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, 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 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.’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’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 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 has arrived on the scene. We highly recommend you check out their resources and incorporate the wisdom and recommendations it contains into your campaigns.



  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!

New report shows prison and jail populations rebounding after the pandemic and warns of the return of so-called “tough-on-crime” laws

March 14, 2024

Easthampton, Mass. — Ten years after publishing the first edition, today the Prison Policy Initiative released the 2024 version of its flagship report, Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie. The report provides the most comprehensive picture of how many people are locked up in the U.S., in what types of facilities, and why. In addition to showing that more than 1.9 million people are behind bars on any given day in the U.S., it goes on to bust 10 of the most persistent myths about prisons, jails, crime, and more.

The report includes 34 visualizations of criminal legal system data, exposing long-standing truths about incarceration in the U.S., including:

  • Many people in jail pretrial are stuck there simply because they’re too poor to pay their cash bail amount.
  • Black people are overrepresented behind bars, making up about 42% of the prison and jail populations but only 14% of all U.S. residents.
  • Technical violations — rather than new crimes — are the main reason people on probation or parole are re-incarcerated.

The report also shows that prison and jail populations have continued to rebound from their pre-pandemic lows, reversing a years-long decline in incarceration in the U.S. However, it explains that this growth is not due to increased crime but rather the criminal legal system returning to business as usual after pandemic-related slowdowns and the return of so-called “tough-on-crime” laws.

“The U.S. is at an inflection point in its failed experiment with mass incarceration. After years of progress reducing the number of people behind bars, many of the misguided policies that created this crisis in the first place are being resurrected,” said Peter Wagner, Executive Director of Prison Policy Initiative and co-author of the report. “The choices made by state, local, and federal officials over the next few years will determine whether the country repeats past mistakes or chooses a better path that makes communities safer and reduces the number of people incarcerated.”

Importantly, the report busts 10 of the most persistent myths about mass incarceration in America. In busting these myths, the report shows:

  • Reforming the criminal legal system does not increase crime,
  • Harsher punishments don’t deter crime, nor make communities safer,
  • Jails and prisons are not equipped to provide mental health or substance use disorder treatment,
  • And more.

“Too much of the conventional wisdom — and political rhetoric — about mass incarceration in America is just plain wrong,” said Wendy Sawyer, co-author of the report and research director for the organization. “While politicians and some in the media have found immense success ginning up fear about crime for their self-interests, this report gives the public the truth about what’s happening in the criminal legal system — and the tools to push back on bad faith arguments and lies.”

The original edition of Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie, released in 2014, provided the first comprehensive view of the systems of criminal confinement in the United States. It helped to fill a critical gap in the movement to end mass incarceration. Since then, the annual report has become a foundational part of hundreds of advocacy campaigns, thousands of news investigations, and countless pieces of legislation that sought to expose the harms of mass incarceration and reduce the number of people behind bars. The organization has also produced versions of the report that look specifically at the incarceration of women and the incarceration of young people.

The full report is available at:

Report shows the unique and troubling role that jails play in women’s incarceration.

March 5, 2024

190,600 women and girls are locked up in the United States on any given day. That’s the top-line number from the new report Women’s Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2024, released today by the Prison Policy Initiative. However, that number tells only part of the story of women’s incarceration in America. The report dives deep into the data to provide the most recent and comprehensive data on how many women are incarcerated in the U.S., in what kinds of facilities, and why; as well as detailed data on incarcerated women’s demographic makeup and health.

Women in the U.S. experience a dramatically different criminal legal system than men do, but data on their experiences is difficult to find and put into context. The new edition of Women’s Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie, which the Prison Policy Initiative has published since 2017, fills this gap with richly-annotated data visualizations about women behind bars.

“Like in so many other aspects of life in America, the unique experiences of women in the criminal legal system are obscured by those of men, treated as an afterthought,” said Aleks Kajstura, co-author of the report. “While incarceration impacts all people, tearing them away from their families, damaging their health, and putting an additional financial strain on those already living on a razor’s edge, the criminal legal system is particularly harsh for women in unique and damaging ways.”

“The data in this report should serve as a wake-up call for policymakers. Mass incarceration is failing everyone in the country — and when the country locks up women, the ripple effects are especially devastating,” said Wendy Sawyer, research director for the Prison Policy Initiative and co-author of the report. “Instead of continuing with this failed policy, they should work to address the issues that get women locked up in the first place — poverty, unmet physical and mental health needs, and the over-policing of Black women and girls.”

The report particularly examines the important role of jails in women’s incarceration. 93,000 women are held in jails, and the majority— 51,000 — have not been convicted of a crime. It explains that unaffordable cash bail and a criminal legal system that funnels them into jails after conviction are likely responsible for so many women being held in these facilities. The report goes on to show that jails can be especially deadly for women, with high rates of death from suicide and drug or alcohol intoxication. Additionally, the report highlights that, because they’re generally designed for shorter stays, jails are poorly positioned to provide healthcare for women, and that these facilities make it difficult for women to stay in touch with their families, by charging high rates for phone calls and restricting mail.

Women’s Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2024 also includes a section offering insights about the backgrounds and experiences of women in state prisons. Key takeaways include:

  • In the U.S., women are held in 446 state prisons, 27 federal prisons, 3,116 local jails, 1,323 juvenile correctional facilities, 80 Indian country jails, and 80 immigration detention facilities, as well as in military prisons, civil commitment centers, and prisons in the U.S. territories.
  • 58% of women in state prisons are parents to minor children, and of those, most are single mothers who were living with their children prior to imprisonment — making it likely that incarceration uprooted their children and led to termination of parental rights, permanently breaking up their families.
  • Nearly 7,000 young women and girls are caught up in the various systems of confinement. Almost half are held in facilities for the juvenile justice system, and almost as many are unaccompanied migrant children in Office of Refugee Resettlement facilities.
  • Girls of color and those who identify as LBTQ+ are disproportionately confined by the juvenile justice system. Black girls account for 32% of all girls in juvenile facilities despite making up just 14% of girls under 18 nationwide. Similarly, 40% of girls in the juvenile justice system are lesbian, bisexual, or questioning and gender non-conforming.
  • Probation and parole play a significant role in the women’s criminal legal system, with an additional 808,700 women under these forms of control. They are forced to live under a complex set of rules and restrictions that set them up to fail and threaten them with reincarceration.

The new report is available here:

We’ve drilled down into 2019 data to show prison and jail releases by sex in each state and made our best estimates of how many women and men were released from prisons and jails nationwide in 2022.

by Leah Wang, February 28, 2024

We often think about incarceration as something only experienced behind bars, but millions of people leave correctional facilities every year in serious need of services and reentry resources. Journalists, advocates, and other users of our website reach out frequently to ask if we know the total number of people released from prisons and jails in their state each year. Many are trying to fight for more resources for people returning home and want to know how these numbers break down by sex. While these are numbers you might expect would be easy to find, they aren’t published regularly in annual reports on prison and jail populations by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS).

In fact, the annual data collected by the federal government about local jails (the Annual Survey of Jails) cannot generally be broken down by state at all; only the more infrequently-collected Census of Jails data can be used to make state-level findings. As for prisons, 2019 is also the latest year for which state-level release data by sex 1 have been published by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. (The total number of people released by each prison system is published annually by the BJS, most recently reporting 2022 data.)

To make this information more accessible, we’ve drilled down into the most recent data available to show how many men and women are released from prisons and jails each year.2

Releases from prisons and jails in 2019, by sex, by state or other jurisdiction

Sources: Bureau of Justice Statistics’ National Prisoner Statistics (for prisons), extracted through the Corrections Statistical Analysis Tool (CSAT), and the 2019 Census of Jails (for jails). Local jail data were weighted and aggregated to the state level by the Prison Policy Initiative. Alaska, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Rhode Island, and Vermont operate combined or “unified” prison and jail systems, so all releases from correctional facilities in those states are reported by the Bureau of Justice Statistics as prison releases. Alaska is a partial exception among these states, because there are still 14 locally operated jails that report data separately from the unified system.
Deaths in prison, which are generally included in prison release data, were excluded from prison release totals to better reflect the “reentry” population; however, deaths in prisons are not published by sex. As a result, total prison releases will be slightly less than the sum of men’s and women’s prison releases. The number of deaths in federal (BOP) prisons in 2019, subtracted from total releases, comes from Mortality in State and Federal Prisons, 2001-2019 – Statistical Tables. The number of deaths in local jails is not published by the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Note about District of Columbia: D.C.’s prison population is part of the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) system. The BOP releases people to all states and territories, and publishes this data each month on its website.
Men Women Totals
Prisons Jails Total Prisons Jails Total Prisons Jails Total Releases,
Alabama 10,878 209,401 220,279 2,187 76,060 78,247 12,920 285,461 298,526
Alaska 1,577 4,171 5,748 140 1,113 1,253 1,714 5,284 7,001
Arizona 11,344 142,106 153,450 1,700 47,264 48,964 12,933 189,370 202,414
Arkansas 8,949 124,039 132,988 1,392 46,021 47,413 10,259 170,060 180,401
California 34,976 751,994 786,970 2,888 197,978 200,866 37,462 949,971 987,835
Colorado 8,289 165,718 174,007 1,602 51,879 53,481 9,840 217,597 227,488
Connecticut 4,161 n/a 4,161 319 n/a 319 4,473 n/a 4,480
Delaware 1,981 n/a 1,981 296 n/a 296 2,269 n/a 2,277
District of Columbia n/a 9,043 9,043 n/a 1,430 1,430 n/a 10,473 10,473
Federal (BOP) 46,320 n/a 46,320 4,738 n/a 4,738 50,677 n/a 50,677
Florida 26,498 500,267 526,765 3,642 156,695 160,337 29,737 656,962 687,102
Georgia 15,311 450,320 465,631 2,044 126,536 128,580 17,200 576,856 594,211
Hawaii 1,408 n/a 1,408 259 n/a 259 1,654 n/a 1,667
Idaho 3,502 51,179 54,681 941 18,889 19,830 4,416 70,068 74,511
Illinois 21,963 197,855 219,818 1,930 56,108 58,038 23,791 253,962 277,855
Indiana 9,499 185,643 195,142 1,586 57,839 59,425 10,988 243,482 254,567
Iowa 6,166 100,482 106,648 969 33,221 34,190 7,114 133,703 140,838
Kansas 5,037 118,963 124,000 1,005 40,370 41,375 6,007 159,332 165,374
Kentucky 15,289 209,733 225,022 4,358 81,721 86,079 19,580 291,455 311,102
Louisiana 15,017 197,568 212,585 1,930 51,763 53,693 16,835 249,332 266,279
Maine 623 23,540 24,163 132 7,492 7,624 755 31,032 31,787
Maryland 6,819 63,722 70,541 649 15,464 16,113 7,408 79,185 86,653
Massachusetts 2,088 52,182 54,270 304 7,295 7,599 2,362 59,477 61,869
Michigan 10,580 217,041 227,621 896 63,300 64,196 11,440 280,341 291,817
Minnesota 6,221 152,126 158,347 811 49,202 50,013 6,964 201,329 208,361
Mississippi 6,247 120,815 127,062 800 29,127 29,927 6,971 149,942 156,989
Missouri 15,350 205,784 221,134 3,271 58,586 61,857 18,533 264,369 282,990
Montana 2,051 31,497 33,548 436 10,927 11,363 2,475 42,423 44,910
Nebraska 2,020 50,662 52,682 333 16,192 16,525 2,336 66,855 69,208
Nevada 5,678 114,718 120,396 1,011 42,302 43,313 6,646 157,020 163,709
New Hampshire 1,166 16,993 18,159 183 5,424 5,607 1,339 22,417 23,766
New Jersey 7,706 101,882 109,588 522 16,867 17,389 8,182 118,749 126,977
New Mexico 2,951 83,350 86,301 595 29,366 29,961 3,528 112,716 116,262
New York 19,482 137,565 157,047 1,421 30,049 31,470 20,791 167,614 188,517
North Carolina 14,924 290,436 305,360 2,291 91,634 93,925 17,106 382,070 399,285
North Dakota 1,085 34,744 35,829 274 11,765 12,039 1,358 46,509 47,868
Ohio 17,727 296,495 314,222 2,683 99,564 102,247 20,275 396,059 416,469
Oklahoma 7,840 152,719 160,559 1,603 54,713 56,316 9,365 207,432 216,875
Oregon 5,099 138,541 143,640 801 44,380 45,181 5,870 182,921 188,821
Pennsylvania 16,256 159,945 176,201 1,800 41,487 43,287 17,897 201,432 219,488
Rhode Island 683 n/a 683 37 n/a 37 720 n/a 720
South Carolina 5,505 142,470 147,975 774 39,364 40,138 6,208 181,834 188,113
South Dakota 3,725 48,612 52,337 868 18,062 18,930 4,576 66,673 71,266
Tennessee 11,728 287,094 298,822 2,576 110,837 113,413 14,205 397,931 412,235
Texas 67,863 776,801 844,664 10,669 217,109 227,778 78,119 993,910 1,072,442
Utah 3,428 72,275 75,703 610 24,688 25,298 4,017 96,963 101,001
Vermont 2,216 n/a 2,216 321 n/a 321 2,528 n/a 2,537
Virginia 10,925 218,493 229,418 1,772 65,724 67,496 12,602 284,217 296,914
Washington 21,807 202,327 224,134 2,684 64,430 67,114 24,455 266,757 291,248
West Virginia 3,465 33,632 37,097 687 12,310 12,997 4,124 45,942 50,094
Wisconsin 5,393 163,160 168,553 471 44,661 45,132 5,820 207,820 213,684
Wyoming 842 21,643 22,485 182 6,779 6,961 1,010 28,422 29,446
Total, 50 states 491,338 7,820,699 8,321,080 71,655 2,373,986 2,445,641 559,177 10,193,255 10,766,721
Total, all jurisdictions 537,658 7,829,742 8,367,400 76,393 2,373,986 2,450,379 609,854 10,203,728 10,817,398


Why we need data disaggregated by sex or gender identity

For years, the mass incarceration of women has been overlooked, even though women’s incarceration has grown at twice the pace of men’s incarceration in recent decades. Women are disproportionately locked up in local jails, where they’re less likely to be able to afford money bail if they’re not convicted, or are more likely to be serving a shorter sentence for a property or drug offense. While there, women in jail experience bleak conditions like expensive phone calls, a lack of programming and education opportunities, and poor quality healthcare.

Being locked up in a state prison also presents a unique set of challenges for women, including the higher chance of being hundreds of miles away from loved ones. No matter how or where a woman is incarcerated, women are generally worse off than men leading up to their incarceration. And entire families are harmed when a woman is put in prison or jail: More than half of incarcerated women are mothers, and women are more likely than men to be primary caregivers to children. Ultimately, keeping women out of correctional facilities and supporting them post-release should be a top priority for lawmakers.

Unfortunately, data regarding women in the criminal legal system are neither updated regularly nor always compatible across years, obscuring our collective view of what’s happening to women in the criminal legal system and how specific reforms impact them. When it comes to gender identity in prisons and jails, the data are even worse, as government surveys typically include trans men under “females” and trans women under “males,” and do not ask further about self-reported gender identity.3 Without better data collection and reporting, the unique needs of women, as well as transgender and nonbinary people, will go on being disregarded in policy and practice.

Any work that chips away at mass incarceration for people of all genders should include fighting back against carveouts of “non-violent” offenses, addressing family separation, drastically improving reproductive and gender-affirming healthcare, and ramping up gender-responsive reentry services for these individuals.


What’s changed since these data were collected in 2019?

The COVID-19 pandemic caused a dramatic drop in correctional populations in 2020 and 2021 – although this was due to fewer admissions, not more releases – so there have been fewer people eligible for release in the last couple of years. Even though prison and jail populations have unfortunately largely rebounded since then, there were still 29% fewer releases from prisons and jails in 2022 compared to 2019.4 Because of this dramatic difference from 2019, we also calculated rough estimates of releases by sex in 2022 on the national level for those interested in what more recent release numbers look like:

Estimated releases from prisons and jails, by sex, in 2022

With the exception of the total releases from prisons, all numbers are estimates based on 2019 data and should be used with caution. Details may not sum to totals due to rounding.
Men Women Total
Releases from state and federal prisons (excluding deaths) 388,355 55,179 443,534
Releases from local jails 5,537,103 1,678,855 7,215,958
Releases from all prisons and jails 5,925,457 1,734,034 7,659,492


To estimate what 2022 releases from prisons might look like by sex, we started with the number of state and federal prison releases, excluding deaths, reported in 2022 by the Bureau of Justice Statistics: 443,534.5 We then used the 2019 data to find the percentage of all prison releases that were from female prisons, which was about 12%; this percentage was based on all releases including deaths, because deaths in prison aren’t reported by sex. Applying this percentage to total prison releases in 2022, we estimate that about 55,179 people were released from female state and federal prisons in 2022, of which about 3,951 were from federal prisons.6

To estimate the number of releases from local jails in 2022 by sex, we first had to estimate the number of total releases, which the Bureau of Justice Statistics did not publish. We started with the number of jail admissions reported for that year: 7.3 million, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.7 Most people are jailed for a relatively short time, typically released from jail the same year they are admitted, so we would expect the number of admissions to be very close to the number of releases.8 In 2019, there were just 1.15% fewer people released from jails nationwide than were admitted that year. We applied this percentage to the 7.3 million jail admissions in 2022, arriving at an estimated 7,215,958 releases from local jails in 2022. To estimate how many of those releases were women, we calculated the percentage of all jail releases in 2019 that were women (23%) and applied that percentage to our estimate for total jail releases in 2022. Because there is no national source of data for jail deaths in 2022, we could not exclude deaths from these estimates of jail releases.


Opportunities for further data analysis

We also get lots of questions about the number of people released to local communities (counties, cities, et cetera). While we don’t have a solution that works for every state, we do suggest two different ways to generate estimates in our previous briefing about releases.

Data collection efforts regarding incarcerated women are slowly improving in some areas: For example, the Bureau of Justice Statistics is considering adding questions about pregnancy and maternal health in its national surveys of correctional facilities. In the meantime, we hope this dataset is useful in your advocacy work. The 2019 release data can be accessed from our Data Toolbox; for more information about mass incarceration in your state, see our State Profiles pages.



  1. Even the available data that are disaggregated by sex are frustratingly limited, in that they typically only differentiate between “male” and “female,” ignoring the reality that the gender identities of confined people (and all people, for that matter) are not limited to this binary. This field of research has a long way to go before the data are consistently collected and reported by gender identity rather than an administrative categorization of “male” versus “female.”  ↩

  2. Astute readers will notice that male and female releases sum up to more than the total number of releases in a state. This discrepancy occurs because the Bureau of Justice Statistics does not publish the number of deaths — which count as a form of “release” — by sex. We removed the number “released” due to death from the total prison releases to better reflect the number of people in the reentry population in each state, but could not do the same calculation by sex. If you are able to find the number of male or female deaths in your state’s prisons or jails in 2019, you can get slightly closer to the number of people released.  ↩

  3. One major exception to this is the 2016 Survey of Prison Inmates, a rich government dataset we analyzed to reveal more about gender identity and transgender people in state prisons. A timely new report from the Vera Institute of Justice and Black and Pink National also details the experiences of transgender people in prisons.  ↩

  4. In state and federal prisons in 2022, there were 443,534 releases (excluding deaths), a 27% decrease from 609,869 in 2019. In jails, we estimate there were about 7,215,958 releases in 2022, and 10,203,728 releases in 2019, a 29% difference. (Because BJS published only the number of admissions to – and not releases from – jails for 2022, we calculated our own estimate for releases in 2022. To do so, we first calculated the ratio of annual releases to annual admissions in 2019 (98.85%), and then applied that ratio to the published estimate of admissions in 2022 (7,300,000), arriving at our 7,215,958 estimated releases.)  ↩

  5. See Table 9 in Prisoners in 2022.  ↩

  6. We did not attempt state-level estimates by sex for 2022 because the number of women released from some state prisons in 2019 was quite small. For example, just 37 sentenced women were released in Rhode Island that year, and several other states reported fewer than 200 female releases. Because of these small numbers, even small changes in the distribution of releases by sex from 2019 to 2022 would have a sizable impact on the accuracy of our state-level estimates. However, if any readers are looking for back-of-the-envelope estimates at the state level, they could follow the logic of our methodology for our national estimates using the state-level data from 2019.  ↩

  7. See Table 1 in Jail Inmates in 2022.  ↩

  8. In 2022, for example, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that the average length of stay in local jails was 32 days.  ↩

Communities across the country have been told that investing in new jail construction is the only way to solve old policy problems, but arguments for new jails can leave them with a billion-dollar case of buyer’s remorse.

by Emmett Sanders, February 20, 2024

Arapahoe County, Colorado, is expanding its jail just four years after taxpayers rejected a proposition to raise taxes for a new one. The justification for the $46 million expansion? Proponents cite the jail’s age, overcrowding, and a sudden sensitivity to the need to treat rather than warehouse people with addiction issues; the sheriff claims, “people’s needs have changed.” $30 million will come from COVID-19 pandemic relief funds; 1 as the ACLU notes, using relief funds in this way is expressly forbidden by the Department of Treasury.

Similar arguments are being used to justify jail construction all around the country. Often, this means ignoring voters’ wishes, misusing and redirecting millions of dollars from community-based resources, and saddling citizens with decades of tax liability. New jail construction projects regularly fail to meet promises, leaving communities to deal with the aftermath. Drawing from examples across the country, we break down three common arguments for jail construction, discuss how they have been used to build or expand jails, and highlight how reinvesting in cages is not a solution to social problems like crime and substance use.


The three “C’s” of jail construction arguments

Jail proponents usually rely on one or more of three central arguments to make their case:

  • The “Capacity” argument: a bigger jail is required to house everyone being incarcerated in the jurisdiction;
  • The “Contemporary” argument: new construction is needed to update an outdated jail;
  • The “Compassionate” argument: new construction is necessary to treat incarcerated people more humanely.2

On a surface level, these three “C” arguments are compelling because they speak to very real issues. What these arguments often overlook, however, is that these issues are largely driven by bad policies that have drastically expanded reliance on packing people in cages. Essentially, the prevailing claim is that the only way to solve the problem of incarceration is to expand our ability to incarcerate — when in fact, communities would be better served by shrinking jail populations. This sunk cost fallacy often leaves communities without real solutions and holding the bag for decades.


If you build it… (the “capacity” argument)

Proponents of jail construction often rely upon jail “needs assessments”3 to bolster their claim that building a bigger jail is the only way to meet capacity needs. These needs assessments come with many biases and flaws — often because they are written by construction firms who hope to eventually make even more money building the new jail. The simple truth is that no jail will ever be big enough to satisfy an over-reliance on incarcerate-first policies. Instead of solving capacity needs, bigger jails enable counties to continue bad practices — leading them to argue that they need newer, even bigger jails in the future, and spending millions of dollars in the process.

Greene County, Missouri, for instance, built a new 552-bed jail in 2001. This was supposed to resolve their capacity needs for at least a decade; however, within just 2 years, the jail had surpassed capacity again. Despite increasing bed space by remodeling and by adding a trailer jail annex, the continuation of bad policies, such as criminalizing poverty by rounding up and arresting unhoused people, led to what a 2017 needs assessment called “unsustainable” jail growth, which forced another $150 million 1,252-bed expansion in 2020.

Similarly, Lubbock County, Texas, spent $94.5 million in taxpayer bonds building a new 1,512-bed jail, which opened in 2010. Though intended to meet their capacity needs well into the future, jail population growth has persisted, leading county officials to spend a million dollars of the county’s budget incarcerating people in other counties. But there are other obvious solutions to Lubbock’s over-incarceration problem. Lubbock County mostly uses its jail to house people who haven’t been convicted of a crime; in January of 2024, 76% of the jail’s population were people being held pretrial, and fully one tenth of the people in the jail were being held pretrial for a misdemeanor. Pretrial detention practices play a huge part in the county’s perpetual capacity problems. County officials have nevertheless repeatedly looked to build their way out of these issues instead of implementing sustainable policy changes like ending pretrial detention for misdemeanors and reexamining alternatives to cash bond. As a result, Lubbock’s sheriff recently proposed a 996-bed expansion projected to cost taxpayers another $464 million, bringing the total to more than half a billion dollars, with no substantial policy change in sight.

bar graph showing costs of jail construction in Greene and Lubbock counties

While capacity arguments are often used to justify jail expansion, the truth is counties cannot build their way out of capacity issues without addressing the policies that created them in the first place. Despite claims that jail construction is driven by need, in many instances, the reverse is actually true. As Greene County’s assessment noted, “The dramatic increase in bookings is probably due [in part to] the increased availability of beds with the opening of the new jail.Simply put, if you build it, they will fill it.


Box office bombs (the “contemporary” argument)

Often, the promise of a shiny new jail with updated facilities leads to over-budget projects that sap taxpayer money far into the future. These projects, focused on building jails with “all the bells and whistles,” often collide with soaring construction costs. This can sometimes lead to facilities that are too costly to staff and maintain or even too costly to complete. As a result, projects can wind up half-finished or sitting empty for years at taxpayer expense.

Despite voters rejecting an $88 million bond initiative to fund a new jail in 2004, by 2008, Thurston County, Washington, accepted a bid for “the cutting-edge $45 million Accountability and Restitution Center (ARC) jail complex,” a building some have referred to as the “Taj Mahal design of Jail, Law and Justice Centers.” Finished in 2010, the jail sat empty for 6 years, costing the taxpayers roughly $430,000 annually, largely because the county did not budget for the additional staff needed to run it. Just three years later, the county would approve a $19-25 million jail expansion featuring a 40-bed “‘flex unit’ with cells that could be used in different ways as needs change” plus a shell for future expansion.

In Wayne County, Michigan, construction began on a “state-of-the-art” $300 million, 2,192-bed jail in 2011. The design included innovations that some claimed would bolster security, largely by further restricting movement. By 2013, the project was already $91 million over budget due to ballooning construction costs, forcing it to be abandoned and leading to the indictment of three Wayne County Officials for lying about the project’s cost. The jail sat incomplete and empty for years, costing the taxpayers around $1 million per month just to maintain.

Though not a jail, Thomson Prison in Illinois shares a similar story. Built in 2001 for $145 million, this new high-tech maximum-security prison sat empty at the taxpayers’ expense for 11 years due to state budgetary restraints impacting the ability to staff it before finally being sold to the federal government4 in 2012.

As these examples illustrate, officials often claim that a new “modern” jail will solve a jurisdiction’s problems. While the drumbeat here is safety or security, these projects almost invariably also include millions for expanding bed space to incarcerate more people. Moreover, while huge amounts of money are poured into building bigger, better, and newer buildings, the massive costs associated with staffing and operating these monstrosities, and the fact that existing prisons and jails around the country are dangerously understaffed as it is, can result in costly projects that can’t be staffed even if they are completed. These monuments to incarceration can sit empty for years, draining the public coffer.


Promises, promises (the “compassionate” argument)

Increasingly, counties cite the need to be compliant with ADA requirements or the idea that jails should be providers of mental health services or substance use treatment as reasons to expand. This “compassionate” argument repackages incarceration as care and can mean taking money away from health services in the community. This is particularly problematic when jails fail to deliver on these promises, as they regularly do.

McLean County, Illinois’ 2015 jail needs assessment called for more space for housing people with mental health needs. In response, the county spent $43.5 million to build a new jail with a “Community Crisis Stabilization Facility” in 2017. A few short years later, however, people with mental health concerns are once again being held in the booking area (a practice the new jail was supposed to end) and are being held at jails outside of the county, unable to “benefit” from McLean’s new $43.5 million carceral alternative to community-based crisis intervention.

Broome County, New York, similarly promised to provide better medical care as part of its argument to secure $6.8 million to expand its jail in 2015. 5 But once the new jail was built, there was little effort to deliver on this promise: Broome County maintained the same dubious medical provider, Correctional Medical Care (CMC), that had been sued multiple times for medical negligence 6 from 2010 all the way until 2022. Many of these claims involved jail deaths. CMC’s practices were so bad that the New York State Commission on Corrections’ Medical Review Board chastised the company for “egregious lapses in medical care” in their 2018 “Problematic Jails” report. More incarcerated people died in the five years after ground broke on jail expansion than in the five years before, during CMC’s contract tenure with Broome County. 7

People interested in improving the lives of incarcerated people are often swayed by “compassionate” arguments. But they should never lose sight of the fact that incarceration itself is inherently harmful to physical and mental health, leaving many with a PTSD-like condition called Post-Incarceration Syndrome, which can even trigger drug use. At best, jail as a place of treatment is ineffectual. At worst, these bad policies drain funding from community-based support systems that can address challenges before a crisis results in incarceration. Jail is a place of trauma, not healing.


Change — The other “C”

While these three C’s are often used to argue for jail construction, advocates can and should confront their local officials with real solutions for reducing jail populations and providing mental health and substance use care.

  • Reduce pretrial detention: Nationwide, 83% of people in jails have not been convicted of a crime. One of the most effective ways to bring down jail populations is to reform the way court systems treat people accused of crimes. Policies ranging from citation and release to ending cash-based pretrial detention can massively reduce jail capacity needs without raising taxes, incarcerating more people, or jeopardizing public safety.
  • Focus on community-based care: Jail was never intended to be a provider of social services. As the Justice LA Coalition successfully argued in opposition to a $2 billion mental health-focused jail in 2019, true compassion comes not in the trauma of a cell but in funding for community-based care and support for those with addiction issues or mental health needs.
  • Reduce total jail capacity: If jail construction absolutely cannot be avoided (as in the case of places under court orders to update or build a new facility), it should be contained so that it does not expand the capacity of the current jail to incarcerate or invest in new carceral technologies. If there’s no way to avoid building a new jail, advocates can at least work on making sure the new one doesn’t expand the number of people behind bars.



Though common arguments in favor of jail expansion are compelling at first glance, investing in jail construction is not a solution to social problems but rather doubling down on policies that caused these problems to begin with that can burden a community for decades to come. Ultimately, many of these arguments can be answered by asking pointed questions, revising policies, and being responsive to the community’s actual needs.



  1. Congress passed the American Relief Plan Act (ARPA) in 2021. Though this act allotted $350B to help state and local governments recover from the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, many jurisdictions have used this money to expand and build new jails and prisons.  ↩

  2. As Vera notes in their exhaustive 2019 report, which identifies similar arguments and touches on many of the issues here, jurisdictions may also be motivated by “financial incentives.” This can mean increasing jail size to keep from renting bed space from other places or even increasing their ability to rent out space themselves as an extra revenue stream. We did not include it among our three main arguments (though it could certainly be considered a fourth “C” — for “cash”) because this is not typically the main argument for a new facility, but rather an additional supporting argument.  ↩

  3. Needs assessments are studies that look at current jail populations and attempt to forecast future jail populations.  ↩

  4. After the sale, Thomson Prison became one of the most violent and deadly prisons under the auspices of the BOP, with a culture of abuse so ingrained that guards tried to have a warden assassinated when he attempted to intervene.  ↩

  5. Broome County also relied upon a capacity argument, citing a 2014 needs assessment which projected 710 beds to be needed by 2028. However, by 2023, with the sole exception of Lewis County, which increased from 31 to 32 people, every single county across New York state saw a decrease in its average daily jail population. Broome County itself saw the jail population decrease by more than 34% over that span, illustrating how places often overestimate future capacity needs and underestimate the potential of changing policies to decrease jail populations.  ↩

  6. As well as for allegedly forcing its employees to falsify incarcerated people’s medical records.  ↩

  7. CMC held Broome County’s contract to provide medical services to the jail from 2010 until 2022. There were 4 custody deaths in Broome County jail between 2011 and April of 2015, when ground broke on the county’s jail expansion project. From May 2015 until 2020, there were reported 5 custody deaths at Broome County Jail.  ↩

Read the footnotes

Oregon is in danger of repealing one of the most important criminal legal system reforms of recent years: here’s why the state should keep Measure 110 intact.

by Sarah Staudt, February 15, 2024

In 2020, Oregon adopted Measure 110, a transformational change to the way drug possession and addiction were treated by the criminal legal system. Instead of incarceration and criminal charges, Measure 110 ensured that possession of small amounts of drugs was responded to with a ticket and referral to services. Since its passage, more than $302 million has been invested in addiction services and social supports, and more people are going to treatment.

Despite the successes of Measure 110, however, Oregon legislators are threatening to recriminalize drug use in Oregon. The bill, HB 4002-1, would make possession of small amounts of controlled substances a criminal offense once again, reversing a revolutionary reform and returning to the failed policies of the War on Drugs.

Reversing Measure 110 would be harmful to thousands of Oregonians, and would be a failure of leadership. Legislators claim they are responding to an increase in homelessness and public drug use — but recriminalization will only make those problems worse. Instead of resurrecting policies that didn’t work the first time, the Oregon Legislature should invest in proven strategies to prevent and treat addiction, reduce homelessness, and improve public safety, and should invest in treatment and housing, not incarceration.


Measure 110 is working

There’s no evidence Measure 110 is responsible for crime, overdoses, homelessness, or increased drug use. Although COVID-19 made assessing the impact of Measure 110 more difficult, early indicators suggest that the law is achieving its goals: reducing arrests while increasing access to care. Jails and incarceration often strand people without treatment, but the referrals to community-based care created by Measure 110 offer a lasting pathway to health and better quality of life. Here are just some of the successes of Measure 110:

  • The Oregon Health Authority reported a 298% increase in people seeking screening for substance use disorders.
  • More than 370,000 naloxone doses have been distributed since 2022, and community organizations report more than 7,500 opioid overdose reversals since 2020.
  • Although overdose rates have increased around the country as more fentanyl has entered the drug supply, Oregon’s increase in overdoses has been similar to other states’ and actually less than neighboring Washington’s. A peer-reviewed study comparing overdose rates in Oregon with the rest of the country after the law went into effect found no link between Measure 110 and increased overdose rates.
  • There is no evidence that drug use rates in Oregon have increased. A cross-sectional survey of people who use drugs across eight counties in Oregon found that most had been using drugs for years; only 1.5% reported having started after Measure 110 went into effect.
  • There has been no increase in 911 calls in Oregon cities after Measure 110.
  • Measure 110 saves Oregonians millions. Oregon is expected to save $37 million between 2023-2025 if Measure 110 continues. This is because it costs up to $35,217 to arrest, adjudicate, incarcerate, and supervise a person taken into custody for a drug misdemeanor — and upwards of $60,000 for a felony. In contrast, treatment costs an average of $9,000 per person. The money saved by Measure 110 goes directly to state funding for addiction and recovery services.
  • There is no evidence that Measure 110 was associated with a rise in crime. In fact, crime in Oregon was 14% lower in 2023 than it was in 2020.
Graph showing reported crimes in Oregon 2020-2023

All of this has been achieved while Measure 110 also served one of its primary intentions — reducing total arrests. Arrests for possession of a controlled substance dropped 67% after Measure 110 went into effect, meaning that thousands of people have avoided the lifelong barriers caused by arrests and convictions. And although there has been an increase in homelessness in the past few years in Oregon, implementation of Measure 110 also lines up with the lifting of eviction protections in place during the pandemic — a much more likely culprit for increased numbers of people without shelter.


Recriminalization will make Oregon’s problems worse

Recriminalization of drug possession will put Oregon on a path backwards and will damage the lives and livelihoods of its residents — particularly of Black Oregonians.

First, recriminalization will overburden already stretched systems, increasing harm and costing lives. Oregon’s criminal legal system, particularly its public defense system, is massively underfunded and understaffed. Recriminalization will overwhelm the courts with thousands of new cases that they do not have the capacity to adjudicate. This is likely to strand more people in Oregon’s jails — which are already seeing record deaths among people in custody. Jails are particularly dangerous places for the people with substance use disorders who will be most affected by recriminalization; increasing jail populations is likely to exacerbate these existing health problems, costing more lives.

The effects of recriminalization will fall hardest on Black Oregonians, increasing racial disparities. Unfortunately, even under Measure 110, it is clear that Black Oregonians with substance use disorders are much more heavily policed than their white counterparts. Black people have been disproportionately issued citations under Measure 110 — 4.6% of citations went to Black people, who are only 2.3% of Oregon’s population. Portland’s police department has the fifth highest arrest rate disparities in the country, arresting Black people at a rate 4.3 times that of white people. And while proponents of recriminalization claim that diversion programs will still be available, the reality is that Black people are more often excluded from diversion programs than white people are, making them more likely to remain trapped in the criminal legal system.


Forced treatment isn’t the solution

The recriminalization bill focuses on forced substance use treatment as a “solution” to substance use disorders. But forced treatment is a false promise. There are many reasons why people with substance use disorders don’t seek treatment, including problems with lack of access, cost, excessive requirements for getting into and staying in treatment, and having more pressing concerns like needing food, employment, housing, or medical treatment. Addressing those underlying problems — and increasing the availability of voluntary treatment overall — is the best way to get more people into the treatment they need.

Forced treatment is also not effective. A systematic review of studies found no evidence that compelling people to attend substance use treatment leads to improved outcomes. Instead, it can cause harm: people who are forced into treatment can end up at higher risk of overdose. Because forced treatment imposes sudden, enforced abstinence, it can lower people’s drug tolerance — leading to a higher risk of overdose if they relapse. A recent analysis of mandatory abstinence treatment programs found that people who were mandated to attend these programs were 3.7 times more likely to have experienced an overdose in the past 6-12 months.


Oregon should invest in proven solutions

There’s no denying that Oregon, like the rest of the country, is experiencing serious problems with homelessness, substance use disorders, and overdose. To address these problems, Oregon should invest in effective, compassionate solutions, instead of defaulting to criminalization.

The first thing Oregon should do is invest in more housing, focusing on proven housing-first strategies, and strategies that reduce evictions. Investing in housing does not just solve homelessness — it also addresses substance use itself. Evictions are associated with higher rates of death from drug use, and higher rates of public drug use. Making sure people can have and keep housing improves their quality of life, and the quality of life of all Oregonians.

Oregon should also invest in more voluntary treatment beds. Detox centers in Portland are turning away half the people who come to them because of lack of capacity. Overall, Oregon has only a 50% treatment capacity to meet the need. Mandating more treatment won’t fix this problem — indeed, it will make the treatment shortage worse. Instead, Oregon needs to heavily invest in more voluntary drug treatment and crisis centers to meet the needs of its residents.



Oregon is poised to undo one of the most important criminal legal system improvements of the 21st century. Instead of reverting to the mistakes of the past, Oregon lawmakers should act with courage to pursue solutions that work, and reject the pressure to try to arrest their way out of substance use and homelessness. Measure 110 is working to make Oregonians safer and healthier; Oregon’s leaders should stand up for their state’s innovative and successful reforms, and avoid the tired rhetoric and policies of mass criminalization.

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.



  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.  ↩

We analyzed prison policies for all 50 states and the federal prison system, and found that 16 prison systems actually impose fines — in addition to other punishments — when someone violates a prison rule. We explain why disciplinary fines and fees are bad policy, putting excessive hardship on incarcerated people and their loved ones.

by Leah Wang, February 7, 2024

In yet another example of how the criminal legal system extracts wealth from the poorest families, at least one-third of prison systems nationwide charge fines as a punishment for a rule violation. Prison administrators claim that imposing disciplinary fines, along with other punishments, helps to maintain order and reduce violence in correctional facilities. They also argue that the fines simulate outside-of-prison processes for dealing with misconduct, such as parking tickets.

Though rule violations1 and their corresponding sanctions are a common feature of incarceration, disciplinary fines and fees aren’t the way to create safe environments where people can prepare for their release. On the contrary, when prisons impose these charges and subsequently help themselves to the funds in people’s prison accounts, incarcerated people are often left with little to no money for purchasing essential items and services that the prison doesn’t provide.2 As a result, their mental and physical health suffers, creating a more volatile environment inside. Loved ones also pay the price of these fines — often literally, as a primary source of financial support.

Like medical “co-pays” and exceedingly low wages in prison, disciplinary fines and fees are little more than a means to exploit incarcerated people. Whether they’re tiered fines or flat “administrative” fees, they are an undue burden; prison is already one big financial sanction for those who are already on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder. By focusing on punitive measures that deprive people further, prisons miss the mark on what actually makes prisons safer — providing opportunity rather than taking it away. We hope advocates and policymakers will understand how disciplinary fees, which exist alongside other excessive punishments, undermine the rehabilitative goals of corrections, the safety of people inside, and the odds of success during reentry.

  • chart showing the number of days required to work at a prison job to pay off the maximum disciplinary fine imposed in 16 prison systems
  • chart showing the number of days required to work at a prison job to pay off the lowest-tier disciplinary fine in 16 prison systems

In the 16 prison systems we found that impose fines for disciplinary violations, it would take anywhere from a full day of work to multiple years to pay off a single fine.

Disciplinary fines and fees are used in about one-third of all prison systems

To determine just how common disciplinary fines and fees are, we combed through the publicly available policies on prison disciplinary procedures in each state and the federal prison system. We also looked at policies related to prison-controlled bank accounts (often called “inmate trust accounts”) and related fees, as well as practices relating to collecting debts. We found that at least 16 prison systems charge incarcerated people disciplinary fines or fees:

Prison disciplinary fines and fees

We examined prison discipline and “inmate account” policies in all 50 states and the federal Bureau of Prisons to determine where fines or fees are charged to incarcerated people who are found guilty of (or accept responsibility for) a rule violation. Sixteen jurisdictions either impose fines as a sanction, or charge a questionable “administrative” fee for processing a violation.
Source Jurisdiction Range of fines Violation types How is money collected?
AR 403 Procedures for Inmate Rule Violations Alabama No more than $500 Having a social networking account
AR 403 Procedures for Inmate Rule Violations Alabama $25.00 “processing fee” Possession of cell phone
803 Inmate Disciplinary Procedure Arizona $500 to $2000 First, second, or third violations of types (02A, 03B, 05A, 16A, AND 19A) which include assault on staff, unauthorized access, having a communication device
5270.09 Inmate Discipline Program Federal (BOP) Up to $50, or 12.5% of trust fund balance Low severity level
Federal (BOP) Up to $100, or 25% of trust fund balance Moderate severity level offense
Federal (BOP) Up to $300, or 50% of trust fund balance High severity level offense
Federal (BOP) Up to $500, or 75% of trust fund balance Greatest severity level offense
Authorized Disciplinary Sanctions List Georgia $100 “administrative processing fee” Charge D-3(j), having a cell phone or similar device allowing communication with the outside Account is temporarily frozen pending the outcome of disciplinary proceedings; if person is found guilty, account is permanently frozen for the amount ordered and a check for the amount ordered is written if enough funds exist.
No account deductions are made below an account balance of $10.
201.04 Inmate Accounts Georgia $4 fee Any infraction
Major Discipline Report Procedures Iowa $5 fee In addition to any other medical costs assessed, the fee is imposed for trips to the Univ. of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics (UIHC) or a local hospital caused by an incarcerated individual’s self-injurious behavior, willful neglect, etc.
Conduct and Penalties Kansas Up to $10 Class III (least serious) offense
Kansas Up to $15 Class II offense
Kansas Up to $20 Class I (most serious) offense
20.1 Prisoner Discipline Maine At least $5 Any violation (Class A – C)
Maine Up to $100 Class A (most serious) violation, specifically for assault on a non-incarcerated person, “deadly instrument,” gang-related or substance-related violations
3.4.1 Institutional Discipline Montana $1 to $50 Certain major violations (codes specified in policy)
Montana $1 to $30 First, second, or third instances of certain major violations (codes specified in policy)
Montana Unspecified “fine” A minor violation
4932 Standards Behavior & Allowances New York $5 “surcharge” Any infraction
B.0200 Offender Disciplinary Procedures North Carolina $10 “administrative fee” Any class of offense A-D
Facility Handbook (2021) North Dakota “Financial sanctions” including fees and/or fines Level III (most serious) sanction Funds may be withdrawn without a signature to meet financial obligations; all available money in spending account will be applied. If the obligation is greater than what’s available in account, future pay and money received by outside sources are garnished.
If unable to pay debts owed at release from custody, the debt will remain active should individual return to custody.
Major Violation Grid Oregon $25 to $200 Major violations (specific codes listed in policy)
502.02 Disciplinary Punishment Guidelines Tennessee $3 Class C offense (only assessed if three Class C offenses occur in a 30-day period) Funds are withdrawn from account anytime balance exceeds zero. Individual with confirmed rule violation will be required to fill out a form authorizing withdrawal. Presumably, funds are withdrawn even if they refuse to sign the form, but policy does not state this explicitly.
Tennessee $4 Class B offense
Tennessee $5 Class A offense
FD01 Inmate Discipline Utah $20 to $300 Class B violation
Utah $150 to $600 Class A violation
861.1 Discipline Virginia Up to $15 Category II (less serious) offense
Virginia Up to $25 Category I (more serious) offense
3.101 Code of Inmate Discipline Wyoming Up to $5 Minor violation
Wyoming up to $10 General or major violation

Every jurisdiction that charges disciplinary fines or fees does so a bit differently, but taken together, a few findings stand out:

  • Disciplinary fines and fees are common. In 16 prison systems, we found policies referencing fines and/or fees related to confirmed disciplinary violations (where someone is found guilty or pleads guilty). In many cases, the severity level3 of the rule violation determines the amount of the fine, but in other cases there is a “flat” charge for any violation. In either case, charging fines means that some of the most innocuous behaviors — like making “loud or disturbing noises” in Kansas prisons — have a price tag.
  • Most prison systems impose disciplinary fines between $5 and $25, but some charge hundreds or thousands of dollars. Incarcerated people in five jurisdictions (Alabama, Arizona, Maine, Oregon, Utah, and the federal prison system) can face triple-digit fines for a single disciplinary charge: For example, Arizona’s fines start at a shocking $500 for the first instance of what they consider the most serious violations4 and go as high as $2,000. Utah state prisons impose up to $600 for a more serious “A Code” offense, and up to $300 for a “B code” offense — which can be for things like “horseplay,” or any conduct deemed “disorderly.”
  • Some prison systems insidiously present these charges as “administrative” fees. We found five prison systems that charge “administrative” or “processing” fees for disciplinary violations. We include them here because they’re just as punitive and unaffordable as fines. In Georgia, for example, each guilty finding for a disciplinary violation comes with a $4 fee, unless the violation is for having a cell phone or similar communication device, a harshly-punished violation in several states;5 that specific act will set someone back a $100 “administrative processing fee.” People incarcerated in North Carolina prisons, who are charged a $10 administrative fee per disciplinary infraction, collectively lost $313,000 in fees to the state’s general fund in Fiscal Year 2022 alone.6


For incarcerated people, even “small” fines and fees can be huge setbacks

Do local jails have disciplinary fines too?

Yes, at least some of them do

Although we didn’t look specifically at jail discipline policies, we’re aware of two jail systems where disciplinary violations lead to fines: In Lancaster County, Pa., records we obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request show the enormous and arbitrary range of fines collected from people locked up in the jail. Accounts showed deductions from $0.01 to over $160.

screenshot of Lancaster, PA jail records showing misconduct fees collected in 2022 A snippet of Lancaster, Pa. jail records categorized as “Misconduct Fees” levied on people incarcerated there throughout 2022.

Meanwhile, New York City jails impose a harsh $25 fee on all disciplinary tickets, a policy unearthed by a 2015 New Republic article focused on the backwards practice of charging people for being thrown in solitary confinement.

Outside of prison, a $5 or $10 fine might seem pretty inconsequential, or even surprisingly low. (Parking tickets, for example, are generally much more costly.) But to a typical person behind bars, a loss like this represents a serious change in financial circumstances; the value of money is simply different in prison. Prisons charge people for necessities like food and hygiene products, communication with loved ones, health care, and in some cases, “room and board.”7 And prison wages hardly cover these expenses, averaging less than one dollar per hour in most jurisdictions:

  • Someone in Kansas, for example, would have to work for over two months in the lowest-paying prison job to pay off a $20 disciplinary fine, the maximum charged there.8
  • In Virginia, where any rule violation comes with a flat $15 fine, it could take 33 to 55 hours (or one to two weeks) of work to cover that cost. Of course, this math only applies to the roughly 50% of the prison population with jobs; those earning no wages have to rely on financial support from loved ones. 9

It’s also important to note that prison disciplinary and labor systems already disadvantage some more than others: Black and Indigenous people, women, and those with disabilities10 tend to face prison discipline disproportionately. And research shows racial, gender and disability disparities in how prisons assign jobs. Considering disciplinary fines in this context, it makes little economic or administrative sense to continue picking these pockets.


Almost all prison systems also order restitution, but some states’ policies are excessive and inappropriate

We also found that nearly all prison systems have a policy about facility-owed restitution, or the reimbursement of costs incurred for damaged property or medical expenses that result from a rule violation. We often think of restitution as court-ordered reimbursement to civilian crime victims — and many incarcerated people face this type of debt, too — but in a prison setting, restitution serves as little more than a running tab for the state.

Many prison restitution policies require that the amount being sought reflects the actual cost of an item or service, like the requirement to present an “itemized list of expenses and/or items damaged and costs to repair or replace” in Georgia state prisons. Such efforts to justify restitution amounts might sound reasonable to an outsider, but these “reimbursements” are to state agencies for largely budgeted costs.11 For example, some prison systems pursue restitution for things like staff overtime, vehicle mileage, and workers’ compensation costs.12 13 And in a shameless move only the carceral system could devise, four states (Iowa, Georgia, Nevada, and New Mexico) seek reimbursement for medical charges related to self-harm and/or suicide. The financial cost of events that happen in prisons, which are inherently violent and mentally damaging places, shouldn’t be billed to incarcerated people and their families.


Prison systems often help themselves to the money they charge incarcerated people

In order to collect monetary sanctions, prisons will garnish (deduct) a portion — in some cases, up to 100% — of money credited to an incarcerated person’s account, whether it’s their hard-earned wages, money transfers from loved ones, or economic stimulus payments.14

Fines, fees, and restitution

Learn about the differences between these financial obligations

The fines, fees, and restitution charged to incarcerated people for breaking prison rules are often rationalized by correctional agencies as parallels to the legal-financial obligations ordered by courts outside of prisons. Indeed, courts routinely impose these costs for punitive and revenue-generating purposes. But just what are prison disciplinary systems trying to imitate when they impose these costs on incarcerated people?

Fines refer to monetary punishments. Most instances of breaking the law — from felonies to misdemeanors to municipal code violations — come with some sort of fine handed down from a court system. Like other forms of punishment, fines are meant to deter people from future rule-breaking activity.

Fees are additional costs imposed on people going through legal proceedings that are meant to raise revenue. Fees shift some of the cost of court services directly to impacted people, particularly where governments are wary of raising taxes to fund basic services such as those found in a judicial branch.

Judges are supposed to impose fines and fees after considering individuals’ ability to pay, but policy and discretion vary widely. And because they’re handed down indiscriminately, many people can’t actually pay them off, especially once they’ve accumulated. The cost of pursuing collection on these legal-financial obligations, which includes jailing people for their failure to pay, has proven to be an incredibly inefficient way for governments to raise money.

Restitution, in contrast to fines and fees, is intended to compensate victims of a crime for related loss or injury. Courts will collect restitution from people whose punishment includes it, and distribute it to known victims. Like fines and fees, restitution amounts may be unaffordable to people who owe them — especially once someone enters prison. Research suggests that only a small portion of restitution is ever collected.

A common deduction rate we found in our survey of state policies was 50%: Seven states (Iowa, Kentucky, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, California, and Rhode Island) deduct up to half of incoming deposits and apply it to a debt. That means, for example, that someone with a disciplinary fine debt in Pennsylvania who earns 50 cents per hour (near the maximum prison wage there) would only receive 25 cents per hour. Some of these states further complicate matters by just taking everything: Rhode Island prisons will begin collection on a debt by taking as much of the amount owed as possible, leaving an account balance of $10, and then begin garnishing 50% of subsequent deposits to cover the rest. This means that money sent in by a loved one may never actually reach its intended recipient, but instead go straight into the prison’s pocket.

A few other states’ policies (Oregon, Texas, and Wisconsin) suggest that 100% of funds are garnished (sometimes referred to as a “freeze” on an account) to cover a debt, without leaving any amount to cover basic necessities. And while nearly all prison systems claim to provide assistance to people who are extremely poor, or “indigent,” we found that prison indigence policies are too narrowly defined and limited to be very helpful.

Prison debt collection policies can also apply post-incarceration: Some prisons hold debts like disciplinary fines or facility-owed restitution on file in case of a future return to custody. And a few cases we found, corrections departments turn into collection agents — or at least threaten to do so: In Iowa prisons, for example, if someone who owes has signed an agreement, staff may pursue debts in small claims court or by seeking to garnish their state tax refunds. In Wisconsin, transfer or release “shall not terminate the inmate’s obligation to pay ordered restitution.” It’s hard to know whether prison systems actually enforce these collection policies, but the possibility looms large over people who work hard to be truly free of prison once they’re released.


Disciplinary fines and fees are just one part of an illegitimate ‘kangaroo court’ system in prisons

Disciplinary fines and fees are only a microcosm of a much larger problem with how prisons treat behaviors and “discipline.” The comprehensiveness of prison policies on rules, sanctions, collecting debts, and disciplinary hearings might suggest that prisons offer incarcerated people transparency and due process when they’re accused of a rule violation, but evidence suggests the opposite.

In fact, incarcerated people are not entitled to many aspects of due process when it comes to disciplinary hearings, like calling witnesses and obtaining counsel. Further, disciplinary hearings in prisons only require “some evidence” (in other words, any small amount of evidence) of misconduct, a much lower standard of proof than courts require in outside legal decision-making.15 This arbitrary and shadowy adjudication process only leads to hurt and mistrust; take this scenario, based on a case observed in a 2015 study of prison discipline:

A male prisoner tosses a plastic cup half-full of liquid toward a prison officer, nearly hitting her…. [T]he result, almost inevitably, will be cellular confinement (segregation) and a loss of privileges of some sort… During this time, the prisoner’s anger at the officer will potentially increase, exacerbated by the painful conditions of solitary lockdown. When the prisoner returns, he or she will make life difficult for the officer and the officer may in turn make life difficult for the prisoner. The cycle continues.

The legitimacy and credibility of prison disciplinary hearings — or lack thereof — matter because the stakes can be high. Being found guilty of a more serious violation, in particular, can change the course of someone’s incarceration drastically, through solitary confinement, the loss of earned good time, restricted access to necessary commissary items, and the potential impact on parole decisions. Prison systems should consider how this “kangaroo court” system of disciplinary hearings unfairly and harshly punishes people for behaviors that, as mounting evidence suggests, are often brought about by the prison environment itself. When harm does occur inside, restorative justice practices present an alternative way to problem-solve, and could lead to a more trusting, safer climate.


Disciplinary fines and fees in prisons are not “accountability”

While they may imitate the broader “justice” system in some ways, disciplinary fines and fees arguably do nothing to promote a sense of accountability or safety inside of prisons. The current approach to handling prison misconduct, in which fines play just a supporting role, is infantilizing and creates bleak conditions like solitary confinement and deprivation, which in turn lead to violence and mental health problems. To make prisons safer for everyone, administrators should overhaul disciplinary processes and provide more access to and opportunities for family contact, education, healthcare, treatment, and repairing harm.

By pulling back the curtain on murky aspects of everyday prison life like discipline, we hope prison administrators and policymakers will see that incarcerated people are starved for opportunities to achieve economic, professional, and personal growth, and that disciplinary sanctions undermine these goals.



  1. There are many terms for alleged rule violations in prisons: tickets, writeups, infractions, violations, disciplinary reports (or D-reports), bookings, etc. Once they are confirmed violations, through a guilty finding or plea, the corresponding punishments are typically called sanctions, or sometimes penalties.  ↩

  2. The punishments for rule violations in prison typically include other losses that put goods and services out of reach, such as being banned from commissary, visitation and/or phone use, and recreation for a period of time, removal from programs, solitary confinement, or confinement to one’s own cell. In states that do impose disciplinary fines, a combination of other sanctions is often handed down at the same time.  ↩

  3. Many prison systems have categorized rule violations in some hierarchy ranging from least to most serious, using letters, numbers, or words like “major” and “minor.” Our disciplinary policies resource page explains these categories where information is available.  ↩

  4. Arizona’s steep prison disciplinary fines are imposed for a strange subset of violations, which include assaults on staff (whether resulting in injury or not), arson, possession of a communication device or a component of one, and tampering with a lock or door. They’re not imposed for other instances of grave misconduct like assault on other incarcerated people, sexual assault, or possessing a weapon.  ↩

  5. Though having a cell phone is essential for navigating the world today, many state prisons treat possession of contraband cell phones and similar devices as one of the most serious types of misconduct, represented in some cases (like Georgia) by a heavy fine. Alabama and Arizona also come down hard on people with cell phones, at least when it comes to disciplinary fines and fees; we haven’t done a 50-state scan of states that treat this violation harshly with non-monetary sanctions.  ↩

  6. This figure came from the response to a public records request we filed with the North Carolina Department of Adult Corrections in October 2023.  ↩

  7. According to analysis from the Brennan Center, as of 2015, at least 43 states authorize room and board (or “pay-to-stay”) fees to incarcerated people.  ↩

  8. According to the ACLU’s report Captive Labor: Exploitation of Incarcerated Workers, the lowest wage paid to incarcerated workers in Kansas’ state prison system is just $0.45 per day; a $20 fine, then, would take 44 work days to pay off, assuming wages aren’t garnished for other reasons.  ↩

  9. In 2020, there were 31,838 people in Virginia state prisons, and approximately 16,000 of them were “wage-earning offenders,” earning $0.27 to $0.45 per hour in non-industry jobs.  ↩

  10. A report from Human Rights Watch explains in detail how incarcerated people with mental disabilities have several aspects of prison environments working against them when it comes to behavior and discipline. Many correctional officers are not trained to recognize signs of mental illness and may find certain behaviors frightening or threatening; as a result, people with mental illness are punished for disciplinary violations at higher rates than general prison populations. And when those people are placed in solitary confinement for disciplinary or other reasons, they are less likely to receive treatment and more likely to engage in misconduct (or perceived misconduct) in the future. Regarding economic status, though not covered in our own report Prisons of Poverty, people with disabilities are much more likely to live in poverty or face economic hardship compared to the average American.  ↩

  11. For example, the Connecticut Department of Corrections budgets included “workers’ compensation claims” as a line item until it was consolidated with other state agencies’ claims, and the Department is required to report to the legislature its “estimated costs associated with staffing deficiencies [and] overtime costs.” In another example, Arizona’s Department of Corrections budget includes “mileage – private vehicle” in several sections. See footnote 11 for similar items in Iowa’s budget.  ↩

  12. These are just a few things included in Iowa’s far-reaching policy on prison-owed restitution. Notably, travel, workers’ compensation reimbursement, and “state vehicle operation” appear throughout the department’s budget as budgeted expenditures.  ↩

  13. While it’s easy to assume that correctional employees hurt on the job are typically injured by incarcerated people (which might justify these restitution policies to some), this may not be the case. An Inspector General report investigating the New York prison system found that “from 2015 through 2021, on average, 66 percent of all workers’ compensation injury claims did not involve contact with an incarcerated person. That is, year after year, on average, the number of claimed injuries not involving contact with an incarcerated person is almost double those injury claims that do.”  ↩

  14. Prison debt collection policies exist even in jurisdictions that don’t charge disciplinary fines, because they collect other fees not related to discipline, and collect debt on behalf of other agencies, like court systems.  ↩

  15. The standard of proof used in legal decision-making is called a “preponderance of the evidence,” which means proving that something is more likely than not to be true.  ↩

See all footnotes

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