes 31 visualizations of criminal justice data, exposing other long-standing truths about incarceration in the U.S.:

  • The U.S. continues to lock up hundreds of thousands of people pretrial every day. A rise in the use of money bail over the last 40 years has driven an increase in pretrial populations.
  • Black people are still overrepresented behind bars, making up about 38% of the prison and jail population.
  • At least 113 million adults in the U.S. (or over 40%) have a family member who has been incarcerated, and 79 million people have a criminal record, revealing the ripple effects of locking up millions of people every day.

The report also tackles frequent misconceptions about mass incarceration related to prison labor, the war on drugs, private prisons, what victims of crime want, and community supervision.

“As the pandemic eases, and with incarceration rates as low as they’ve been in decades, elected leaders face a choice. They can take bold action to continue to reduce the number of people behind bars and invest in community responses that address the core causes of crime — poverty, addiction, and mental health struggles — or they can return to business as usual with incarceration rates stubbornly stuck at globally high rates and ballooning correctional budgets that burn through tax dollars without making communities safer and stronger,” said Sawyer. “The Whole Pie should serve as a call to action for government to finally end our nation’s failed experiment of mass incarceration.”

The Prison Policy Initiative traditionally releases a new version of its Whole Pie report annually however, COVID-related delays in the release of government-produced data prevented the organization from releasing a new version in 2021.

Read the full report, with detailed data visualizations at:

Each will help propel the Prison Policy Initiative with new ideas, new energy and new partnerships.

March 4, 2021


(Northampton, MA) – The Prison Policy Initiative, a leading research organization in the field of criminal justice, added five new directors to the board of directors to help foster strategic growth. The new members will serve three-year terms:

  1. Sharon Cromwell, Deputy State Director, New York Working Families Party
  2. Ed Epping, AD Falck Professor of Art, Emeritus, Williams College
  3. Timothy Fisher, Professor of Law and former Dean, University of Connecticut School of Law
  4. Leslie M. Smith, IBM Business Development Executive (retired) and Founder / CEO DistancEd. Inc
  5. Paul Watterson, Of Counsel, Schulte Roth & Zabel LLP

“The Prison Policy Initiative is proud to welcome these five leaders to our board. Each will help propel the Prison Policy Initiative with new ideas, new energy and new partnerships” said the Board’s President, Elena Lavarreda, NJ Political Director, SEIU 32BJ.

Also welcoming the new members are: Nora V. Demleitner, Director, Professor of Law, Washington and Lee University School of Law, Daniel Kopf, Board Treasurer, Data Editor, San Francisco Chronicle, and Bernadette Rabuy, Board Clerk, Trial Attorney, Homicide/Major Crime Defense Unit, New York County Defender Services.

In January, the Board participated in a two-day retreat where they set their goals for the coming year, including recruiting additional directors to the Board. “We’re looking forward to supporting the Prison Policy Initiative at this critical transition point, as they welcome new senior staff, including a Director of Advocacy and Communications Director, and expand as an organization with staff in several states,” said Leslie M. Smith, one of the new directors and Founder/CEO DistancEd. Inc., a non-profit that trains computer skills to formerly incarcerated people. Another new director, Ed Epping, shared his excitement about the Prison Policy Initiative’s plans, “The Prison Policy Initiative’s insightful data analysis and powerful graphics have long fueled the national movement for criminal justice reform by filling in key messaging and data gaps. We’re looking forward to supporting the Prison Policy Initiative as it begins to have the dedicated staff and capacity to outreach to local, state, and national advocates and support them with our research.”

The Prison Policy Initiative ( was co-founded by Peter Wagner in 2001 to document and publicize how mass incarceration punishes our entire society. Since its inception, the Prison Policy Initiative has gained national recognition for compiling and presenting up-to-date information about the criminal justice system that empowers policymakers, journalists, advocates, and the general public to participate in the justice reform movement. The Department of Justice’s National Institute of Corrections, for example, calls one report “required reading for those people striving to reform the correctional system.” Frequently cited in traditional media as a reliable and accessible source on a number of incarceration issues, the Prison Policy Initiative also has an influential social media presence and demonstrated success in guiding and informing public discourse on incarceration policy. You can find a full list of the Prison Policy Initiative’s most prominent successes at


The study provides the first estimates of how prisons and jails led to more coronavirus infections, both inside and outside prisons.

December 15, 2020

Over half a million COVID-19 cases this summer were directly linked to mass incarceration, a new report from the Prison Policy Initiative and Professor Gregory Hooks shows. The study provides the first estimates of how prisons and jails — which are “super spreaders” of the virus — added to COVID-19 caseloads on the county, state, and national levels, including infections of people both inside and outside prisons.

“Our findings leave no doubt that locking up millions of people in this country in close quarters has led to mass sickness and death in 2020, both in and outside of prisons,” said Hooks. “This huge growth in COVID-19 cases isn’t the fault of incarcerated people; it’s the fault of tough-on-crime politicians who insist that mass incarceration is necessary to keep us safe.”

In the study, titled Mass Incarceration, COVID-19, and Community Spread, Hooks compared the population density of incarcerated people in U.S. counties to the growth in COVID-19 cases in those counties over the summer of 2020. To get a more direct measure of community spread across county lines, he also measured the impact on county caseloads from prison and jail populations held in nearby counties located within the same multi-county economic areas. The findings include:

  • At the county level: Over the summer of 2020, large prisons and jail populations within nonmetro counties (i.e. rural areas or those with small cities) directly contributed to higher COVID-19 caseloads in those counties.
  • At the regional level: COVID-19 caseloads grew much more quickly over the summer among counties in greater economic areas containing large prisons and jails.
  • At the national level: Mass incarceration led to more than half a million additional COVID-19 cases nationwide – or about 1 in 8 of all new cases – over the summer, including cases both inside and outside correctional facilities.

The report, written to be accessible to a general audience, includes graphics illustrating the major findings, as well as several tables listing the number of COVID-19 cases attributable to mass incarceration in the most heavily impacted states and economic areas. Additional appendix tables provide estimates of additional cases linked to incarceration for every county, economic area, and state in the U.S.

Preview of table showing the impact of mass incarceration on covid caseloads in 25 states.

As the report explains, prisons and jails offer ideal conditions for the transmission of the coronavirus and have had the largest COVID-19 outbreaks in the U.S. on most days in 2020. A team of epidemiologists predicted in April that mass incarceration would lead to hundreds of thousands of additional cases in the U.S. In June, the Prison Policy Initiative released a report with the ACLU showing that states were failing at the one effort likely to prevent such a tragedy: the safe reduction of prison and jail populations. As of mid-November, the Prison Policy Initiative has shown, prison and jail populations are still dangerously high.

“Now that we have the first national numbers showing how prisons and jails sped up the spread of COVID-19, lawmakers need to take action to depopulate these facilities, or we will see even more preventable cases and deaths linked to the conditions in prisons and jails,” said Prison Policy Initiative Research Director Wendy Sawyer, co-author of Mass Incarceration, COVID-19, and Community Spread. “Even though the COVID-19 vaccine is rolling out, it will be months before the virus stops cycling through correctional facilities, and the action states have taken so far has not been enough to slow it down. So far, we’ve seen that too many lawmakers don’t care enough about people in prison to take action on their behalf, but our findings show that failing to reduce prison populations during the pandemic has led to more people outside prison getting sick as well.”

The full report is available at

October 2, 2020

This morning, the Prison Policy Initiative and the Reverend Jesse Jackson, Sr.’s Rainbow PUSH Coalition released Eligible, but Excluded, a roadmap to expanding voting access for people incarcerated in local jails who are already eligible to vote. The report explains – via a 50-state table and flowchart – that most of the 746,000 people in local jails retain the right to vote. The report then details the logistical barriers that prevent these voters from casting ballots, and strategies for bringing these barriers down.

“Thousands of people in jails across America retain the right to vote, but they are denied that right in every election,” Reverend Jackson said. “Many of these voters are being held simply because they are poor and can’t make bail. This form of voter suppression is a truly heinous form of social injustice and civic indignity. This report provides the data that will help us fight back against this injustice. And fight we will!”

flowchart explaining restrictions on people voting from jail

The report provides an in-depth explanation of the most common issues preventing people in jail from voting, including:

  • Confusion about who is eligible to vote, among election officials as well as incarcerated people themselves
  • Registration-related barriers such as restrictive deadlines and a lack of access to personal information
  • Ballot-casting barriers including strict for-cause absentee voting policies
  • Population churn in jails, which means that some people who register to vote in jail may not be incarcerated on Election Day.

The report goes on to offer 29 strategies for advocates, state legislatures, election officials, and sheriffs to enable people in jail to exercise the franchise.

“In an era of criminal justice reform, protecting the right to vote for persons held in jail is among the most important reforms,” said Reverend Dr. S. Todd Yeary, co-author of the report. “The state-by-state analysis in this report sets the landscape for the policy fight to protect the right to vote for persons who are legally eligible to cast a ballot, but are unjustly prevented from doing so. This is our justice roadmap for issue advocacy in upcoming state legislative sessions, as well as policy changes by sheriffs, prosecutors, and governors across the country.”

Read the full report at

The report includes an interactive map showing where people convicted of violence have been "carved out" of recent criminal justice reform laws.

April 7, 2020

As the threat of a COVID-19 disaster in U.S. prisons looms, people serving time for violent crimes may be most at risk, as states like California and Georgia exclude them from opportunities for rapid release. “Violent offenders” — even those who are old and frail — are being categorically denied protection in a pandemic.

Letting people convicted of violence apply for life-saving opportunities requires political courage, just as it has for decades. But denying relief to people based exclusively on their crime of conviction is as ineffective as it is unjust. In a new report, Reforms Without Results, we review the existing research on violent crime, explaining six major reasons why states should include people convicted of violence in criminal justice reforms:

  1. Long sentences do not deter violent crime.
  2. Most victims of violence, when asked, say they prefer holding people accountable through means other than prison, such as rehabilitative programs.
  3. People convicted of violent offenses have among the lowest rates of recidivism — belying the notion that they are “inherently” violent and a threat to public safety.
  4. People who commit violent crimes are often themselves victims of violence, and carry trauma that a prison sentence does nothing to address.
  5. People age out of violence, so decades-long sentences are not necessary for public safety.
  6. The health of a person’s community dramatically impacts their likelihood of eventually committing a violent crime — and community well-being can be improved through social investments rather than incarceration.

Demonstrating how common it is for people convicted of violence to be left behind, our report includes an interactive U.S. map showing 75 examples of state criminal justice reform laws that have excluded them. The map reveals that:

  • At least 16 states have passed laws excluding people convicted of violent crimes from veterans’ courts, mental health courts, diversion programs, and other alternatives to incarceration.
  • In at least 10 states, people convicted of violent crimes have been “carved out” of laws designed to ease the reentry process.
  • At least 20 states have passed laws that expand parole, good time, and other mechanisms for early release — but offer no relief to people convicted of violent offenses.

Preview of map showing where states have passed criminal justice reforms that exclude people convicted of violence.

Unless states are willing to change how they respond to violence, reducing U.S. incarceration rates to pre-1970s levels will be impossible: Over 40% of people in prison and jail are there because of a violent offense. Lawmakers serious about ending mass incarceration — or limiting the toll COVID-19 takes behind bars — can no longer afford to ignore people serving time for violent crimes. In Reforms Without Results, we provide the data and arguments they will need to craft more courageous and effective criminal justice reforms.

See the full report and interactive map at

The Prison Policy Initiative's new "Whole Pie" report reveals what's at stake if prisons and jails do not take immediate steps to decarcerate.

March 24, 2020

As advocates urge prisons and jails to slow the spread of COVID-19 by releasing as many incarcerated people as possible, it’s more important than ever to understand how many people are locked up across the country, where, and why. The Prison Policy Initiative’s new edition of Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie, released today, answers these essential questions with the most recent data.

Pie chart showing how many people are locked up in the United States, for what offenses, and in what facilities.

The data and 24 visuals in the report contain significant implications for how the criminal justice system should respond to the pandemic:

  • Local jails hold 631,000 people on any given day, including 470,000 people still awaiting trial. Jail overcrowding poses a serious public health risk in light of COVID-19, making it essential that courts, police, and prosecutors reduce jail populations to slow the spread of the virus.
  • Low-level infractions like misdemeanor charges, technical violations of probation and parole, and failure to appear in court account for millions of jail and prison admissions each year – admissions that should be put on hold immediately to improve public health outcomes.
  • 39,000 immigrants are currently being held by ICE for no reason other than their undocumented status. Unless they are released, their incarceration will put them at a heightened risk of contracting COVID-19.
  • While the majority of people in state prisons are convicted of violent crimes, federal and state officials can still take measures such as expanding parole and compassionate release to allow these individuals – many of whom are elderly or medically vulnerable – to go home.

“Now that COVID-19 is entering prisons and jails, our failure to end mass incarceration is making itself known as a public health crisis,” said Executive Director Peter Wagner. “If policymakers want to prevent a human tragedy from taking place in prisons and jails, they need to do what they’ve been refusing to do since we published our first Whole Pie report: shrink the incarcerated population to a fraction of what it is today.”

Even under normal circumstances, the lack of available data about the criminal justice system poses a significant obstacle to policymakers and advocates seeking to reform that system. In the face of the current crisis, clear facts are essential to quickly and safely downsizing prison and jail populations. This year’s Whole Pie report answers that need, providing the comprehensive view of mass incarceration necessary to make sound decisions today and, when this crisis passes, to plot a long-term path forward.

The Prison Policy Initiative also recently published policy recommendations for criminal justice systems to slow the spread of COVID-19. Its recommendations include releasing medically vulnerable adults from jails and prisons, reducing jail admissions, and ending parole and probation revocations for technical violations. The organization is tracking jails, prisons, and other agencies that take these essential steps.

The full report and graphics are available at

The new resource uses data generated by New York’s law ending prison gerrymandering.

February 19, 2020

A new project from the Prison Policy Initiative maps where people in New York state prisons come from, down to the neighborhood level — providing a groundbreaking tool for studying how incarceration relates to community well-being.

The project, Mapping Disadvantage: The Geography of Incarceration in New York, provides anonymized residence data for everyone in New York state prisons at the time of the 2010 Census. Readers can download the data at several geographic levels, including counties, cities, and legislative districts.

“If you want to study how mass incarceration has impacted specific communities in New York, or how incarceration tracks with other indicators of community health, we’ve just published the geographic data you need to do that,” said Prison Policy Initiative Research Director Wendy Sawyer.

In a short report, produced in collaboration with VOCAL-NY, the Prison Policy Initiative provides examples of what can be done with the new dataset. The report shows that:

  • In New York City neighborhoods with high rates of asthma among children, incarceration rates are also significantly higher.
  • In city school districts, 5th grade math scores are very strongly correlated with neighborhood incarceration rates.
  • Across the state of New York, every 1% increase in a particular Census tract’s unemployment rate is correlated with an uptick in the incarceration rate.

A landmark 2010 law made this mapping project possible. In 2010, New York passed a bill ensuring that people in prison would be counted as residents of their hometowns at redistricting time. This reform ended the electoral distortion known as “prison gerrymandering,” which had given extra political influence to the legislative districts that contained large prisons. The law required the state prison system to share its own records of where incarcerated people actually resided with redistricting officials. Using these records, redistricting officials produced a corrected dataset that they used to draw new district lines, and the Prison Policy Initiative repurposed this dataset for its report.

For the 2020 round of redistricting a total of seven states — California, Delaware, Maryland, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, and Washington — have passed legislation to end prison gerrymandering and nine additional states — Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia, and Wisconsin — have legislation pending.

“These states are passing laws to end prison gerrymandering because they believe that everyone should have the same access to political power, regardless of whether they live next to a large prison. But these laws also have a secondary positive impact: they can make a deeper understanding of our criminal justice system possible,” said Executive Director Peter Wagner.

At a time when cutting the adult prison population by 50% seems radical to many people, states have already cut the number of confined youth by 60% since 2000.

December 19, 2019

Why are 48,000 children and teenagers locked up in the United States, and where exactly are they? How are the juvenile justice system and the criminal justice system similar, and how are they different? In a new infographic and report, the Prison Policy Initiative answers these unexpectedly difficult questions about youth confinement.

Pie chart showing how many youth are locked up in the U.S., what types of facilities they are held in, and the offenses for which they are held.

Youth Confinement: The Whole Pie 2019 reveals failures in the juvenile justice system that mirror failures in the adult system, including:

  • Unnecessary pretrial detention. On any given day, 9,500 youth – or 1 in 5 youth in confinement – are locked up before trial.
  • Incarceration for the most minor offenses. 19% of youth in juvenile facilities are locked up for “technical violations” of probation or parole, or for status offenses (behaviors for which an adult would not be prosecuted).
  • Glaring racial disparities. While only 14% of children under 18 in the U.S. are Black, 42% of boys and 35% of girls in juvenile facilities are Black.

But the number of youth in confinement is also falling dramatically. “At a time when cutting the adult prison population by 50% strikes many people as radical, states have already cut the number of confined youth by 60% since 2000, and that trend is continuing,” said report author Wendy Sawyer. The report describes state reforms that have helped shrink the juvenile justice system, such as:

  • Reducing incarceration for certain offenses, including status offenses, technical violations, and misdemeanors
  • Closing large detention facilities and developing new community-based supervision and treatment programs
  • Limiting the amount of time youth may be incarcerated or under court supervision

“States have reduced youth incarceration without seeing an increase in crime, which is very encouraging, but there are still far too many youth in confinement,” said Sawyer, “Today, there are 13,500 youth locked up away from home for drug possession and low-level offenses, not to mention 7,000 other youth detained before trial. That means this country still has a lot of work to do.”

For the full report and more infographics, see

The report highlights the need for reforms to local jails, which now hold more women than state prisons do.

October 29, 2019

A report released this morning by the Prison Policy Initiative and the ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice presents the most recent and comprehensive data on how many women are locked up in the U.S., where, and why.

Women in the U.S. experience a dramatically different criminal justice system than men do, but data on their experiences is difficult to find and put into context. The new edition of Women’s Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie, which the Prison Policy Initiative and ACLU have published every year since 2017, fills this gap with four richly-annotated data visualizations about women behind bars.

Preview of pie chart showing how many women are locked up on a given day in the U.S. by facility and offense type.

“Producing this big-picture view of incarcerated women helps us see why many recent criminal justice reforms are failing to reduce women’s incarceration,” said report author Aleks Kajstura. Most importantly, the new report underscores the need for reforms to local jails:

  • More incarcerated women are held in local jails than in state prisons, in stark contrast to incarcerated men, meaning that reforms that only impact people in prison will not benefit them.
  • The number of women in local jails grew between 2016 and 2017 — a trend that reflects counties’ growing reliance on jails to solve social problems.
  • Women convicted of criminal offenses are more likely than men to be serving their sentences in local jails, where healthcare and rehabilitative programs are much harder to access than in prisons.
  • On any given night, 4,500 immigrant women are held for ICE in local jails — over half of the 7,700 women held in immigration detention.

The report goes on to explain why 231,000 women are locked up in the U.S.:

  • 73% of women in prisons and jails are locked up for nonviolent offenses, in contrast to only 57% of all people in prisons and jails (who are almost entirely men).
  • 10% of girls in the juvenile justice system — compared to only 3% of boys — are held for status offenses like running away, truancy, or “incorrigibility,” which would not be crimes if committed by adults.
  • 27% of women in prisons and jails are locked up for violent offenses, including acts of violence committed in self-defense.

Beyond presenting new data, Women’s Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2019 also reviews the existing literature on women’s incarceration, including the Prison Policy Initiative’s prior research on gender disparities in police contact, women’s access to reentry services after incarceration, and the incomes of women in prisons and jails.

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