Shorts archives

We worked with the National Consumer Law Center to explain how, at every state of incarceration, governments and private corporations are draining money from those who can least afford it.

by Mike Wessler, March 23, 2022

the logo for Inquest

In a new piece in Inquest, our general counsel Stephen Raher and Ariel Nelson of the National Consumer Law Center expose the cycle of exploitation that saps money from incarcerated people and their loved ones. The piece provides a big-picture overview of how government agencies and private corporations are profiting off of this system. It explains there are three stages in the cycle:

  1. First, companies and governments take a cut of money coming into prisons. Even in prison, a person needs money to survive, and because prison wages are so low, many incarcerated people rely on money transfers from loved ones to survive. At a time when people in the free world can instantly send money through their smartphones for free, prison money transfers still come with a whopping 20% average fee.
  2. Next, while in prison, incarcerated people are subjected to outlandish rates and prices for essentials — like communications services, food, and hygiene products — and burdened with mandatory fees for things like medical care and the general cost of confinement.
  3. Finally, when a person is released, they often receive a release card, a prepaid debit card that contains money they had when entering prison, money they earned while locked up, and money they had in their trust account. These cards are rife with fees — many of them unavoidable — that quickly drain the money on the card and line the pockets of the companies that administer these programs.

People increasingly recognize this cycle of exploitation is morally problematic and makes poverty — one of the main drivers of criminalized behavior — worse. That’s why some government agencies are increasingly cracking down on this behavior, and through our research and advocacy, we’re pressuring more states to join them.

We encourage you to check out the piece to understand better how the cycle of exploitation works. If you’re looking for more details and state-specific data, check out our work exposing exploitation in the criminal legal system.


In the toolkit, we share tips and lessons we’ve learned over two decades of using data, visuals, and narratives to expose the harms of mass incarceration.

by Mike Wessler, March 2, 2022

Today, we’re launching our new Advocacy Toolkit, a collection of guides and training materials that advocates can use to strengthen their campaigns to end mass incarceration. The toolkit builds on lessons we’ve learned from our two decades of work to improve our criminal legal system. It provides skills-based guides on accessing public records, securing and organizing data, crafting persuasive narratives, and creating impactful visuals. It also includes issue-based guides on protecting in-person visits in prisons and jails, opposing jail expansion, and ending prison gerrymandering. We plan to add additional resources in the future.

Our new advocacy department created this toolkit as part of our expanded effort to support the people and groups on the ground doing the hard work to end mass incarceration.

While most advocacy departments organize campaigns, mobilize volunteers, and pressure decision-makers for change, ours is a bit different. We’re not looking to replicate the amazing work that thousands of people and hundreds of organizations are already doing to reform the criminal legal system. Instead, as a research organization known for using data visualizations and easy-to-understand narratives, our advocacy work aims to help these organizations leverage our expertise to strengthen their campaigns. That’s why our advocacy department will focus on:

  • connecting state and local movement partners and decision-makers to data that can fuel their campaigns for criminal justice reform;
  • identifying and filling gaps where new research would support reform efforts;
  • producing training materials, like the Advocacy Toolkit, for use by criminal justice reform advocates; and
  • providing technical assistance, including identifying reform opportunities (such as our annual list of winnable state criminal justice reforms), giving messaging support, offering expert review of documents and legislation, and connecting partners working in similar spaces.

We hope these new resources will help to strengthen the movement to end mass incarceration. If you use the Toolkit in your work, tell us about it. Let us know what worked, what didn’t, and what other resources we can provide. And, if you’re an organization seeking assistance from our new advocacy department, drop us a line to let us know how we can help.


Stephen is joining the Prison Policy Initiative as General Counsel.

by Jenny Landon, September 16, 2021

Stephen Raher

This week we’re excited to officially add Stephen Raher to the Prison Policy Initiative staff roster after years of working with him as a volunteer. Stephen is joining as Prison Policy Initiative’s general counsel. He worked as a criminal justice reform advocate in Colorado for several years before going to law school. Prior to joining Prison Policy Initiative, Stephen worked as a litigator and bankruptcy lawyer, both in private practice and as an attorney in the federal court system. For many of those years, he was also an active volunteer with Prison Policy Initiative’s Young Professionals Network.

Stephen has written several pieces about the sale of goods and services to incarcerated people, including our report The Company Store: A Deeper Look at Prison Commissaries. His advocacy against financial exploitation includes spearheading our campaign to expose the abusive release card industry, and authoring rulemaking comments regarding the financial privacy rights of families of the incarcerated. Stephen has also supported the Prison Policy Initiative’s groundbreaking work on telecommunications and technology in correctional facilities, authoring our report on electronic messaging, exploring problems with computer tablets for incarcerated people, and submitting comments to the FCC, among other projects.

Stephen lives and works in Portland, Oregon. He holds a J.D. from Lewis & Clark Law School, and a Master of Public Administration from the University of Colorado. He is admitted to practice law in the state of Oregon and Washington.

Welcome to the team, Stephen!


Welcome to Research Analyst, Leah Wang.

by Jenny Landon, May 19, 2021

Leah Wang

We’re excited to introduce Prison Policy Initiative Research Analyst, Leah Wang! Leah holds a M.S in Sustainability Science from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and a B.A in Economics and Environmental Studies from Bowdoin College. Prior to joining the Prison Policy Initiative, Leah was an analyst at the Massachusetts Department of Correction, and has worked in agriculture, local food systems, and outdoor education. Leah has spent several years teaching and working with prison and jail education programs, like Petey Greene and The New Garden Society.

Welcome to the team, Leah!


Please join us to welcome Emile DeWeaver, the Prison Policy Initiative Senior Strategist in Advocacy.

by Jenny Landon, May 7, 2021

Emile DeWeaver

We’re excited to welcome Emile DeWeaver, who will serve as the first ever Prison Policy Initiative Senior Strategist in Advocacy. Emile is a community organizer, journalist, and literary writer who co-founded Prison Renaissance while serving a life sentence in prison. While incarcerated in California, Emile successfully organized for the passage of Senate Bills 260, 261, and 394 which together create a second chance for people who were given extreme sentences for crimes committed before they turned 26. His writing has been featured by the Brennan Center, Mercury News, SF Chronicle, SF Bay View, Colorlines, and TruthOut. Prior to his work with the Prison Policy Initiative, Emile worked as a consultant for social justice organizations like the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and Prison Law Office.

Welcome, Emile!


Please join us in welcoming Naila Awan, our Director of Advocacy.

by Jenny Landon, April 14, 2021

Naila Awan

We are excited to welcome Naila Awan, who will serve as the first-ever Director of Advocacy at the Prison Policy Initiative. Naila is a civil and human rights lawyer with years of experience collaborating with, supporting, and representing Black- and Brown-led grassroots organizations in policy reform and litigation efforts. Prior to joining Prison Policy Initiative, Naila worked for multiple civil rights organizations and served on the legislative staff for Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin.

Most recently, Naila served as Senior Counsel at Dēmos, where her work centered on combating voter suppression and expanding access to the ballot for traditionally marginalized communities. In this role, she led a cross-functional project to end the disenfranchisement people experience when then come into contact with the criminal legal system, testified before Congress, and served as counsel in A. Philip Randolph Institute v. Husted, a U.S. Supreme Court case challenging Ohio’s voter purge practices, and Mays v. LaRose, a class action seeking to expand access to the ballot for voters detained in jail. She also co-authored Enfranchisement for All: The Case for Ending Penal Disenfranchisement in Our Democracy and How to End De Facto Disenfranchisement in the Criminal Justice System.

Naila holds a L.L.M in International Studies from the New York University School of Law, a J.D from the Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law, and a B.A from Miami University of Ohio.

Welcome, Naila!


Please welcome Communications Director, Mike Wessler!

by Jenny Landon, April 2, 2021

Mike Wessler

We are excited to welcome our new Communications Director Mike Wessler. Mike has more than a decade of experience helping campaigns, political parties, nonprofit organizations and elected officials accomplish their goals through strategic communication. Mike has done communications work at the Massachusetts Office of the State Auditor and the Office of the Montana Governor, as well at the Montana Department of Labor and the Montana Democratic Party. Mike has a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science from Florida State University.

Welcome, Mike!


Please welcome Elle Hamson, the Prison Policy Initiative Senior Engineer.

by Jenny Landon, October 5, 2020

Elle Hamson

Elle joins the Prison Policy Initiative as a Senior Engineer with years of experience in coding and web development. Before the Prison Policy Initiative, Elle was the Senior WordPress Developer and Project Lead at PixelSpoke. Elle’s commitment to building a fairer criminal justice system comes from working with recently incarcerated individuals at LIFT and Mercy Corps LIFE program. Elle has a Bachelor’s degree from George Washington University, and is currently based out of Portland, Oregon.

Welcome to the team, Elle!


Election officials in Massachusetts need to ensure voting access for people in jail.

by Jenny Landon, October 2, 2020

The vast majority of people held in Massachusetts jails maintain the right to vote, but they are often de facto disenfranchised because of a lack of access to voting systems and voter registration.

We’ve joined a coalition of organizations across the state calling on the Secretary of the Commonwealth to secure access to the ballot for people who are eligible to vote but face barriers because they are in jail. You can read the full letter we signed on to here, which outlines in detail the specific barriers faced by people detained or serving sentences in Massachusetts jails.

For a deep-dive into voting eligibility and de facto disenfranchisement in jails across all 50 states, check out our new report Eligible, but excluded: A guide to removing the barriers to jail voting.


S.2846 will make phone calls free of cost for incarcerated people and their families in Massachusetts.

by Jenny Landon, September 4, 2020

The Prison Policy Initiative joined a coalition of over 100 organizations, legal service providers, public defenders, social workers, and directly impacted people to sign on to a letter urging the Massachusetts State Legislature to pass S.2846, a bill that would make phone calls free of cost for incarcerated people and their families.

The burden of expensive phone calls overwhelmingly falls on family members, especially on women: in Massachusetts, families pay $24 million per year to stay connected to their incarcerated loved ones, and a national study found that the cost will put one in three families into debt. Black and brown people in Massachusetts are disproportionately criminalized and targeted by police, so expensive phone calls to correctional institutions disproportionately strip money out of the pocketbooks of families of color.

Before the pandemic hit, more than 50 percent of families with an incarcerated loved one struggled to pay for basic housing and food needs. With the economic hardship brought on by COVID-19, it is now urgent that Massachusetts stops subsidizing our exploitative and expensive carceral system with regressive costs that fall on the most impoverished in the state.

In Massachusetts, there are thousands of people held in jails pre-trial because they cannot afford bail, and their phone calls are the most expensive of all incarcerated people in the state. When people can’t get together the funds to get out of jail, exorbitant phone rates only make a difficult time even harder. Not only do people held pre-trial need to coordinate childcare or elder care, make arrangements for missing work, have prescriptions brought to the facility, or simply have someone to talk to while incarcerated, they also have to organize their defense.

People detained pretrial are more likely to plead guilty just to get out of jail, more likely to be convicted, and more likely to get longer sentences. Costly phone calls play a central role in this injustice by limiting how often and how long pretrial detainees can talk to their families and friends in the service of their defense. As a result, pretrial detainees often present a weaker defense than they would have if they had been able to make calls freely. On a systemic level, high phone rates from jails hurt indigent defendants by draining already-scarce resources from public defenders’ offices.

As written in the full letter:

As a result of the work of Black organizers, constituents across the Commonwealth understand that no-cost calls are about keeping families together. People should not be forced to pay for a lifeline, nor the programs offered by the DOC and county facilities. It is unconscionable that in this moment a mother is forced to choose between buying groceries and talking to her incarcerated child or that a child would need to forego hearing his incarcerated mother’s voice when they most need comfort. The Commonwealth must intervene to ensure that corporations can no longer profit from lines of communication that are critical to creating the support networks necessary for success upon reentry. We respectfully ask you to pass S. 2846 this session!

For these reasons and many more, we urge the Massachusetts State Legislature to pass S.2846. Are you in Massachusetts and want to support this bill? Call your representatives and senators!




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