Shorts archives

New research in the Journal of the American Medical Association shows the tragic results of states' negligence of incarcerated people.

by Emily Widra, July 8, 2020

Today we tweeted about new research using data from the UCLA School of Law’s COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project. The findings, published today in JAMA, present a startling picture of just how widespread COVID-19 is behind bars, especially compared with national COVID-19 infection and death rates:

The Prison Policy Initiative signs on to a letter urging Massachusetts state lawmakers to stop jailing people who need substance use treatment.

by Jenny Landon, June 23, 2020

In the midst of an uprising against police violence and racism, communities across the country are asking a simple question: why are police and jails used to treat social problems? Wouldn’t mental illness, substance use, homelessness, and poverty be better handled within the community, and without the threat of incarceration?

In Massachusetts, men who have substance use disorder can be put in jail or prison when they are committed for drug treatment (“committed” meaning involuntarily taken into state custody). This is not a rare occurance: in 2018, courts committed over 5,700 people under “Section 35.” Nearly two-thirds of those evaluated for commitment were men, and nearly a quarter were homeless. These men have not committed a crime, but wind up in jail nonetheless. As we know, jails have an abysmal track record when it comes to health care—and jail time is no substitute for substance use treatment.

Massachusetts is the last state in the country that locks people up when they’re committed for substance use, but now, the state’s Joint Committee on Health Care Financing is considering advancing a bill that would end this practice. We signed on to a letter written by Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts that supports H.4531, the bill that would ban the use of incarceration for men who are committed for drug treatment.

It is past time for Massachusetts to stop using the criminal justice system as a band-aid for social problems, and to stop punishing people with medical conditions. A good place to start would be to stop locking up people who need drug treatment.

Joining over 80 partner organizations, the Prison Policy Initiative signs on to a set of principles calling for the protection of privacy and democracy as the technology sector responds to the pandemic.

by Jenny Landon, June 12, 2020

As the United States begins to consider strategies for reopening, we signed on to a set of principles designed to guide policymakers, businesses, and public health officials in the use of information technology to help quell the virus.

Too often, information technology is weaponized against communities of color, undocumented people, and other marginalized communities to track and monitor their whereabouts and behaviors.

In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is heartening to see the tech world step up with potential solutions for containment. However, plans to reopen must not harm those already suffering disproportionately from the health and economic fallout of the virus.

The letter reads, in part:

No COVID-19 response technology has been proven trustworthy and effective for combating the pandemic in the United States. The principles state that use of such technology must only be allowed if it is:

  • Nondiscriminatory
  • Used Exclusively for Public Health Purposes
  • Effective
  • Voluntary
  • Secure
  • Accountable

For more information, check out the full text of the principles, as well as the list co-signing organizations.

To learn more about how information technology negatively impacts marginalized communities and democracy, you can read Stephen Raher’s book review Automated Justice: A Review of Weapons of Math Destruction.

Police violence is a systemic problem in the U.S., not simply incidental, and it happens on a scale far greater than other wealthy nations.

by Alexi Jones and Wendy Sawyer, June 5, 2020

There is no question that the number of police killings of civilians in the U.S. – who are disproportionately Black and other people of color – are the result of policies and practices that enable and even encourage police violence. Compared to police in other wealthy democracies, American police kill civilians at incredibly high rates:

chart comparing the rates of police killings in the U.S. with 9 other wealthy nations. The U.S. rate of 33.5 per 10 million people is over 3 times higher than the next-highest rate, which is 9.8 per 10 million people in Canada

The chart above compares the annual rates of police killings in each country, accounting for differences in population size. This is the most apples-to-apples comparison we can make with this data.1 But the total number of deaths at the hands of police is also worth seeing in comparison with other countries:

chart comparing the total number of police killings in the U.S. with 9 other wealthy nations. U.S. police killed 1,099 people in 2019, while none of the other 9 countries compared had more than 36 police killings in the most recent year with data

The sources for these charts are listed in the table below:

Country Annual number of law enforcement killings Total population Law enforcement killings per 10 million people Source for number of law enforcement killings Data year Source for total population
United States 1,099 328,239,523 33.5 Mapping Police Violence 2019 U.S. Census Population Clock (population as of July 1, 2019)
Canada 36 36,708,083 9.8 CBC News, Deadly force:
Fatal encounters with police in Canada: 2000-2017
2017 Statistics Canada (population estimate as of July 1, 2017)
Australia 21 24,770,700 8.5 National Deaths in Custody Program, Deaths in custody in Australia 2017-18. This includes deaths that occurred in police custody and custody-related operations (i.e. motor vehicle pursuit deaths). 2017-2018 (1 year of data) Australian Demographic Statistics December 2017 (Year-end 2017 population estimate)
The Netherlands 4 17,282,163 2.3 Public Prosecution Service, (translated from Dutch by Google here) 2019 Statistics Netherlands (CBS) Population key figures (2019 population estimate)
New Zealand 1 4,840,600 2.1 NZ Police Tactical
Options Research Report, 2018
2018 New Zealand Government Statistics (Year-end 2018 estimate)
Germany 11 82,905,782 1.3 DPA news agency, as cited by Deutsche Welle in German police kill sword-wielding man in front of his mother (2019) 2018 The World Bank, population data (2018 population estimate)
England and Wales 3 59,439,840 0.5 INQUEST, Fatal police shootings 2019 UK Office for National Statistics, Estimates of the population for the UK, England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland (see link to Excel file; we used mid-2019 population estimate for England and Wales only)
Japan 2 126,529,100 0.2 Axios, Police kill far more people in the U.S. than in most rich countries (2020) 2018 The World Bank, population data (2018 population estimate)
Iceland 0 352,721 0 NBC News, Iceland is a gun-loving country with no shooting murders since 2007 (2018) Every year except 2013, when the police shot and killed someone for the first and only time. The World Bank, population data (2018 population estimate)
Norway 0 5,311,916 0 Norwegian Bureau for the Investigation of Police Affairs, Annual Report 2018 (reporting no fatal shootings that year) 2018 The World Bank, population data (2018 population estimate)


  1. The data here reflect the number of police killings of civilians reported in each country. They do not account for the manner of death, as that data was not available for every country. The rates account for population only; they do not reflect differences in police-public contact rates nor the rate of gun ownership in each country, nor any other point of comparison that might partially explain these differences. The statistics presented here can only illuminate the vast differences between policing in the U.S. and in other wealthy nations, not explain them.  ↩

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:

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.

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