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Shorts archives

We've had an incredibly productive year. In our new annual report, we share the highlights.

by Peter Wagner, October 17, 2019

We just released our 2018-2019 Annual Report, and I’m thrilled to share some highlights of our work with you. We’ve had an incredibly productive year, releasing 10 major national reports and 27 research briefings, as well as doubling down on our strategic communications work and making our website an even better tool for researchers and advocates.

There are a few successes I’m particularly proud of:

  • Calculating the first national estimates of homelessness among people who have been to prison, revealing that formerly incarcerated people are 10 times more likely to be homeless than the general public.
  • Releasing a landmark report on the prison and jail phone industry, which sparked a wave of news coverage, spurred multiple counties to action, and helped push the issue of prison phone justice onto the platforms of multiple presidential candidates.
  • Launching a campaign to help counties uncover the root causes of jail overcrowding rather than building new jail space, using our new report Does our county really need a bigger jail?
  • Helping Washington and Nevada become the fifth and sixth states to end prison gerrymandering. (And momentum is building: nine other states considered bills to end prison gerrymandering this year.)
  • Publishing a groundbreaking 50-state report comparing parole release systems — a first-of-its-kind guide to understanding parole and how it works in every state.

thumbnail showing some pages from the Prison Policy Initiative 2018-2019 annual report

But these highlights barely scratch the surface of what we’ve accomplished this year. See our highly-skimmable annual report for a review our work on all of our issues over the last year. I’m honored that you were a part of these successes, and I’m looking forward to working with you in the year to come.


by Bernadette Rabuy, August 9, 2019

In case you missed it, John Oliver exposed the high fees and low wages pervasive in prisons and jails on last Sunday’s episode of Last Week Tonight.

Oliver cited our research to shine a light on the low wages — or no wages, in the case of Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia and Texas — that incarcerated people receive for their hard work.

Despite the low wages paid to people in prison, Oliver explained, prisons squeeze money out of incarcerated people and their families by forcing them to pay for basic needs, such as:

  • Hygiene products: Too often, prisons do not provide sufficient hygiene products and incarcerated people are forced to buy additional items on their own dime. We found, for instance, that the average person in an Illinois prison spends $80 a year on toiletries and hygiene products.
  • Copays for medical visits: Our 2017 state-by-state analysis revealed that fourteen states charge co-pay amounts equivalent to charging minimum wage workers over $200.
  • Video calls: Oliver scrutinizes the high cost of video calls and the harmful trend of jails replacing in-person visits with video chats. Oliver states that a video call system is really a “machine that makes money by stopping people from visiting their families,” which is surely “an item at the top of Satan’s Amazon wish list.”

Oliver also shared his skepticism of correctional officials’ claims that banning in-person visits is justified because it reduces contraband. Oliver pointed out that contraband often enters correctional facilities through other channels, such as through staff.

“Part of the way mass incarceration persists in this country is by keeping the true costs of it off the books,” Oliver concludes. We couldn’t agree more. Thank you, Last Week Tonight, for helping us expose these harmful practices!


"Women’s experiences with the criminal justice system serve to highlight the faults of the whole system," our Legal Director explained to members of the House Judiciary Committee.

by Wanda Bertram, July 17, 2019

Yesterday, our Legal Director, Aleks Kajstura, spoke to members of the House Judiciary Committee at a hearing about the mass incarceration of women and girls. “Today’s hearing begins a discussion about women in the criminal justice system,” said subcommittee chair Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA). “After decades of policies that led to mass incarceration, we are finally at a point of examining the policies and the consequences.”

Testifying alongside Piper Kerman, Jesselyn McCurdy, Cynthia Shank and Patrice Onwuka, Kajstura spoke about the urgency of reducing women’s incarceration. She highlighted a few of the most alarming data points from our research on women and gender, including:

  • The U.S. is home to only 5% of the world’s female population, but accounts for nearly 30% of the world’s incarcerated women.
  • 1 in 4 incarcerated women have not even been convicted.
  • In a number of states, women’s prison populations are growing faster than men’s; in others, women’s prison populations are growing even as men’s are declining.
  • 3 out of 4 women under correctional control are on probation, a system that sets up women – and particularly mothers – to fail.

graph comparing the U.S. to other founding NATO countries on rates of women's incarceration.

Despite this unacceptable status quo, the hearing sent a hopeful message: Lawmakers across the aisle are finally paying attention to women’s mass incarceration. “It is critical that we understand how and why women become involved in the system, what happens to them when they are incarcerated, and what their trajectory is once released,” said Bass.

Watch the full hearing here – jump to 1:03:00 for Kajstura’s testimony: https://judiciary.house.gov/legislation/hearings/women-and-girls-criminal-justice-system


by Aleks Kajstura, December 12, 2018

The 2019 legislative session is almost upon us, and we’ve compiled – as we do every year – a list of under-discussed but winnable criminal justice reforms. While federal prison reform continues to receive more than its fair share of attention, state legislatures and governors remain empowered to determine the future of mass incarceration.

We publish this list as a briefing with links to more information and model bills, and recently sent it to reform-minded state legislators across the country. (To read about recent legislative victories on these fronts – such as three states ending unnecessary driver’s license suspensions in 2018! – see our new Annual Report.)

Our list of reforms ripe for legislative victory are:

  • Ending prison gerrymandering
  • Lowering the cost of calls home from prison or jail
  • Protecting in-person family visits from the video calling industry
  • Stopping automatic driver’s license suspensions for drug offenses unrelated to driving
  • Repealing or reforming ineffective and harmful sentencing enhancement zones
  • Protecting letters from home in local jails
  • Requiring racial impact statements for criminal justice bills
  • Creating a “safety valve” for mandatory minimum sentences
  • Eliminating “pay only” probation and regulating privatized probation services
  • Reducing pretrial detention
  • Decreasing state incarceration rates by reducing jail populations
  • Curbing the exploitation of people released from custody
  • Ending electronic monitoring for individuals on parole
  • Shortening excessive prison sentences

Could your state be working on any of these reforms? We’re looking forward to the progress we can make together in 2019!


Welcome Alexi Jones, our new Policy Analyst!

by Wendy Sawyer, September 4, 2018

Alexi JonesPlease welcome our new Policy Analyst, Alexi Jones.

Alexi is a 2017 graduate of Wesleyan University and comes to the Prison Policy Initiative with experience in public health research and advocacy. Her shift to criminal justice reform work stems from her experiences in prison education: Alexi has worked as a tutor in prisons in Connecticut and Massachusetts for the past three years, through Wesleyan’s Center for Prison Education and the Petey Greene Program.

Welcome, Alexi!


80% of the women jailed each year are mothers. We're inflicting profound damage not only on them, but their children as well.

by Wendy Sawyer and Wanda Bertram, May 13, 2018

Women incarcerated in the U.S. are disproportionately in jails rather than prisons, and even a short jail stay can be devastating, especially when it separates a mother from children who depend on her.

Graph showing number of women jailed each year and percentage who are mothers.Estimates have been rounded for this graphic. Sources: Federal Bureau of Investigation, Crime in the United States 2016 (including supplemental table “Arrests by Sex, 2016”); and Vera Institute of Justice, Overlooked: Women in Jails in an Era of Reform.

80% of the women who will go to jail this year are mothers – including nearly 150,000 women who are pregnant when they are admitted. Beyond having to leave their children in someone else’s care, these women will be impacted by the needlessly brutal side effects of going to jail: Aggravation of mental health problems, a greater risk of suicide, and a much higher likelihood of ending up homeless or deprived of essential financial benefits.

It’s time we recognized that when we put women in jail, we inflict potentially irreparable damage to their families. Most women who are incarcerated would be better served though alternatives in their communities. So would their kids.


At under two minutes, this is the shortest and sweetest version of our argument against license suspensions for drug offenses.

by Wanda Bertram, March 6, 2018

At under two minutes, this is the shortest and sweetest version of our argument against license suspensions for drug offenses. We made this case in more detail in our report Reinstating Common Sense and in The Washington Post – but you can get the quick and easy version from our Legal Director here:

If you want to take action and live in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Mississippi, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, Utah, or Virginia, see fact sheets and active legislation on our Driver’s License Suspensions page.


My Washington Post Op-ed explains how states continue to use the war on drugs to meddle with drivers' licenses.

by Aleks Kajstura, February 12, 2018

In The Washington Post this weekend, I explained how states continue to use the war on drugs to meddle with driver’s licenses:

You’d expect to lose your driver’s license if you drove dangerously, but what if you ran afoul of the tax code, mail regulations or controlled-substance statutes? Sadly, in Virginia, that’s not a hypothetical question.

Virginia currently suspends nearly 39,000 driver’s licenses annually for drug offenses unrelated to driving. This is a relic of the war on drugs, and, while most states have opted out of the federal law that created these automatic suspensions, Virginia motors on.

As do 11 other states: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Mississippi, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Utah.

It’s time for these states to leave this practice in the dust. Or take the next legislative exit ramp. Or change lanes on reform. Or put the pedal to the metal… ok, you get the idea. More info available on our driver’s license campaign page.


The push to end driver’s license suspensions for drug offenses is picking up steam in Pennsylvania.

by Wanda Bertram, January 24, 2018

In case you missed it, the push to end driver’s license suspensions for drug offenses is picking up steam in Pennsylvania. Only twelve states continue to enforce this obsolete federal policy, which requires states to suspend driver’s licenses for reasons completely unrelated to driving. Pennsylvania alone has suspended the driving privileges of around 150,000 people since 2011.

Now, with the governor’s vocal support, the state legislature is considering multiple bills to end the practice. Separately, the nonprofit Equal Justice Under Law is suing the state on behalf of two victims of this counterproductive policy.

Nationally speaking, close to 200,000 people are impacted by this outdated law every year, and we’re glad to hear arguments for reform coming from across the political spectrum. The eleven other states where this law is still active should follow Pennsylvania’s lead.


Democratic Women's Working Group dinner brings experts and Congresswomen together to focus on women's incarceration in the US.

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.




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