Shorts archives

We offer lessons learned from developing our new report, Shadow Budgets, to encourage journalists to investigate welfare funds in their local prison or jail systems.

by Wanda Bertram, May 6, 2024

Our new report Shadow Budgets: How mass incarceration steals from the poor to give to the prison explains that prisons and jails squeeze revenue out of incarcerated people and their families via paid telecommunications services, commissaries, money transfers, and disciplinary fines, then funnel it into “Inmate Welfare Funds” and use the money to cover the costs of incarceration. While corrections officials claim that these funds go to benefit incarcerated people, money from these accounts often sits idle — or worse, is spent on perks for correctional staff, like special meals or gun range memberships. Even when the funds are put toward improving conditions behind bars, the spending typically meets a need that can and should be paid for out of the agency’s general budget — not money extracted from incarcerated people.

Shadow Budgets identifies welfare funds in 49 prison systems, explains what rules govern these funds, and discusses some of the ways this money has been misused. As we discuss in the report, however, inmate welfare funds are not as transparent or accountable as general correctional budgets. Outside actors like state auditors — and investigative journalists — play a key role in uncovering how states and counties use this money. In this blog post, we offer lessons learned from developing our report to encourage journalists to investigate these funds in their local prison or jail systems.

 

Investigating welfare funds: what records to request, and how

Not all jails and prisons have welfare funds, and those that do may call it something else. In some places, they don’t appear to have formal names at all. (And while most funds draw revenue from commissary and/or telecom services purchases, some may have other sources.) If Appendix A of our report doesn’t provide these details about the jail or prison system you’re investigating, you can call the agency itself and ask. You might want to ask where kickbacks from telecom and commissary services are deposited, or whether there is a fund for the general welfare or benefit of the incarcerated population. Alternatively, you can consult county, municipal or state policies (for example, this one for the Michigan Department of Corrections). Information about funds in local jails may also be listed in state correctional standards, if you live in a state where the department of corrections has authority over jails.

The most important questions you’ll investigate about the welfare fund are: How much money is in the fund, how is it being spent, and who gets to decide? You will likely have to submit a public records request to find out; for tips on filing public records requests to corrections agencies, see our records request guide.

Specifically, we recommend that you request:

  • An itemized list of purchases made from the inmate welfare fund (try to go back two or three years, if possible, to get a representative dataset).
  • Balance sheets for the account. As we discuss in our report, many if not most prison systems sit on large amounts of revenue even as key programs for incarcerated people go underfunded. The balance sheet will show if the jail or prison is actually using the money. Again, asking for a few years of data will help understand whether balances are carried over.
  • Any audits or fiscal reports on the funds. Depending on your county and state, you may instead want to request this information from the auditor’s office, the county/city board or council, or the state department of corrections. (The state or local policies governing the welfare fund should tip you off as to what agency to reach out to about audits and fiscal reports.)
  • If the fund has an oversight committee — which should be mentioned in the state/local policies discussed above — request information about how often the committee meets, when its last meeting was, and who sits on the committee. If the jail or DOC cannot provide this information, it’s possible that the committee is not active. (On the other hand, if the committee is active, consider contacting them as a source for your story.)
  • You may also want information about the sources of money in the fund. In particular, we advise locating the jail/prison’s contracts with its commissary or telecom providers, where agreements about revenue-sharing are typically laid out. We’ve made hundreds of contract documents available to the public in our Correctional Contracts Library.

We also suggest asking the jail or prison whether incarcerated people have any say in how the inmate welfare fund is used. Since these funds are theoretically dedicated to benefiting incarcerated people, and are paid for by incarcerated people, it’s good to know to what extent administrators consider their input.

 

How to assess uses of welfare fund money

Most jails and prisons have regulations or statutes governing what the money in their inmate welfare fund may be used for. (Appendix A of our report contains details on the rules in several prison systems.) Sometimes, corrections officials use the money in ways that may violate these rules, like Pinal County, Ariz. Sheriff Mark Lamb, who spent $200,000 in revenue from jail phone calls and commissary services on “guns, bullets and vests” for law enforcement officers. John Washington of Arizona Luminaria, who broke the story, found that the state statute governing the welfare fund only allowed the money to be used for “the education and welfare of inmates.”

It’s worth noting, however, that the Pinal County Jail’s fund also paid for “recreational equipment, clothing, and internet services for people who are incarcerated.” These kinds of expenditures are legal under Arizona’s statute, but they are not laudable uses of poor people’s money. Jails have a responsibility to make sure the people in their care are clothed. And to the extent that “internet services” are necessary for people in jail to have access to law libraries and the courts, they are a constitutional right, not a privilege.

When assessing uses of welfare fund money, consider the following questions:

  • Is the jail or prison forcing incarcerated people to cover the cost of their own basic needs?
  • Is it appropriate to force many of the lowest-income people in the county or state (i.e. the majority of people in jail, and their families) to pay for these things?
  • Why is the county or state not paying for these goods, services or programs out of its general budget?

Keep in mind that it’s not always easy to tell whether uses of these funds are legal or not. As we discuss in our report, many state statutes include wiggle words like “primarily” or “including but not limited to,” effectively giving corrections officials free rein to spend the money any way they like. Just because an expenditure is technically legal, of course, doesn’t mean it is right.

 

Who else to talk to

Incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people and their families

If you’re able to contact people behind bars or their loved ones, ask them whether they have heard of the inmate welfare fund (make sure to use whatever term the jail or prison uses). You can also ask if they know of any programs or benefits for incarcerated people paid for with that money.

In writing Shadow Budgets, we talked to several formerly incarcerated people and advocates for incarcerated people about their views of welfare funds. Many saw the funds as regressive and exploitative, while many also worried about them being dismantled, and were concerned that if they did not exist, the needs met with those funds would go unfulfilled. While there is no easy answer for what to do about these funds, incarcerated people’s perspectives are crucial to understanding what the funds are or are not accomplishing.

State and local elected representatives

It’s likely that many elected lawmakers will never have heard of inmate welfare funds before. Nevertheless, because the funds are governed by state and local regulations, lawmakers can and should be held accountable for inappropriate uses of the money.

We also suggest asking state elected officials broader questions about welfare funds, such as:

  • Are you concerned about prisons and jails having large discretionary budgets that are outside the purview of the legislature?
  • Why does the state not choose to fund these services and programs with money from the regular appropriations process?

 

Recommended reading: investigative journalism about inmate welfare funds

These stories focusing on or involving welfare funds may give you other ideas about questions to explore, or sources to contact for your story:

  • PennLive’s 2023 investigation into the Dauphin County Jail’s use of telecom and commissary revenues (via the jail’s welfare fund)
  • Pacific Sun’s 2022 reporting on the welfare fund in the jail in Marin County, California
  • WSB Atlanta’s 2023 story about misuses of money in the Fulton County Jail’s welfare fund
  • Arizona Luminaria’s story series about Pinal County Sheriff Mark Lamb’s use of welfare fund money to buy guns and ammunition for law enforcement

Much like other aspects of prisons and especially of local jails, inmate welfare funds are rich territory for journalistic investigations because they have so little transparency. Unless state or local lawmakers request visibility into these funds, they can be spent more or less however correctional officials wish, meaning that hundreds of millions of dollars in public spending nationwide is virtually unaccounted for. By investigating welfare funds, journalists can shine a light not only on a little-known form of public spending, but also on the broader priorities of jail and prison officials. Transparency into these funds can spark important conversations about whether these officials’ stated commitment to incarcerated people’s wellbeing is reflected in their use of resources.

If you’re a journalist and have any questions about our report or about this guide, please don’t hesitate to write to us through our contact page.


Updated data visualizations illustrate the scale of — and disparities within — mass incarceration.

by Leah Wang, April 1, 2024

At the Prison Policy Initiative, we’re known for clear, powerful visuals communicating the harms of mass criminalization. We balance context and simplicity to create visualizations that are useful beyond our reports and briefings.

We usually only update our data visualizations about mass incarceration as part of a new report or briefing. However, some graphs are so powerful that they warrant special treatment. In recent months, new data have been released about racial disparities, probation, incarceration, and jail detention. So we’ve updated a few of our most comprehensive and compelling charts to equip advocates, lawmakers, and journalists with the latest information available.

 

Racial disparities in incarceration

Since 2020, the Bureau of Justice Statistics has reported on more racial and ethnic categories in jail populations, as well as prison populations by sex. These new statistics underscore the ongoing racial injustice of prisons, where the national incarceration rate of Black people is six times the rate of white people and more than twice the rate in every single state.

  • Chart showing Black people are incarcerated in prison at a higher rate than any other race, 911 per 100,000.
  • Chart showing Black people are incarcerated in jail at a higher rate than any other race, 558 per 100,000.
  • Chart showing Black men are incarcerated in prison at the highest rate of any single race category, 1,826 per 100,000.
  • Chart showing American Indian or Alaska Native women are incarcerated in prison at the highest rate of any single race category, 173 per 100,000.

A few months ago, we released an updated dataset with incarceration rates by race (covering 2021 for prisons and 2019 for jails) for every state and the District of Columbia. Our Racial Justice page also contains reports, briefings, research, and visualizations focused on the intersection of race and mass incarceration.

 

State policies (still) drive mass incarceration

State-level policies are responsible for incarcerating the vast majority of people in the United States. Recent data show many state prison populations have nearly returned to, or even surpassed, their pre-pandemic levels—highlighting a serious need for policies that will permanently reduce prison populations. (State lawmakers and advocates should check out the high-impact policy ideas we compile every year for our Winnable Battles series.)

  • hart showing the growth of incarcerated populations in local jails, state prisons, and federal prisons from 1925 to 2022. Most people are incarcerated in state prisons — more than 1 million people.
  • Chart showing the growth of incarceration rates in local jails, state prisons, and federal prisons from 1925 to 2022. Most people are incarcerated in state prisons — over 300 per 100,000 people.
  • Chart showing women's incarceration rates from 1922 to 2022 in local jails, state prisons, and federal prisons. Unlike men, more incarcerated women are held in local jails than state prisons.
  • Chart showing women's incarceration rates from 1922 to 2022 in local jails, state prisons, and federal prisons. Unlike men, more incarcerated women are held in local jails than state prisons.

The long arms of mass incarceration and supervision

In addition to the 1.2 million people warehoused in prisons, over 650,000 languish in local jails, often as a result of prohibitively high cash bail. There, they may spend weeks, months, or even years in infamously terrible conditions before a decision is reached in their case. As you can see in the first chart below, pretrial detention has driven jail population growth over the past 25 years; at this point, more than two out of three people in jail are legally presumed innocent.

Beyond the 1.9 million people behind bars, millions more are subjected to the greater “mass punishment” system of parole and probation supervision, living in the community but under restrictive and counterproductive rules. More than 2.9 million people on probation and 800,000 people released from prison on parole must live with the constant threat of being jailed over a minor or even noncriminal “technical” violation. And although these populations have decreased somewhat since 2020, they’re still too high and are already rebounding as pandemic-related delays in the courts subside.

  • Chart showing the growth in jail populations since the 1990s is due to the growth of pretrial detention.
  • hart showing nearly twice as many people are on probation than in prison and jails.

Visit our Jails and Bail and Probation and Parole pages for more research on these institutions’ roles in the carceral system.

One more thing: We’ve also updated the underlying data behind some of these charts in our data toolbox to empower advocates, lawmakers, and journalists to illustrate the consequences of mass incarceration in their communities. If you’re using this data in your work, let us know about it.


The United States' massive practice of incarceration goes almost entirely unchecked. This new resource aims to change that by centralizing news, educational resources, legislative updates, and more to support movements for independent corrections oversight.

by Brian Nam-Sonenstein, March 25, 2024

Millions of incarcerated people face deadly and abusive conditions every day in the United States because most jailers and prison administrators have free reign over their lives. For many corrections departments, meaningful and effective oversight is the exception, not the rule. Take Oregon, for example: sheriffs inspect each other’s jails and give out perfect scores while reporting record-breaking death counts in their custody. In the state’s prisons, officials have failed to keep track of complaints against corrections staffers and flout requests for information about how often incarcerated people are locked down or experience overdoses.

Courts are basically the only oversight most jails and prisons have–an arrangement that leading oversight scholar Michele Deitch describes as “an anomaly on the world stage.” And courts are not well suited for this job: they’re reactive and narrowly focused on specific complaints, they move slowly, and they’re expensive. Perhaps most importantly, incarcerated people are routinely blocked from using them thanks to laws like the Prison Litigation Reform Act. So, what makes for effective oversight? Which states have oversight bodies and which don’t? And what are the differences between the various models?

Fortunately, PrisonOversight.org is working to answer questions like these, providing critical resources to a movement for more oversight that, according to a recent survey from Families Against Mandatory Minimums, 82% of Americans support. Here, we preview some of the data they’ve collected and encourage you to explore the site and support this essential project.

 

The state of prison oversight

PrisonOversight.org is a project of the National Resource Center for Correctional Oversight (NRCCO), which supports advocates, policymakers, and government officials in developing and strengthening oversight. Michele Deitch co-runs NRCCO alongside Associate Director Alycia Welch — another leading expert in correctional oversight.

One of the website’s most significant contributions to the movement is a helpful inventory of state-level oversight. According to their map, 19 states and the District of Columbia have an external, independent prison oversight body, while 31 states do not.

map of prison oversight in the U.S. PrisonOversight.org’s map shows the patchwork of prison oversight in the United States. Nineteen states and the District of Columbia have some form of prison oversight body, highlighted in blue in the above map.

Each state has a detailed profile that includes the most recent annual budget appropriation for oversight, staff size, structure, and more. According to their data, there is wide variation among the small group of states that have oversight bodies:

  • Oversight budgets range from $200,000 (Nebraska) to $42 million (California) annually.
  • Full and part-time staffing ranges from one person (Oregon’s lone ombudsman) to 211 (California); half have ten or fewer staff.
  • While some are quite old,1 most oversight bodies that exist today were established or re-established after the 1970s; nine have only been around since 2000. Five states have spun up oversight agencies since 2020.
  • Only three of the 20 oversight bodies were non-governmental organizations.
  • Four of the oversight bodies are so new that we lack basic information about them, such as their expected staff size, budget, and activities.

NRCCO is developing similar resources about jails and court-ordered oversight bodies that they will publish in the future.

 

What does effective oversight look like?

In her work analyzing corrections oversight internationally and in the U.S., Deitch notes that “The sheer geographical size of the United States, the enormous number of people incarcerated, and the federalist structure of our correctional system make a single national system of independent oversight impractical.” The best practice, she argues, would be for both state prisons and county jails to receive state-level oversight. She also highlights some helpful attributes of strong and effective oversight bodies. They must:

  • Be independent of and external to the correctional agency;
  • Have a mandate to conduct regular, routine inspections;
  • Have unfettered, “golden key” access to the facilities, incarcerated persons, staff, and records, including the ability to conduct unannounced inspections;
  • Be adequately resourced, with appropriately trained staff;
  • Have a duty to report publicly their findings and recommendations;
  • Use an array of methods of gathering information and evaluating the treatment of incarcerated people;
  • Be required to cooperate fully in the inspection process and to respond promptly and publicly to the monitoring body’s findings and recommendations; and
  • Focus monitoring duties on the treatment of incarcerated people and any risks the institution presents to their health, safety, and civil rights.

These lessons are clear in PrisonOversight.org’s design. The website’s helpful Oversight 101 section delves into the basics behind some of these attributes, noting, for example, that layered approaches to oversight are best. One section examines the limitations of leaving everything to the courts or placing too much faith in accreditation alone. There’s information on challenges in practicing oversight, such as insufficient staffing or insulation from political pressure. Helpful resources like model prison oversight legislation and links to recent legislation can help advocates and policymakers keep up with oversight experiments around the country. The Developments section tracks job opportunities in the field, conferences, and news reports.

 

No more taking impunity in corrections for granted

For hundreds of years in the U.S., incarcerated people have been abandoned to fight for their dignity and safety at the hands of officials who have little interest in or incentive to oblige. They are shunned from society through criminalization and incarceration and then plunged into opaque institutions designed to neglect, if not actively reject, their best interests. Their disappearance from public view perpetuates their abuse while law enforcement and correctional authorities enjoy complete control over what information makes it outside. Independent, external oversight can help shift this balance of power: by collecting and publicizing data on the conditions facing people in these institutions, oversight bodies can help incarcerated people overcome the brutal retaliation they face for speaking out. While enforcement powers vary across these oversight experiments, we all benefit from their ability to provide a meaningful counter to the opportunistic myth-making and rationalizations upon which mass incarceration has thrived.

Resources like PrisonOversight.org are helping to build the momentum for accountability that is long overdue. This project gives advocates helpful information to inform their strategies and public education efforts. It’s also an excellent resource for reporters to learn about what does or does not exist in their state, how oversight bodies work, who serves on them, and what they do and don’t publish. And researchers and policymakers benefit from the collection of state-by-state practices, with a level of detail that allows us to both see the big picture and experiment with different models.

We are grateful that a project like PrisonOversight.org has arrived on the scene. We highly recommend you check out their resources and incorporate the wisdom and recommendations it contains into your campaigns.

 
 

Footnotes

  1. Some oversight bodies, like the Correctional Association of New York and the Pennsylvania Prison Society, were established in the 1800s.
     ↩


Please welcome our new Digital Communications Strategist, Regan Huston!

by Danielle Squillante, March 18, 2024

Regan Huston

We are excited to introduce our new Digital Communications Strategist, Regan Huston! In her new role, Regan will assist the Communications Department in using our social media platforms to raise awareness of the harms of mass incarceration.

Regan is a digital strategist passionate about making sense of the world’s chaos and improving media literacy across all social platforms. She holds a B.J. in Convergence Journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia. Before joining the Prison Policy Initiative, Regan worked as a Senior Social Media Manager for The Messenger and developed content and social strategies for NowThis and Vice News. She also serves on the board of the iSpeakMedia Foundation which is focused on advancing media literacy education across the nation. She is an experienced digital strategist and we are excited for her to apply her expertise to grow our digital audiences.

Welcome to the team, Regan!


We called on the Federal Trade Commission to strengthen its proposed rule to explicitly prohibit some of the most abusive junk fees.

by Mike Wessler, February 12, 2024

In 2023, with considerable fanfare, President Biden announced a new initiative to crack down on “junk fees” — those extra, often hidden charges that seem to do nothing besides jack up the price of a product or service while providing no extra benefit. At the time, we, along with 28 other groups, called on the President to put the junk fees harming incarcerated people and their families at the top of the list of things to be addressed.

As part of this initiative, the Federal Trade Commission recently released a new proposed rule to crack down on junk fees and asked for public comment. Last week, in collaboration with the National Consumer Law Center and our former general counsel, Stephen Raher, we submitted a 27-page comment explaining that these proposed rules will provide more transparency about junk fees but little actual relief for people entangled in the criminal legal system and their families.

 

Junk fees in the criminal legal system

Junk fees are pervasive in all aspects of the criminal legal system, from arrest through after one’s release from detention. These harmful fees are particularly insidious because they’re generally unavoidable, and people in the system often have lower incomes and are less able to absorb these costs.

We’ve written at length about these fees in the past, but some of the most common and troubling ones are related to:

  • Money transfers: Increasingly, prisons and jails are shifting costs for necessities, like food and hygiene products, onto the people they incarcerate. As a result, having access to money is increasingly important for people behind bars. However, because of the paltry wages incarcerated people earn, their loved ones often have to send them funds. When they do so, the private company the facility contracts with to handle these money transfers usually keeps a cut of the money for themselves. Sometimes that cut is more than 20%.
  • Release cards: When a person is released, the prison or jail that confined them often puts any money from their trust account — wages, support from family, or funds they had in their possession when arrested — on a prepaid debit card. These cards are riddled with fees including for using the card, not using the card, or seeking customer service.
  • Communication services: E-messaging and tablets have become nearly ubiquitous in prisons and jails nationwide. They’ve opened new opportunities for incarcerated people to stay in touch with loved ones and maintain connections to the outside world through books, music, and other services. They’ve also created a new way for the companies behind these services to sap funds from incarcerated people through opaque “infrastructure” or “maintenance” fees and bulk pricing schemes.

 

The proposed rule is good for transparency but not enough for incarcerated people

The rule proposed by the Federal Trade Commission primarily focuses on making these junk fees more transparent — rather than prohibiting them altogether. For those on the outside, they’ll no longer be surprised by hidden fees when they’re in the final stages of making a purchase. Companies will have to put these unavoidable extra costs front and center. This will make the true cost of a product or service easier to know up front, empowering consumers to make more informed decisions.

Unfortunately, transparency about these fees isn’t enough for incarcerated people and their families. While it is true they’ll be less likely to be surprised by hidden costs, under this rule, they still usually won’t have any way to avoid unfair fees. Unlike on the outside, people in prison and jail can’t use a different business if they think a company is loading a service with excessive fees. For money transfers, release cards, e-messages, and more, they are usually stuck with one company that the prison or jail contracts with to provide the service. Because incarcerated people are literally captive consumers who can’t take their business elsewhere, this type of transparency isn’t likely to reduce costs and abusive practices in any real way.

 

Giving the rule more teeth

The rule, as written, does not go far enough to protect incarcerated people and their loved ones from junk fees. Transparency isn’t enough; stronger enforcement and explicit prohibitions on certain practices are needed, too.

The good news is that the rule isn’t yet final. The Federal Trade Commission is currently considering comments like ours as they prepare their final rule, so it still has a chance to strengthen it to protect people in prisons and jails.

Here’s how we told the Commission they could strengthen the rule:

  • Explicitly prohibit fees that provide little or no value to consumers: If a company charges a fee, there should be some benefit to incarcerated people. If not, it is simply a mechanism to sap money from them unfairly. While the rule currently relies on transparency to pressure companies to move away from these useless fees, more is needed.
  • Ban junk fees that exceed the cost of providing a good or service: Many companies charge fees that significantly exceed their costs to provide the service. For example, some release card companies charge a $9.95 fee to close an account. This is far more than it costs the company to close the account, indicating it is just a way to get a little bit more money out of incarcerated people while they still can.

A new report from the Vera Institute of Justice finds that the number of people subjected to electronic monitoring in the U.S. increased fivefold between 2005 and 2021 and nearly tenfold by 2022.

by Emmett Sanders, February 8, 2024

In their new report, People on Electronic Monitoring, the Vera Institute of Justice completes a massive undertaking. Collecting data from all 50 states, more than 800 counties, and the federal court and immigration systems, this report offers the most comprehensive picture of the U.S.’s electronic monitoring population to date. Ultimately, their findings provide concrete evidence to support what activists and impacted people have long argued: Electronic Monitoring (EM) is not an effective way to reduce reliance on incarceration but is “often a crucial component of highly punitive, deeply entrenched criminal legal systems.” In other words, Electronic Monitoring is a form of incarceration, not an alternative to incarceration.

Vera’s data collection reveals that EM usage has increased significantly in all sectors since 2005, culminating in more than half a million adults under surveillance nationwide by either the criminal legal system or the immigration system.

Graph showing rise in use of EM in the criminal legal system, 2015-2021

EM usage in the criminal legal system is up significantly, with more than 150,000 people on EM at any given time in state and local monitoring systems. At the state and local level, EM is most heavily used in the Midwest, at a rate of 65 per 100,000 residents, more than a third higher than in the South, the next highest region of use, where it is used at a rate of 41 per 100,000 people. However, every region across the country has seen an increase in EM usage.

Immigration accounts for roughly two-thirds of the total EM population, with around 360,000 people monitored under ICE’s Intensive Supervision Appearance Program (ISAP). Much of this astounding increase occurred between 2021, when ICE monitored around 103,000 people, and 2022. This expansion is particularly concerning as ISAP’s EM conditions can be dehumanizing and physically and mentally taxing for people seeking asylum.

Bar graph showing rise in use of EM by ICE, 2015-2022

Overall, this increased usage has translated to big business for the 11 EM companies that control roughly 99% of the EM industry. Vera notes this translated to more than $1.2B spent on EM in 2023 alone. In many jurisdictions, EM programs are “primarily sustained by user fees,” which can range upward of $900 per month and shift the burden of funding to those least positioned to pay it – low-income individuals and families. As we have noted, however, this massive investment in digital incarceration has not replaced our reliance on more traditional “brick and mortar” incarceration in jails but rather serves as an expansion of overall state surveillance. Vera’s researchers note that an increase in EM usage can often accompany an increase in jail population, as in the case of Detroit, Michigan, which saw a 41 percent increase in EM use coincide with a 60% increase in jail population. Indeed, the report finds that “the majority of local jurisdictions with a high EM rate also had a high jail incarceration rate.”

While some EM expansion can be traced to COVID-19 pandemic response, Vera also notes that evolving technology is a large driver of increasing EM usage. The report points out that the use of GPS devices 1 increased thirtyfold between 2005 and 2021. Advancing technology has also increased the use of programs like cell phone apps to track and monitor people, which has impacted EM populations while raising new areas of concern, such as the potential for highly personal data to be shared and compromised.

Vera finds that other problems with EM usage include limited public accountability due to the “patchwork nature” of EM programs, which operate at multiple often tangled levels; this makes it difficult to track where public jurisdiction ends and private control begins, limiting programmatic accountability to the public and elected officials. Minimal oversight, heavy privatization, and lack of regulation also enable potential corruption, and some claim opens the door for abuses and extortion.

Ultimately, Vera finds that, though EM is touted as an alternative to incarceration, this massively expanding technology “acts as another form of incarceration, relies on technology rife with defects, shifts costs onto people with low incomes, and creates harm for directly impacted people and their loved ones.” We hope advocates can use Vera’s groundbreaking research to oppose the expansion of EM in their own communities.

 

Footnotes

  1. GPS monitoring devices use global positioning satellite technology to continually track and monitor movement. This is opposed to Radio Frequency devices which are generally connected to a centrally-based monitoring unit and send an alert when someone leaves its proximity.  ↩


New data on the overuse of probation and parole, insights into the racial disparities in prisons and jails, and much more. Here are the highlights of our work in 2023.

by Danielle Squillante, December 21, 2023

2023 was a big year at the Prison Policy Initiative. We exposed how the overuse of probation and parole serves to extend the prison walls into our communities, produced new datasets and graphics that show just how vast the racial disparities in prisons and jails actually are, and highlighted how the same companies that profited off of over-priced prison phone calls have moved into the e-messaging industry. Didn’t catch everything we published in 2023? We’ve curated a list of some of our best work from this year below.

 

Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2023

We released an update of our flagship report, which provides the most comprehensive view of how many people are locked up in the U.S., in what kinds of facilities, and why. It 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.

Women experience a dramatically different criminal legal system than men do, but data on their experiences is difficult to find and put into context. To fill these data gaps, we also released an updated Women’s Whole Pie report in partnership with the ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice, which includes richly-annotated data visualizations about women behind bars.

  • pie chart showing national offense types and places of incarceration
  • pie chart showing national offense types and places of incarceration for women

Punishment Beyond Prisons 2023

Our report shows the full picture of correctional control in the U.S., with a particular focus on the overuse of probation and parole. It includes data for all 50 states and D.C. on the number of people under correctional control, including community supervision. We’ve designed this report specifically to allow state policymakers and residents to assess the scale and scope of their entire correctional systems. Our findings raise the question of whether probation and parole systems are working as intended or whether they simply funnel people into prisons and jails — or are even replicating prison conditions in the community.

bar chart showing the 50 states and D.C. in terms of their overall mass punishment rate

 

SMH: The rapid & unregulated growth of e-messaging in prisons

To better understand the explosive growth in e-messaging, we examined all 50 state prison systems, as well as the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), to see how common this technology has become, how much it costs, and what, if anything, is being done to protect incarcerated people and their families from exploitation. Our review found that, despite its potential to keep incarcerated people and their families connected, e-messaging has quickly become just another way for companies to profit at their expense.

a map showing which prison telecommunication company has contracts for e-messaging in that state's prison system
 

Updated data and charts: Incarceration stats by race, ethnicity, and gender for all 50 states and D.C.

We released new data visualizations and updated tables showing the national landscape of persistent racial disparities in state prisons and local jails. Unlike other datasets, ours provides apples-to-apples state comparisons in three formats: counts, rates, and percentages. Using this data, we’ve updated over 100 of the key graphics on our State Profile pages, showing prison and jail incarceration rates by race and ethnicity, and how the racial composition of each state’s prisons and jails compares to the total state population.

bar chart showing the ratios of black and white imprisonment rates by state using 2021 data

 

What is civil commitment? Recent report raises visibility of this shadowy form of incarceration

Twenty states and the federal Bureau of Prisons detain over 6,000 people, mostly men, who have been convicted of sex-related offenses in prison-like “civil commitment” facilities beyond the terms of their criminal sentence. This deep dive into recently-published data from a survey of individuals confined in an Illinois civil commitment facility sounds the alarm about how these “shadow prisons” operate and the high rates of violence and trauma that people detained in the facilities are subjected to.

map of all 50 states with the number of people being held in civil commitment in each state

 

The aging prison population: Causes, costs, and consequences

Our briefing examines the inhumane, costly, and counterproductive practice of locking up older adults. The U.S. prison population is aging at a much faster rate than the nation as a whole — and older adults represent a growing portion of people who are arrested and incarcerated each year. And while prisons and jails are unhealthy for people of all ages, older adults’ interactions with these systems are particularly dangerous, if not outright deadly.

 

How 12 states are addressing family separation by incarceration — and why they can and should do more

Our briefing assesses the legislative action taken by 12 states and the federal government to address the growing crisis of family separation caused when a primary caregiver is incarcerated. All too often, incarceration destroys family bonds as parental rights are terminated or children end up in foster care. We explain how advocates across the country are fighting for creative and holistic solutions.

map of all 50 states showing which have taken legislative action to address family separation by incarceration

 

No Release: Parole grant rates have plummeted in most states since the pandemic started

With parole board practices in the news, we thought it was important to look around the country and evaluate the direction in which state parole boards are moving. We surveyed 27 states and found only 7 saw an increase in their parole approval rate since the pandemic began, and almost every state held substantially fewer hearings than in years past.

bar chart comparing changes in parole grant rates in 27 states with discretionary parole between 2019 to 2022
 

Breaking news from inside: How prisons suppress prison journalism

In response to a move by New York prison officials in May to introduce a policy to effectively suppress prison journalism, we released a briefing building off of data from the Prison Journalism Project that detailed restrictions on prison journalism in prison systems across the country. Prison journalism affirms some of our most basic democratic principles — the exercise of speech free from government influence — and is an essential check on the extreme power these institutions wield over life and death.

 

A profile of Native incarceration in the U.S.

Adding to our 50 State Profile pages, we’ve created a profile of Native incarceration in the United States to illuminate what data exists about the mass incarceration of Native people. Native people are incarcerated in state and federal prisons at a rate of 763 per 100,000 people. This is double the national rate and more than four times higher than the state and federal prison incarceration rate of white people. In publishing this profile of Native incarceration, we are hoping to make the existing information more accessible, while also acknowledging the layers of systemic oppression impacting Native people in the criminal legal system.

 

States to the Census Bureau: You created prison gerrymandering, you need to end it.

Prison gerrymandering is a problem created by the Census Bureau’s policy of counting incarcerated people as residents of prison cells rather than their home communities. In a May blog post, we reviewed a new National Conference of State Legislatures report that outlines the experiences and recommendations from states that implemented anti-prison gerrymandering reforms in the 2020 redistricting cycle. The report makes clear that state officials agree that prison gerrymandering is important, worth fixing, and the Census Bureau should be responsible for ending it. With roughly half of U.S. residents now living in a state that has taken action to end prison gerrymandering, the emerging consensus on this issue is clear. But will the Bureau listen?

map of all 50 states showing which state and local governments have taken action to address prison gerrymandering
 

Advocacy Toolkit

We continue to update our Advocacy Toolkit, a collection of web-based resources designed to improve advocates’ skills (such as locating data and conducting public records requests) or to plug directly into their campaigns (such as fighting new jail proposals). New this year is a guide to help advocates identify ways public housing policies can be more inclusive to people with criminal histories, as well as a guide that explains why charge-based carveouts are problematic and provides messaging to combat justifications for including them in criminal justice reforms.

 

This is only a small piece of the important and impactful work we published in 2023 and our work is far from over. We’ve got big things planned in 2024, when we’ll continue to expose the broader harms of mass criminalization and highlight solutions that keep our communities safe without expanding prisons, jails, and the carceral system.


A curated list of some of the most useful statistics to help the public comprehend the magnitude of criminalization in the U.S.

by Emily Widra, October 24, 2023

The United States’ reliance on incarceration outpaces most of the globe: every single state incarcerates more people per capita than virtually any independent democracy on Earth. But the sheer magnitude and impact of a system so large can be hard to fully comprehend. We looked back over some of the best criminal legal system research and chose these ten statistics as some of the most handy for advocates, policymakers, and journalists working to help the public appreciate just how far-reaching mass incarceration is in this country.

A note on our sources: All of the following statistics come from different sources and have been calculated using different methodologies, and are not necessarily compatible with one another. In addition, some of these statistics have been calculated by the Prison Policy Initiative, while others are from academic research and other organizations’ work in the field.

On any given day, about 2 million people in the U.S. are locked up in jails, prisons, and other spaces of confinement.



People cycle through local jails more than 7 million times each year.



3.7 million people are held under community supervision such as probation and parole — more people than are held in jails and prisons combined.



Police threaten or use force against more than 1 million people each year, disproportionately against Black and Latinx people.



More than 79 million people in the U.S. have a criminal record, creating barriers to housing, jobs, healthcare, and food assistance, among many other collateral consequences.1



Half of all Americans have an immediate family member who has been incarcerated. 1 in 5 people have had a parent incarcerated and 2.6 million children have a parent who is currently incarcerated.

Incarcerated people and their families spend upwards of $2.9 billion per year on phone calls and commissary, and annually, people owe more than $50 billion in court-ordered fines and fees.



The median felony bail amount ($10,000) represents eight months of income for the typical detained defendant.



Every state locks up Black people at a higher rate than white people. On average, Black people are imprisoned at rates six times higher than those of white people.



80% of women in jails and 58% of women in prisons are mothers, and most are the primary or sole caretakers of young children.



 
 
 

Footnotes

  1. Calculated from SEARCH’s Survey of State Criminal History Information Systems, 2018 according to the methodology of NELP’s 65 Million “Need Not Apply” report from 2011.  ↩


Learn strategies to convince policymakers to adopt reforms that help all people tangled in the criminal legal system.

by Sarah Staudt, October 12, 2023

In this webinar presented on November 1, 2023, staff from the Prison Policy Initiative and a panel of criminal justice experts have a discussion on how advocates for reform can talk to policymakers about carveouts, with a particular focus on addressing fentanyl and sex offense-related charges.

 

Webinar resources

The slides for the webinar are available here

Prison Policy Initiative has two publications on this topic:

Additional Resources:

  • Chicago 400 Alliance produced this video about people on public registries in Illinois, which is a great example of how to bring the stories of impacted people to legislators. To learn more about the Chicago 400 Alliance, coordinated by Laurie Jo Reynolds, you can view their website: https://www.chicago400.net/
  • To learn more about Drug Policy Alliance’s work advocating for a health-focused approach to fentanyl, you can find their website on the topic here. https://drugpolicy.org/campaign/build-a-health-approach-to-fentanyl/. To sign onto Drug Policy Alliance and Broken No More’s open letter from people who have lost loved ones to overdose, click here.

In our new annual report, we share examples of how we armed the reform movement with the data it needs to push for real change

by Danielle Squillante, September 29, 2023

We just released our 2022-2023 Annual Report, and I’m thrilled to share some highlights of our work with you. We’ve had an incredibly productive year, releasing 19 major reports and 24 research briefings, including updates to our Whole Pie and Women’s Whole Pie. We also expanded our Advocacy Toolkit, provided technical support to advocates on the ground, and continued working with journalists on both sides of the wall to influence the national dialogue about criminal legal system reform. Here are a handful of successes we’re particularly proud of:

  • Publishing a major report on community supervision showing that all states — even those that consider themselves progressive leaders — put significant numbers of their citizens on probation and parole, systems that often replicate prison conditions in the community.
  • Releasing a groundbreaking report showing how companies in the commercial bail industry and their deep-pocketed insurance underwriters make huge profits, even when they fail to do their one job: ensuring their clients’ appearance in court. We also released a companion tool for journalists who want to investigate their local bail bond industry.
  • Advancing our campaign to protect incarcerated people and their loved ones from price gouging by private telecommunications companies who are raking in millions off of phone calls, video visits, and electronic messaging. Our work helped pass the Martha Wright-Reed Just and Reasonable Communications Act in 2023, which clarifies the FCC’s authority to regulate all phone and video calls from correctional facilities.
  • Helping Montana and Maine end prison gerrymandering. Progress on this issue has been so rapid that the National Conference of State Legislatures recently called state efforts to end prison gerrymandering “the fastest-growing trend in redistricting.”
  • Expanding our resources for advocates in counties with plans for new jail construction by developing a guide on understanding jail assessments and developing arguments to push back against jail construction proposals. We also held our first webinar, bringing together organizers to discuss strategies they employed to prevent new jails from being built.

These publications only scratch the surface of what we produced this past year. We are proud of our accomplishments and look forward to sharing new projects with you in the year to come.




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