by Peter Wagner and Alexi Jones, December 17, 2018

Journalists and others often ask about how the movement for phone justice began and why this is taking so long. Here are the key dates:

2000:
Martha Wright, a grandmother who was struggling to afford calls to her incarcerated grandson, sues a private prison company over the contracts it has with various phone companies.
2001:
Federal Court grants motions by private prison company and telephone companies to refer the case to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
2002-2011:
For nearly 10 years, the Federal Communications Commission takes no visible action.
2012:
The Federal Communications Commission files a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) regarding the Wright Petition.
2013:
The Federal Communications Commission votes 2-1 to approve new regulations that set interstate rate caps of 21 cents a minute for debit and pre-paid calls and 25 cents a minute for collect calls. The one dissenting vote is from FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai, who previously represented prison phone giant Securus in private practice.
2014:
Despite legal challenges from prison phone companies, the FCC’s new rate caps go into effect in February.
2015:
In October, the FCC issues additional regulations, lowering the cost for all calls from prisons (out-of-state and in-state) to 11 cents a minute, and lowering the cost of calls from jails at 14 to 22 cents a minute depending on the size of the institution. The FCC also approves comprehensive reform and caps on the cost of “ancillary fees” that can double the cost of a call. Again, Commissioner Pai voted against these regulations. Many of the phone companies, several state prison systems, county jail systems, and sheriff associations file suit challenging the FCC’s order.
2016:
The federal court issues a partial stay of the Federal Communications Commission’s October 2015 regulations, preventing the new rate caps from taking effect. The new regulations on fees, however, go into effect. The lawsuit moves very slowly.
2017:
In January, Donald Trump appoints FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai the Chairman of the FCC. In February, Pai, who had twice voted against regulating the industry, announces that the FCC will stop defending its in-state rate caps in court. However, the FCC does consent to 6 advocacy organizations, including the Prison Policy Initiative, defending that part of the lawsuit as intervenor-defendants. In June, despite this effort, the federal court strikes down the FCC’s 2015 rate caps. The 2013 rate caps, and the 2015 fee caps, remain in place.

For more on the struggle for phone justice, see our campaign page.


by Aleks Kajstura, December 12, 2018

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

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

Our list of reforms ripe for legislative victory are:

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

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


December 11, 2018

When it comes to ranking U.S. states on the harshness of their criminal justice systems, incarceration rates only tell half of the story. 4.5 million people nationwide are on probation and parole, and several of the seemingly “less punitive” states put vast numbers of their residents under these other, deeply flawed forms of supervision.

Pie chart breaking down U.S. corrections into populations in confinement, probation and parole

In Correctional Control: Incarceration and supervision by state, the Prison Policy Initiative calculates each state’s rate of correctional control, which includes incarceration (in all types of facilities) as well as community supervision (probation and parole). The report includes over 100 easy-to-read charts breaking down each state’s correctional population.

The report also includes an interactive chart that ranks states on their use of correctional control, with surprising findings including:

  • Ohio and Idaho surpass Oklahoma – the global leader in incarceration – in correctional control overall.
  • Graph showing states with highest rates of incarceration vs those with highest rates of correctional control
  • Pennsylvania – which famously revoked Meek Mill’s probation last year – has the second-highest rate of correctional control in the nation.
  • Rhode Island and Minnesota have some of the lowest incarceration rates in the country, but are among the most punitive when community supervision is accounted for.

Many of the highest rates of correctional control are in states with high rates of probation. “All too often,” says report author Alexi Jones, “probation serves not as a true alternative to incarceration but as the last stop before prison.” Jones proposes specific reforms and highlights the flaws in current probation systems:

  • Probation imposes time-consuming conditions and fees that people struggle to meet, and which can paradoxically hold them back from turning their lives around.
  • Violating even the most minor of these requirements (such as missing a meeting) can result in incarceration.
  • Probation terms can go on for years after the original offense, meaning even model probationers can serve decades under state scrutiny.

But probation is malfunctioning in even more fundamental ways, explains Jones: “States are putting people on probation when a fine, warning, or community treatment program would suffice,” thereby putting more people at risk of incarceration.

“It’s obviously better to keep people in the community than to incarcerate them,” says Jones. “But states need to ask the hard questions about their supervision systems: Whether probation and parole are truly helping people get their lives back on track, and whether everyone who is under supervision really needs to be.”


Treatment programs offer promising results for recently incarcerated people, but prisons aren’t using them.

by Maddy Troilo, December 7, 2018

The national opioid epidemic is killing formerly incarcerated people at shocking rates. Recent research from North Carolina, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island reveals the extent of this crisis and points towards possible solutions. Despite a growing body of evidence that specific treatments work effectively, most prisons are refusing to offer those treatments to incarcerated people, vastly worsening the overdose rate among people in and recently released from prison. Last month, the President signed into law the SUPPORT for Patients and Communities Act, which aims to combat the national epidemic but will likely have mixed results. States, departments of corrections, and the federal government can and must do more to help.

Continue reading →


When jails cut family visits in the name of security, advocates should demand evidence.

by Jorge Renaud, December 6, 2018

Sheriffs are increasingly welcoming video calling technology into their jails, with more than 500 local jails now contracting with video calling providers like GTL and Securus. Usually, sheriffs simultaneously do away with in-person visits, despite studies showing that they are crucial for maintaining family bonds.

To ward off claims that this is just a money-grubbing scheme, sheriffs invoke the argument that doing away with face-to-face visits “increase[s] the safety and security of our facilities,” presumably by stopping contraband brought in by jail visitors.

This argument is demonstrably false, and yet jail administrators repeat it at every possible opportunity. Sheriffs raise the specter of visitors loaded down with drugs, somehow passing them through physical searches and through body scanners and through glass partitions, with the only solution being a move to remote technology. For one thing, this scenario is implausible, given that in-person jail visitors are virtually always separated from their loved ones by a glass window. But more importantly, by blaming contraband on in-person visitors, sheriffs distract from a far more likely source: jail staff.

I reviewed news stories of arrests made in 2018 of individuals caught bringing contraband into jails and prisons. What I found wouldn’t surprise any person in jail, but it’s a truth that sheriffs prefer to avoid: Almost all contraband introduced to any local jail comes through staff. This year alone, 20 jail staff members in 12 separate county jails were arrested, indicted, or convicted on charges of bringing in or planning to bring in contraband.

State Facility Details of incident
Alabama Marshall County Jail Sheriff fires, arrests, and charges four jail staff for “promoting prison contraband.” (more)
Florida Lake County Correctional Center Jail staff charged with smuggling marijuana and phone. (more)
Maryland Jessup Correctional Institution Two staff indicted for conspiring to bring in drugs. (more)
Mississippi Bolivar County Regional Correctional Facility Jail staff arrested for smuggling contraband. (more)
Missouri Jackson County Detention Center Jail staff sentenced for bringing in contraband phones, cigarettes, and drugs. (more)
Ohio Lucas County Correctional Center Two staff indicted for conspiring to bring in drugs. (more)
Pennsylvania Lebanon County Correctional Facility Jail staff arrested for smuggling meth, suboxone, and naloxone. (more)
Pennsylvania Philadelphia House of Corrections, Detention Center, and Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility Six staff at four Philadelphia facilities arrested for smuggling drugs and phones into jail. (more)
Texas Bexar County Jail Two staff indicted for conspiring to smuggle meth into jail. (more)

In fact, most of the jails in question had recently eliminated in-person visits in favor of video calls – a technology which, again, is supposed to reduce contraband.

Moving to video calling has financial benefits for jails, and those benefits have convinced sheriffs to overlook the importance of in-person visits for incarcerated individuals and their families. While rates charged for video calls vary, almost every jail that offers video calling receives commissions from the provider. Video calling also reduces the number of jailers necessary to monitor visitation, allowing sheriffs to cut their payroll.

In order to realize those financial benefits, sheriffs have to justify taking away children’s right to see their parents in person. And that means blaming families for contraband, even when that claim has no legs to stand on.

If any sheriff has ever commissioned a study to back up their claim that banning in-person visits makes jails safer, they’ve never cited one. However, multiple studies (including one we assisted with) do suggest that banning in-person visits makes jails less safe overall, with no reduction in contraband.

Advocates for in-person visits should demand that sheriffs provide proof of their claims. Banning in-person visits means more money for jails at the expense of family connections. We can’t let the sheriffs’ baseless assertions to the contrary go unchallenged.


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

by Peter Wagner, November 29, 2018

We just released our 2017-2018 Annual Report, and I’m thrilled to share some highlights of our work with you. We’ve had an incredibly productive year, releasing 11 major national reports, exposés, legislative briefings, and guides for advocates and journalists.

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

thumbnail showing some pages from the Prison Policy Initiative 2017-2018 annual report

But that’s not all. In our highly-skimmable annual report, we review our work on all of our issues over the last year. Thank you for being a part of our successes over the last year. We are looking forward to working with you in the year to come.


by Peter Wagner, November 21, 2018

Mujahid Farid, the founding organizer of a campaign to reduce the number of elderly and infirm people in New York State prisons, died yesterday at 69. His Release Aging People in Prison campaign in New York State – known as the RAPP Campaign – was critical:

Release Aging People in Prison/RAPP works to end mass incarceration and promote racial justice by getting elderly and infirm people out of prison. The number of people aged 50 and older in New York State, where RAPP was founded, has doubled since 2000; it now exceeds 10,000—about 20% of the total incarcerated population. This reflects a national crisis in the prison system and the extension of a culture of revenge and punishment into all areas of our society.

I got to spend some time with Farid at a conference in 2014, and offered to use our knowledge of the New York State prison system’s data to help visualize what Farid already knew: that New York’s much-heralded prison population decline was confined solely to the population of people under 50 and the elderly were being left behind. We’ve updated that graph and analysis a few times, most recently just three weeks ago:

Graph of changes in the New York state prison population by age group, showing that the number of incarcerated people age 50 and older has increased steadily since 1992, while the populations of all younger age groups have declinedSince 1992, the number of people age 50 and older incarcerated in New York state prisons has steadily increased, while the populations of every other age group have declined dramatically.

And at that same conference in 2014, Leah Sakala and I shot a short interview with Farid when the RAPP Campaign was just starting:

Each summer since, I’d see Farid at that same conference, and checking in with him was always a highlight. He’ll be greatly missed. Thank you for your work, Mujahid Farid.


Clemency isn't the only way for governors and legislators to show mercy. Our report provides a roadmap with several options.

November 15, 2018

More than 200,000 people in state prisons today have been there for a decade or more. But even when governors and legislators want to give these individuals a “second chance,” they’ve had no handbook for doing so – until now.

Graph showing growth in the number of people who have served 10 or more years in prison

In a new report, the Prison Policy Initiative presents eight ways for states to help people serving excessive prison sentences finally go home. “Clemency is far from the only option,” said author Jorge Renaud. “We don’t have to invent new strategies – there are many out there that are vastly underused.”

His report Eight Keys to Mercy gathers examples of innovations from around the country, and presents these strategies as a slate of options, including:

  • Ways to fix broken state parole systems, such as presumptive parole;
  • Solutions for states where few people are eligible for parole, such as second-look sentencing;
  • Common-sense reforms, such as expanding good time, to support people already working hard to get out (and stay out) of prison.

The report’s eight recommendations also include:

  • Visual aids and explainers, including a detailed guide to present-day parole systems;
  • Instructions for implementing reforms while avoiding common pitfalls;
  • Fact sheets for all 50 states, meant to help policymakers and journalists quickly assess the problem where they live.

Mercy doesn’t begin and end with the governor. But in most states, the systems designed to help people leave prison – such as parole, good time and compassionate release – are skewed towards keeping them inside. “This can’t continue to be the norm,” said Renaud. “People should not spend decades in prison without meaningful opportunities for their release.”

Read the full report and recommendations here: https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/longsentences.html


The report includes a new, data-rich visualization of women in jails, highlighting a critical area for criminal justice reform.

November 13, 2018

Women in the U.S. experience a starkly different criminal justice system than men do, but data on their experiences is difficult to find and put into context. In a new report produced in collaboration with the ACLU’s Campaign for Smart Justice, the Prison Policy Initiative fills this gap in the data with a rich visual snapshot of how many women are locked up in the U.S., where, and why.

In Women’s Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2018 (a detailed update to the inaugural 2017 version), Legal Director Aleks Kajstura pieces together data from the country’s fragmented systems of confinement, producing a detailed “big picture” visualization as well as a separate close-up view of women in local jails.

Preview of pie chart showing how many women are locked up on a given day in the U.S. by facility and offense type.

Kajstura’s analysis reveals that:

  • 56% of women in prisons or jails are there for drug or property offenses, compared with approximately 40% of the general incarcerated population (which is almost entirely male).
  • 7,000 immigrant women are in confinement every day awaiting deportation or an immigration hearing.
  • 54,000 women are behind bars every day without a conviction, typically because they cannot afford money bail.
  • While 219,000 women are behind bars every day, over 1 million are on probation, suggesting that probation reform is also a women’s issue.

“With this big-picture view, it’s easier to see why many state-level reforms unintentionally leave women behind,” Kajstura said. Her analysis particularly underscores the need for local reforms to county jails:

preview of infographic about women in jails

  • Incarcerated women are far more likely than men to be held in local jails, both before trial and while serving their sentences.
  • Of all immigrant women held for ICE, 4,700 are not in detention centers, but “rented” beds in local jails.
  • 80% of women in jail are mothers, and most are the primary caretakers of their children.
  • Mental health care is notoriously bad in jails, where suicide rates are literally off the charts.

While states vary widely in how many women they put behind bars, every single U.S. state outranks most independent countries on women’s incarceration, as we found in June 2018 – making reform a moral necessity in every state. Kajstura calls her analysis “the foundation for reforming the policies that lead to incarcerating women in the first place.”

See the full data visualization and report: https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie2018women.html


Despite recent positive reforms, New York's elderly prison population continues to grow.

by Maddy Troilo, November 1, 2018

Several years ago, we reported on the elderly prison boom in New York; I thought it was time to update our analysis to examine the impact of recent reforms to the state’s Parole Board.

First, for context, a brief summary of New York’s parole reforms: After sustained effort by advocacy groups, the New York State Board of Parole revised the guidelines that shape their practices–long documented to be harmful to incarcerated people and their families–in September 2016. In June of that year, a campaign to change the composition of the Parole Board was successful, and Governor Cuomo appointed new Parole Commissioners with more diverse backgrounds and no history of abusing the position.

Advocates hoped these changes would increase the rate at which aging and elderly people in New York prisons are granted parole, and alleviate some of the “graying” of the state’s prisons. That happened, to a degree: this year, Release Aging People in Prison (RAPP) found that the Parole Board’s release rates have increased for people 50 or older from 24% to 40%. That change marks meaningful progress, but was it enough to reverse the growth in New York’s aging and elderly prison population?

Unfortunately, no. I found that even as the incarceration rate for all other age groups declines, the number of people age 50 and over incarcerated in New York continues to rise rapidly:

Graph of changes in the New York state prison population by age group, showing that the number of incarcerated people age 50 and older has increased steadily since 1992, while the populations of all younger age groups have declinedSince 1992, the number of people age 50 and older incarcerated in New York state prisons has steadily increased, while the populations of every other age group have declined dramatically.

As we showed in 2015, this rapid increase must be the result of decisions about release, because the number of aging and elderly people admitted to New York prisons only increased slightly. That’s certainly still the case, but I can’t update our graph of the commitment data because the New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision hasn’t published any new data on people’s age at admission since 2014.

New York needs to do better; aging and elderly people shouldn’t be left behind as younger people continue to benefit from the state’s overall decline in incarceration. The state can begin by making these further changes:

  • Seat more people on the board to combat understaffing and dismissing those who abuse and misuse their positions
  • End the use of the “nature of the crime” as a factor in parole decisions
  • Give more weight to people’s accomplishments while incarcerated
  • Institute a meaningful presumption of release at first eligibility
  • Acknowledge the fact that elderly people pose no substantial risk to public safety.

The new reforms are important progress, but much more needs to be done. For more information on the campaign to improve the New York Parole Board, see RAPP’s report New York State Parole Board: Failures in Staffing and Performance.









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