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

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

Thank you.
—Peter Wagner, Executive DirectorDonate

Shorts archives

by Aleks Kajstura, December 1, 2017

Picture of Congresswomen Lois Frankel, Nancy Pelosi, and Brenda Lawrence with presenters at DWWG dinnerOn Wednesday night I presented my research on women’s incarceration at a working dinner with the Democratic Women’s Working Group (DWWG). Although federal prisons contain about 6% of the women incarcerated in the United States, federal legislation often impacts states’ incarceration policy. So it’s good to see that women’s mass incarceration is getting the attention of the DWWG, which focuses on improving the lives of women and their families.

Representative Barbara Lee organized this month’s dinner, bringing together over a dozen Congresswomen and three presenters (myself, Theresa Hodge of Mission:Launch, and Topeka Sam of The Ladies of Hope Ministries, both of which focus on women’s re-entry) for a dynamic and wide-ranging discussion of women’s incarceration in the United States. In fact, the hour-long dinner was on the verge of spilling into hour three when discussion turned in earnest to actionable next steps for Congress.

Right now the US women’s incarceration rate is skyrocketing, even as the overall incarceration rate has started to drop. I hope the engaged energy of the evening will translate to criminal justice reform that doesn’t leave women behind.


by Peter Wagner, November 13, 2017

We just released our 2016-2017 Annual Report, and I’m thrilled to share some highlights of our work with you. Despite the new challenges posed by the White House, we had a number of big successes, including:

thumbnail showing some pages from the Prison Policy Initiative 2016-2017 annual report

But that’s not all. In our highly-skimmable annual report, we review our work on all of our issues over the last year. Thank you for being a part of our successes over the last year. We are looking forward to working with you in the year to come.


by Peter Wagner, December 28, 2016

Aside from our recent reports, we have several new additions to our website worth highlighting:


by Peter Wagner, December 27, 2016

There is a great review of the new paperback edition of board member Jason Stanley’s How Propaganda Works in today’s New York Times. Jason is generously donating the royalties from this book, his fourth, to the Prison Policy Initiative.

As Jason explains in his board interview on our blog, mass incarceration has become “embedded into the moral, political, and economic life of our country.” Today’s review points out that the book is even more timely now in light of the recent election:

In this volume (originally published in hardcover in 2015), Mr. Stanley does not grapple directly with Mr. Trump’s rhetoric, or the role that “fake news” played in the 2016 election. But his book does provide some useful insights into the dangers of propaganda — and its reliance upon mangled facts; false claims; and reductive, Manichaean storytelling. He observes that demagogic speech in democracies often uses language that purports to support liberal democratic ideals (liberty, equality and objective reason) in “the service of undermining these ideals.” He points out that propaganda frequently raises fears that are likely to curtail rational debate — for instance “linking Saddam Hussein to international terrorism” after Sept. 11 — and that it may play upon deeper prejudices toward ethnic or religious groups that rob “us of the capacity for empathy toward them.”

At this moment, when crime is at near-record lows but a President-elect who argues that crime is high and rising is about to be inaugurated, understanding how propaganda works will be key to both fixing our criminal justice system and preserving our democracy.


by Wendy Sawyer, December 13, 2016

In case you missed it: Last week, the Prison Policy Initiative released a new report showing that people in Massachusetts’ poorest communities are disproportionately charged probation supervision fees. Our report, which comes on the heels of reports from the state Senate and Trial Court, adds to the mounting evidence that court fines and fees are overdue for a structural overhaul.

Our report is receiving some great press coverage:

Probation fees pose an undue burden
A Boston Globe editorial cites our report to argue that the Legislature should eliminate probation fees.

Probation fees hit poor the hardest, says report
Michael Jonas at CommonWealth magazine puts our report into the context of two recent reports on court fines and fees from the state Senate and Trial Court.

Editorial: State probation fees need reform
The Daily Hampshire Gazette cites our “eye opening” report in an editorial calling for reform.

Report: Probation costs fall disproportionately on the poorest
The Daily Hampshire Gazette’s Emily Cutts provides thorough coverage of our findings and Sen. Mike Barrett’s response.

Poverty, Punishment, and Probation: A Toxic Brew
WGBH’s Daniel Medwed gives some context to the issue of court fines and fees, relating the report to the practices uncovered in Ferguson, Missouri.

Nonprofit encourages elimination of probation fees
Shira Shoenberg provides another overview of the report’s findings and connections to the recommendations of the Trial Court’s report.

Report: Probation fees Hit Poor MA Communities the Hardest
Mike Clifford covers the report for the Public News Service, using one of our graphs.


by Peter Wagner, December 8, 2016

It’s been a big week for the movement for telephone justice:


by Peter Wagner, September 27, 2016

Friend of the Prison Policy Initiative Bill Newman has again featured our research in his Civil Liberties Minute podcast produced with the ACLU. This time he takes on the epidemic of jailing the innocent before trial in a powerful 90 second explainer.

You can listen or subscribe on iTunes and the transcript with some links to some of the source material is below.

Thank you, Bill!

In Jail And Innocent

Why is your mother, father, sister, brother, lover or friend, who is presumed innocent, still locked up in jail?

Know this: he or she is not alone. Of the 664,000 people locked up in local jails today, 70% of them have not been convicted or sentenced for any crime. Really – 70% are locked up only because they can’t make bail.

In the past 15 years 99% of the growth in the jail population comes from people who don’t have the 50 or 100 or 250 or 400 dollars to get bailed out. When the person held on bail finally goes to court he will be offered a deal. Plead guilty and you can get out, time served, go home today. Or you can say you’re innocent and want a trial, and stay locked up for days, weeks, months, or years. What would you do?

The Eighth Amendment to The Constitution in theory guarantees a reasonable bail and bail in theory is only supposed to be used to help insure the attendance of the defendant at trial – not as a subterfuge for pre-trial detention.

But as the numbers and the lives ruined prove, the constitutional principles of reasonable bail and innocent until proven guilty really only applies to those who are economically well off enough to make their bail.


by Alison Walsh, August 15, 2016

Race is a defining characteristic of the criminal justice system.

It is common knowledge that Blacks are disproportionately represented in prison. Looking at different types of incarceration sentences shows us how pervasive these disparities really are. This slideshow scrolls through the various incarceration sentences one may receive compared to the U.S. population, broken down by race.

Once a person is sentenced to jail, we see that Blacks are overrepresented and Whites are underrepresented, compared to the U.S. population as a whole. This disparity endures in state and federal prison sentences, life sentences, life without parole sentences, and in the death row population.

Our criminal justice system is defined by stark racial disparitiesAt every stage.Graph comparing the racial composition of the U.S. with the racial composition of those in jail.Graph comparing the racial composition of the U.S. with the racial composition of those in state and federal prison.Graph comparing the racial composition of the U.S. with the racial composition of those sentenced to life in prison.Graph comparing the racial composition of the U.S. with the racial composition of those sentenced to life without parole.Graph comparing the racial composition of the U.S. with the racial composition of those on death row.

Compared to the U.S. population, Blacks are overrepresented in jails, state and federal prisons, life and life without parole sentences, and death penalty sentences. Conversely, Whites are underrepresented in those same categories.

Data sources:

The data:

White Black Hispanic
U.S. population 62.1% 13.2% 17.4%
Jail incarceration 47.4% 35.4% 14.9%
State & federal incarceration 33.6% 35.4% 21.6%
Life sentence 33.4% 48.3% 14.4%
Life without parole sentence 33.5% 56.4% 7.4%
Death row population 42.5% 41.7% 13.0%

by Peter Wagner, June 18, 2016

I recently had the opportunity to screen a new documentary, Off the Rails that tells the story of Darius McCollum:

“a man with Asperger’s syndrome whose overwhelming love of transit has landed him in jail 32 times for impersonating New York City bus drivers and subway conductors and driving their routes.”

As a boy in Queens, NY, Darius found sanctuary from school bullies in the subway. There he befriended transit workers who taught him to drive trains. By age 8, he memorized the entire subway system. At 15, he drove a packed train 8 stops by himself, making all the stops and announcements.

Over the next three decades, Darius commandeered hundreds of trains and buses, staying en route and on schedule, without ever getting paid. He attended transit worker union meetings, lobbying for better pay and working conditions for a union he didn’t belong to.

Although Darius has never damaged any property or hurt anyone in his decades of service, he has spent 23 years in maximum security prison. Darius’ recidivism embodies the criminal justice system’s failure to channel the passions of a harmless, mentally challenged man into a productive career and purposeful life.

The film demonstrates, through this unique and well-told story, that when confronting people with disabilities, the criminal justice system all too often has a one-track mind.

This is the trailer:

Upcoming screenings are in Provincetown, MA (June 19), Red Bank, NJ (July 7), Toronto Canada (July 20), Woods Hole, MA (August 1) with dates in New York to be added this fall.


by Alison Walsh, June 17, 2016

Father’s Day is stereotypically a happy occasion. But an increasing number of fathers will spend the day away from their loved ones, separated by prison walls. The number of incarcerated men who reported being the fathers of minor children rose to nearly 750,000 in 2007 (the most recent year for which we have data available), a 57% increase from 1991. This holiday is a reminder that incarceration affects entire families, not just the people behind bars.

Graph showing the number of fathers of minor children incarcerated from 2001-2007


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