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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 17 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.

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—Peter Wagner, Executive DirectorDonate

Press Releases archives

Clemency isn't the only way for governors and legislators to show mercy. Our report provides a roadmap with several options.

November 15, 2018

More than 200,000 people in state prisons today have been there for a decade or more. But even when governors and legislators want to give these individuals a “second chance,” they’ve had no handbook for doing so – until now.

Graph showing growth in the number of people who have served 10 or more years in prison

In a new report, the Prison Policy Initiative presents eight ways for states to help people serving excessive prison sentences finally go home. “Clemency is far from the only option,” said author Jorge Renaud. “We don’t have to invent new strategies – there are many out there that are vastly underused.”

His report Eight Keys to Mercy gathers examples of innovations from around the country, and presents these strategies as a slate of options, including:

  • Ways to fix broken state parole systems, such as presumptive parole;
  • Solutions for states where few people are eligible for parole, such as second-look sentencing;
  • Common-sense reforms, such as expanding good time, to support people already working hard to get out (and stay out) of prison.

The report’s eight recommendations also include:

  • Visual aids and explainers, including a detailed guide to present-day parole systems;
  • Instructions for implementing reforms while avoiding common pitfalls;
  • Fact sheets for all 50 states, meant to help policymakers and journalists quickly assess the problem where they live.

Mercy doesn’t begin and end with the governor. But in most states, the systems designed to help people leave prison – such as parole, good time and compassionate release – are skewed towards keeping them inside. “This can’t continue to be the norm,” said Renaud. “People should not spend decades in prison without meaningful opportunities for their release.”

Read the full report and recommendations here: https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/longsentences.html


The report includes a new, data-rich visualization of women in jails, highlighting a critical area for criminal justice reform.

November 13, 2018

Women in the U.S. experience a starkly different criminal justice system than men do, but data on their experiences is difficult to find and put into context. In a new report produced in collaboration with the ACLU’s Campaign for Smart Justice, the Prison Policy Initiative fills this gap in the data with a rich visual snapshot of how many women are locked up in the U.S., where, and why.

In Women’s Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2018 (a detailed update to the inaugural 2017 version), Legal Director Aleks Kajstura pieces together data from the country’s fragmented systems of confinement, producing a detailed “big picture” visualization as well as a separate close-up view of women in local jails.

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

Kajstura’s analysis reveals that:

  • 56% of women in prisons or jails are there for drug or property offenses, compared with approximately 40% of the general incarcerated population (which is almost entirely male).
  • 7,000 immigrant women are in confinement every day awaiting deportation or an immigration hearing.
  • 54,000 women are behind bars every day without a conviction, typically because they cannot afford money bail.
  • While 219,000 women are behind bars every day, over 1 million are on probation, suggesting that probation reform is also a women’s issue.

“With this big-picture view, it’s easier to see why many state-level reforms unintentionally leave women behind,” Kajstura said. Her analysis particularly underscores the need for local reforms to county jails:

preview of infographic about women in jails

  • Incarcerated women are far more likely than men to be held in local jails, both before trial and while serving their sentences.
  • Of all immigrant women held for ICE, 4,700 are not in detention centers, but “rented” beds in local jails.
  • 80% of women in jail are mothers, and most are the primary caretakers of their children.
  • Mental health care is notoriously bad in jails, where suicide rates are literally off the charts.

While states vary widely in how many women they put behind bars, every single U.S. state outranks most independent countries on women’s incarceration, as we found in June 2018 – making reform a moral necessity in every state. Kajstura calls her analysis “the foundation for reforming the policies that lead to incarcerating women in the first place.”

See the full data visualization and report: https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie2018women.html


Our criminal justice system isn’t just sending people from school to prison – it’s locking them out of education altogether.

October 30, 2018

It’s common knowledge that the U.S. criminal justice system funnels youth from schools to prisons – but what happens after that? How many people, for instance, are able to finish high school during or after prison? A new report from the Prison Policy Initiative breaks down the most recent data, revealing that incarcerated people rarely get the chance to make up the education they’ve missed.

The data shows how incarceration, rather than helping people turn their lives around, cements their place at the bottom of the educational ladder:

Graph breaking down educational attainment among formerly incarcerated people compared to the general public
  • 25% of formerly incarcerated people have no high school credential at all – twice as many as in the general public.
  • Formerly incarcerated people are most likely to finish high school by way of GED programs, missing the benefits of a traditional four-year education.
  • Less than 4% of formerly incarcerated people have a college degree, compared to 29% of the general public.

The unemployment rate for formerly incarcerated people is a staggering 27%, the Prison Policy Initiative previously found. This rate differs by education level. For those returning home from prison without educational credentials, it is “nearly impossible” to find a job:

  • Formerly incarcerated people without a high school diploma or GED face unemployment rates 2 to 5 times higher than their peers in the general public. These rates differ by race and gender, ranging from 25% for white men to 60% for Black women.
  • The number of “low-skill” jobs requiring only a high school credential has dropped since 1970, leaving many formerly incarcerated people with even fewer job prospects than ever before.
  • Even as college degrees become critical to finding a job, most incarcerated people cannot access degree-granting programs, Pell Grants and federal student loans.

“We need a new and evidence-based policy framework that addresses K-12 schooling, prison education programs, and reentry systems,” report author Lucius Couloute concludes. He offers four far-reaching recommendations aimed at increasing access to educational opportunities, for both incarcerated people and youth at risk.

Today’s report is the third and final part of a new series from the Prison Policy Initiative, focusing on the struggles of formerly incarcerated people to access employment, housing, and education. Utilizing data from a little-known and little-used government survey, Couloute and other analysts describe these problems with unprecedented clarity. In these reports, the Prison Policy Initiative recommends reforms to ensure that formerly incarcerated people – already punished by a harsh justice system – are no longer punished for life by an unforgiving economy.


A stable home is all but required for successful reentry. How many formerly incarcerated people are locked out of housing?

August 14, 2018

Easthampton, Mass. People who have been to prison are 10 times more likely to be homeless than the general public, according to a new report. In Nowhere to Go, the Prison Policy Initiative provides the first national snapshot of homelessness among formerly incarcerated people, which it calls a “little-discussed housing and public safety crisis.”

The report explains how people returning from prison – who need stable homes to overcome the difficulties of reentry – are nevertheless excluded from housing:

  • Over 2% of formerly incarcerated people are homeless, and nearly twice as many are living in precarious housing situations close to homelessness;
  • The risk of homelessness increases the more times one has been to prison – an irony considering that police departments regularly arrest and jail the homeless;
  • People recently released from prison are most at risk of being homeless, with rates nearly 12 times higher than the general public;
  • Women – and Black women in particular – are especially at risk.

Graph of homelessness rates for both formerly incarcerated people and the general U.S. population.

Report author Lucius Couloute explains that landlords and public housing authorities “have wide discretion to punish people with criminal records long after their sentences are over.” Couloute lays out policy solutions to what he calls a “fixable” problem, including:

  • Regulating competitive housing markets to prevent blanket discrimination;
  • Creating statewide reentry systems to help recently-released Americans find homes;
  • Ending the criminalization of homelessness in U.S. cities;
  • Expanding social services for all homeless people, with a “Housing First” approach.

Today’s report is the second of three to be released by the Prison Policy Initiative this summer, focusing on the struggles of formerly incarcerated people to access employment, housing, and education. Utilizing data from a little-known and little-used government survey, Couloute and other analysts can describe these problems with unprecedented clarity. In these reports, the Prison Policy Initiative recommends reforms to ensure that formerly incarcerated people – already punished by a harsh justice system – are no longer punished for life by an unforgiving economy.


Formerly incarcerated people overwhelmingly want to work, but they face huge obstacles in the job market.

July 10, 2018

Easthampton, Mass. – For the 5 million formerly incarcerated people living in the U.S., landing a job means more than just personal success: It means finding a place in their communities and being able to care for their loved ones again.

It’s well known that the obstacles to finding a job are severe for formerly incarcerated people. The scale of this problem, however, has been difficult to measure – until now.

In Out of Prison & Out of Work, the Prison Policy Initiative calculates that 27% of formerly incarcerated people are looking for a job but can’t find one:

Graph of unemployment rates overtime, for both formerly incarcerated people and the general U.S. population.

This rate, which surpasses anything Americans have experienced since the height of the Great Depression, is especially striking given the report’s other findings:

  • Formerly incarcerated people are more likely than the average American to want to work;
  • People of color and women face the worst “penalties” in the job market after going to prison, making historical inequalities in the labor force even worse;
  • Unemployment is highest for people released in the last two years, when they are most vulnerable to re-incarceration.

Graph comparing unemployment in the general population to the formerly incarcerated population, disaggregated by race and gender.

“These high unemployment rates reflect public will, policy, and practice – not differences in aspirations,” said author Lucius Couloute. In the report, he lays out policy solutions for closing this vast employment gap, including:

  • A temporary basic income for formerly incarcerated people after their release;
  • Automatic mechanisms for criminal record expungement;
  • Occupational licensing reform at the state and industry levels.

Today’s report is the first of three to be released by the Prison Policy Initiative this summer, focusing on the struggles of formerly incarcerated people to access jobs, housing, and education. Utilizing data from a little-known and little-used government survey, Couloute and other analysts can describe these problems with unprecedented clarity. In this report and the two more to follow, they recommend reforms to ensure that formerly incarcerated people – already punished by a harsh justice system – are no longer punished for life by an unforgiving economy.


In a first-of-its-kind data analysis, we explore the economics of prison commissaries in three states.

May 24, 2018

The ongoing – and growing – exploitation of incarcerated people and their families has been a central theme in our work at the Prison Policy Initiative. In our new report, attorney Stephen Raher explores another overlooked but central part of prison life: the commissary. The fairness of prison commissaries is an essential bread-and-butter issue for incarcerated people, who have only the store’s limited options to choose from when the prison fails to provide them with what they need.

In his report, The Company Store: A Deeper Look at Prison Commissaries, Raher analyzes commissary sales data from three states to address questions like:

  • What do people spend the most money on in prison commissaries?
  • How “fair” are prices, compared to “free-world” prices and relative to prison wages?
  • How does the emerging digital market compare to traditional commissary sales, like food and toiletries?

The three states sampled – Illinois, Massachusetts, and Washington – were the few from which we could easily obtain detailed statewide commissary sales data. Fortunately, this sample includes examples of both state-run and privately operated commissary systems, as well as a range of prison population sizes. While we would warn against generalizing broadly based on this small sample, the report highlights a number of issues that merit further study and serious consideration by policymakers.

The purpose and fairness of prison commissary systems come into question in light of the report’s findings:

  • Incarcerated people spent an average of $947 per person annually through commissaries – well over the typical amount they can earn at a prison job. In these three states, an incarcerated worker holding a job supporting the prison, such as food service or custodial work, would usually earn $180 to $660 per year.
  • Incarcerated people buy most items to meet basic needs, like food, hygiene, and over-the-counter medicines, rather than “luxuries.” 75% of the average person’s annual commissary spending in the three sampled states was used to purchase food and beverages, indicating a widespread need to supplement the food provided by the prisons.

Treemap graphic breaking down commissary sales by item type, using data from three states.

The findings also point to the incentives of the prison retail market for private commissary vendors:

  • While private vendors generally charge prices comparable to those found in outside prisons, monopoly contracts and the ability to transfer goods straight from the warehouse to the customer mean vendors’ operating costs are often lower than in the “free world.” Yet their prices do not always reflect these advantages.
  • The most obvious price-gouging is found in new digital services marketed to prisons, such as email and music streaming. Prison and jail telecommunications providers are aggressively pushing these new products and services, where they can charge prices far higher than similar businesses do outside of the prison setting.
  • Even in state-run commissary systems, private companies are poised to profit. In Illinois, the Keefe Group (one of the largest commissary companies) was not contracted to run the commissary, but still made up the dominant share (30%) of the state’s purchases for commissary goods.

Commissaries present yet another opportunity for prisons to shift the costs of incarceration to incarcerated people and their families. Meanwhile, telecommunications contractors with prison contracts are maximizing their revenues by offering more digital services at exorbitant rates. Instead of leveraging incarcerated people to subsidize the prison system by monetizing their every need, the report concludes, states could more effectively cut costs by drastically reducing prison populations.


With this year's updated edition of Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie, we once again answer the essential questions of how many people are locked up, where, and why.

March 14, 2018

Easthampton, Mass. – Are there 1.3 million people behind bars in the U.S., or is it actually closer to 2.3 million? How many millions more are on probation or parole, one mistake away from ending up back behind bars? The country’s fragmented systems of confinement make answering basic questions about mass incarceration unnecessarily difficult. With this year’s updated edition of Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie, we once again answer the essential questions of how many people are locked up, where, and why.

Pie chart showing how many people are locked up on a given day in the U.S. by facility and offense type.The first of 11 infographics that give the big picture and the details on who is behind bars, where, and why.

The publication of the new report caps a year-long effort to update the public on the major drivers of incarceration–state prisons and local jails–as well as confined populations too often overlooked, such as juveniles in residential placement and immigrants in detention.

“The big picture is important,” says author Peter Wagner, noting that many criminal justice reforms simply move people from one part of the system to another. “Ending mass incarceration means shrinking the size of the entire ‘pie,’ and not just rearranging where people are held within it.”

Key findings with important policy implications include:

  • Jails admitted nearly 11 million people in 2016–enough to fill prison buses lined up end-to-end from New York to San Francisco.
  • Half a million people are detained in jails before trial every day. In fact, most people in jails are not convicted, and many are there simply because they can’t afford money bail.
  • The vast number of people incarcerated for low-level offenses include nearly 9,000 youth confined for “technical violations” of probation.
  • 2,300 more youth are locked up for “status” offenses that are not even criminal violations for adults, such as running away or skipping school.

This edition of Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie includes more parts of the system than previous versions of the graphic, not because mass incarceration has expanded, but because we’ve developed a way to offer a more comprehensive view. “We spent the last year collecting data about institutions that may not consider themselves a part of mass incarceration, yet confine thousands of justice-involved people,” said co-author Wendy Sawyer. This update to the report includes more juvenile facilities, adds state psychiatric hospitals, and offers more detailed data on federal corrections.

The United States locks up more people than any other country, at a rate more than five times higher than most other nations. One impediment to reform is the lack of available data to guide that conversation. In Whole Pie, the Prison Policy Initiative provides the comprehensive view of mass incarceration that society needs in order to plot a path forward.

Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie is one in a series of reports that provide equally comprehensive snapshots of women’s incarceration and youth confinement. Previous national reports from the Prison Policy Initiative include Following the Money of Mass Incarceration, which uses economic data to show who pays for and who benefits from mass incarceration, and Detaining the Poor: How money bail perpetuates an endless cycle of poverty and jail time, which finds that the ability to pay money bail is impossible for many defendants because it represents eight months of a typical defendant’s income.

The non-profit, non-partisan 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 leads the nation’s fight to keep the prison system from exerting undue influence on the political process (via prison gerrymandering) and plays a leading role in protecting the families of incarcerated people from the predatory prison and jail telephone industry and the video visitation industry.

The full report and graphics are available at https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie2018.html.

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In a series of graphics, we explain how tens of thousands of youth who could be better served in their communities still end up in confinement.

February 27, 2018

Easthampton, Mass. – A map of juvenile justice in America would be daunting, covering 1,852 youth facilities of varying restrictiveness, not to mention thousands of youth held in adult prisons and jails. Youth Confinement: The Whole Pie offers a comprehensive view of this system, breaking down where and why justice-involved youth are locked up.

Pie chart showing the number of youth locked up on a given day in the U.S. by facility and offense type.

In a series of graphics, the report reveals how tens of thousands of youths who could be better served in their communities still end up in confinement. Far from confining “only those youth who are serious, violent, or chronic offenders,” as the juvenile justice system purports to do, this country:

  • Locks up 8,500 youths every day for technical probation violations
  • Detains over 9,000 youths before they’re even tried – and holds 900 in long-term secure facilities, essentially prisons, before they’ve been committed
  • Locks up over 7,500 youths for other low-level offenses, including status offenses (behaviors for which an adult would not be prosecuted)

Youths held pretrial or for minor offenses comprise 1 in 3 held in confinement today – children and adolescents who could be released at virtually no threat to public safety.

The report explores some of the worst harms of excessive youth confinement, including:

  • Disproportionately punishing Black and Native youth, with disparities exceeding even those of the adult justice system
  • Confining most youth in facilities indistinguishable from jails and prisons – or in actual adult jails and prisons
  • Holding youth in “temporary” reception/diagnostic centers for months or even years

The big-picture view offered by Youth Confinement: The Whole Pie suggests opportunities for immediate reform, such as transferring youth to community-based programs and drastically curtailing pretrial detention. “For advocates working to find alternatives to incarceration,” says report author Wendy Sawyer, “ending youth confinement should be a top priority.”

Read the full report.

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Women’s prison populations are largely growing faster than men’s. See our 50-state analysis.

January 9, 2018

Easthampton, Mass. – States have made impressive progress over the last 10 years in reducing their prison populations, but for most women in prison, this progress might as well never have happened. Even as men’s incarceration rates are falling, women’s incarceration rates hover near record highs, a trend driven by criminal justice decisions at the state level. A new report from the Prison Policy Initiative identifies more than 30 states driving this national “gender divide.”

women's incarceration rates: select states and all 50 states

The mass incarceration of women has severe and far-reaching effects: 62% of women, for instance, are separated from minor children when they are put behind bars. But though this is largely an issue of state policy, “few people know what’s happening in their own states,” says Wendy Sawyer, author of The Gender Divide: Tracking Women’s State Prison Growth. Sawyer says states undermine their commitment to decarceration when their criminal justice reforms leave women behind.

For example:

  • Texas recently reduced its men’s prison population by 6,000, while backfilling its prisons with 1,100 more women.
  • Michigan’s female prison population grew 30% from 2009 to 2015, while the number of men in Michigan prisons fell by 8%.
  • Six other states have seen men’s prison populations decline even as women’s populations have climbed.

The report features more than 100 state-specific graphs tracking 40 years of women’s prison growth, designed to help policymakers assess the need for local reform. It also isolates the underlying causes of women’s mass incarceration, including the War on Drugs, harsh sentencing for violent offenses, and the growing frequency of women serving jail time.

Women in prison are uniquely burdened by mental health problems and trauma, and Sawyer notes that most prisons, having been designed for men, “make those problems worse.” But she stresses that the appropriate response “is not to build better prisons – it’s to ensure women are included in reforms that move people away from prisons.” Most women in the justice system could be better served through alternatives to incarceration. Developing those solutions should be an urgent priority in every state.

How are women faring in your state? See the report and state-specific graphs https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/women_overtime.html.


President Trump supports stop & frisk; but Black and Latino people know from experience that the result is discriminatory use of force.

August 17, 2017

President Trump’s push for tougher policing is dangerous for Black and Latino communities, who bore the brunt of police use of force under stop-and-frisk in New York.

Easthampton, Mass. – Donald Trump’s presidency has heralded a return to ineffective “tough on crime” tactics, including the police practice of stop-and-frisk, but a new report by the Prison Policy Initiative finds that such a move would be disastrous for Black and Latino communities. “Instead of making cities safer, stop-and-frisk causes thousands of forceful and terrifying experiences with police, mostly for people of color who’ve done absolutely nothing wrong,” charges Rose Lenehan, author of the report.

In What “Stop-and-Frisk” Really Means: Discrimination & Use of Force, Lenehan analyzes the racially disparate use of force in police stops in New York City in 2011. That year was the peak of stop-and-frisk in the city, and two years before a federal judge found that the practice was racially discriminatory and violated the rights of hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers. “We all know that stop-and-frisk targeted Black and Latino communities in New York, but that goes beyond who police chose to stop,” explains Lenehan. “Police were also more likely to use physical force when they stopped people of color than when they stopped white people.” Data graphic showing the numbers of Blacks/Latinos, Whites and people of other races and ethnicities stopped by the New York City Police in 2011, along with whether they were also frisked and whether force was used. Blacks and Latinos are dispropionately stopped, frisked and have forced used against them.

In 2011, the NYPD stopped Black and Latino people nearly 575,000 times and used physical force against them almost 130,000 times. That’s 84% of all stops and 88% of all force used in stops that year. Yet despite President Trump’s mistaken perception that “it was so incredible, the way it worked,” only a small number of weapons were seized in these stops – mostly knives. Police found weapons in only 1% of stops of Black and Latino residents, but found weapons nearly twice as often when they stopped Whites. As the new report argues, stop-and-frisk succeeds only in alienating vast numbers of city residents from the police, and ultimately creates more problems for public safety.

The report features an innovative data visualization that layers each successive level of police encounters – stops, frisks, and use of force – to show racial discrimination impacts decisions more serious than simple stops. The graphic is drawn to scale (a tiny square is equivalent to 100 New Yorkers) to illustrate the massive impact of stop-and-frisk on the street. According to Lenehan, “With roughly almost 2,000 stops per day, concentrated in Black and Latino communities, stop-and-frisk gave hundreds of thousands of people of color reason to distrust the police.”

The non-profit non-partisan 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 produces big-picture data publications like Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie to help people fully engage in criminal justice reform. The author, Rose Lenehan, is a PhD candidate at MIT and a member of the Prison Policy Initiative’s Young Professional Network.

The new report is available at https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/stopandfrisk.html

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