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Report shows every community is harmed by mass incarceration

September 28, 2022

Today the Public Interest Law Center and the Prison Policy Initiative released a new report, Where people in prison come from: The geography of mass incarceration in Pennsylvania, that provides an in-depth look at where people incarcerated in Pennsylvania state prisons come from. The report also provides 10 detailed data tables — including neighborhood-specific data for Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Allentown — that serve as a foundation for advocates, organizers, policymakers, data journalists, academics, and others to analyze how incarceration relates to other factors of community well-being.

The data and report are made possible by the 2021 Legislative Reapportionment Commission’s decision to address the practice of prison gerrymandering. Pennsylvania was the first state to address this problem through its redistricting commission. With this change, the Commonwealth — for the first time ever — counted most incarcerated people at their homes instead of in prison cells when drawing new legislative district lines.

The report shows:

  • Every single county — and every state legislative district — is missing a portion of its population to incarceration in state prison.
  • While Philadelphia County sends the most people to prison, the much smaller Venango County has the highest imprisonment rate of any county, at 452 per 100,000 residents.
  • There are dramatic differences in imprisonment rates within communities. For example, in Philadelphia, one of the most racially segregated cities in the nation, residents of the Nicetown neighborhood are more than fifty times as likely to be imprisoned than residents of the Center City-West neighborhood.

Data tables included in the report provide residence information for people in Pennsylvania state prisons at the time of the 2020 Census, offering the clearest look ever at which communities are most impacted by mass incarceration. They break down the number of people locked up by county, city, town, zip code, legislative district, census tract, and other areas.

The data show the cities with the highest state prison imprisonment rates are Chester (1,191 per 100,000 residents), Harrisburg (1,144 per 100,000 residents) and Uniontown (972 per 100,000 residents). For comparison, Bethel Park has the lowest imprisonment rate, at 21 people in state prison per 100,000 residents. Philadelphia and Pittsburgh have imprisonment rates of 463 per 100,000 residents and 276 per 100,000 residents, respectively.

Map of incarceration by census tract in Pennsylvania

“The nation’s 40-year failed experiment with mass incarceration harms each and every one of us. This analysis shows that while some communities are disproportionately impacted by this failed policy, nobody escapes the damage it causes,” said Emily Widra, Senior Research Analyst at the Prison Policy Initiative. “Our report is just the beginning. We’re making this data available so others can further examine how geographic incarceration trends correlate with other problems communities face.”

The report cites studies that show that incarceration rates correlate with a variety of negative outcomes, including higher rates of asthma, depression, lower standardized test scores, reduced life expectancy, and more. The data included in this report gives researchers the tools they need to better understand how these correlations play out in Pennsylvania.

“Mass incarceration hurts every community in Pennsylvania, but hurts some communities more than others,” said Benjamin Geffen of the Public Interest Law Center and co-author of the report. “As state and local leaders rethink our approaches to criminal justice, they should use data about who is in state prisons to target investments in jobs, housing, education, and healthcare that will strengthen families and communities.”

The report is part of a series of reports examining the geography of mass incarceration in America.

Pennsylvania is one of more than a dozen states and 200 local governments that have addressed the practice of “prison gerrymandering,” which gives disproportional political clout to state and local districts that contain prisons at the expense of all of the other areas of the state. In total, roughly half the country now lives in a place that has taken action to address prison gerrymandering.


Report shows every community is harmed by mass incarceration

September 15, 2022

Today the Prison Policy Initiative, along with Delaware advocates Kyra Hoffner and Jack Young released a new report, Where people in prison come from: The geography of mass incarceration in Delaware, that provides an in-depth look at where people incarcerated in Delaware state prisons come from. The report also provides six detailed data tables that serve as a foundation for advocates, organizers, policymakers, data journalists, academics and others to analyze how incarceration relates to other factors of community well-being.

The data and report are made possible by the state’s landmark 2010 law that requires that people in state prisons be counted as residents of their hometown rather than in cells when state and local governments redistrict every ten years.

The report shows:

  • All three counties — and every state legislative district — are missing a portion of their population to incarceration in state prison.
  • Wilmington has the dubious distinction of having both the highest number of city residents incarcerated as well as the highest incarceration rate of any city in the state.
  • Mass incarceration is not just a problem impacting large cities. Many smaller towns are also hit hard. Laurel, for example, has an incarceration rate of 1,227 per 100,000 residents, while Blades has a rate of 924 per 100,000 residents.

Data tables included in the report provide residence information for people in Delaware state prisons at the time of the 2020 Census, offering the clearest look ever at which communities are most impacted by mass incarceration. They break down the number of people locked up by county, city, zip code, legislative district, and census tract.

The data show the cities with the highest incarceration rates are Wilmington (1,299 per 100,000 residents), Seaford (748 per 100,000 residents) and Dover (680 per 100,000 residents). For comparison, Newark has the lowest incarceration rate of any city, at 131 per 100,000 residents, nearly ten times lower than Wilmington, and nearly three times lower than the state rate of 380 per 100,000 residents.

Map showing incarceration rates by census tract in Delaware

“The nation’s 40-year failed experiment with mass incarceration harms each and every one of us. This analysis shows that while some communities are disproportionately impacted by this failed policy, nobody escapes the damage it causes,” said Emily Widra, Senior Research Analyst at the Prison Policy Initiative and co-author of the report. “Our report is just the beginning. We’re making this data available so others can further examine how geographic incarceration trends correlate with other problems communities face.”

The report cites studies that show that incarceration rates correlate with a variety of negative outcomes, including higher rates of asthma, depression, lower standardized test scores, reduced life expectancy and more. The data included in this report gives researchers the tools they need to better understand how these correlations play out in Delaware.

“This report provides the most precise picture ever of which communities are most impacted, and just as importantly, it shows where support and resources should be deployed to repair that harm,” said Kyra Hoffner, co-author of the report.

“Every person locked behind bars in Delaware represents a piece of the fabric of a community that is missing,” said Jack Young, co-author of the report. “This report and data provide critical guidance on where and how resources and support should be allocated.”

The report is part of a series of reports examining the geography of mass incarceration in America.

Delaware is one of more than a dozen states and 200 local governments that have addressed the practice of “prison gerrymandering,” which gives disproportional political clout to state and local districts that contain prisons at the expense of all of the other areas of the state. In total, roughly half the country now lives in a place that has taken action to address prison gerrymandering.


Evidence from court case shows why the FCC should act to stop abusive practices in the industry.

by Stephen Raher, September 7, 2022

On August 30, a federal court in Georgia approved a settlement in the years-long class action lawsuit against Global Tel*Link Corporation (“GTL”), one of the two major providers of phone services in prisons and jails. This litigation challenged GTL’s policy of seizing customer money from “prepaid accounts” after a short period of inactivity. Just as important, though, it shows why the FCC needs to take action to end this type of abusive practice throughout the industry.

Under the terms of the settlement, GTL will provide cash payments to some customers, account credits to others, and will institute a uniform policy of not seizing customer funds until accounts have been inactive for a minimum of 180 days. GTL has also agreed to implement procedures to warn customers before their accounts are declared inactive. Prison Policy Initiative filed an amicus brief in the case, pointing out certain ambiguities in the settlement agreement — our concerns were addressed by the addition of clarifying language in the court order approving the settlement.

One of the more interesting facts revealed in the case came at the very end — just days before the final hearing, the court denied GTL’s request to keep secret the amount of money it has taken from “inactive” accounts over the years. Although the court allowed GTL to keep such amounts secret for recent periods (specifically, September 2021 onward), we now know that from April 2011 through August 2019, GTL took over $121 million from customer accounts that it declared inactive — this averages to over $1.2 million a month. This isn’t money that GTL earned in return for providing a service, it’s simply money that GTL took because it could.

We have pointed out this shocking figure to the FCC, along with a request to enact rules that would prohibit companies from taking funds like this. Even though GTL has agreed to some reforms as a result of the class-action settlement, other telecom companies can and do seize customer funds in a similar manner, and no company should be able to enrich itself by taking money simply because a customer hasn’t made a call in recent months.

 

Information about the settlement

Although the deadline to file a claim for cash payments has passed, customers with active or reactivated accounts are still eligible to receive credits. See the official class website at https://gtlprepaidsettlement.com/FAQ.


An underutilized government dataset goes deep into daily life in state prisons — including work assignments, programming, and discipline — revealing lost opportunities for rehabilitation, education, and hope.

by Leah Wang, September 2, 2022

As 1.25 million people in state prisons navigate their sentences, many are eager to find hope for a better life after release. They may seek out ways to work and earn a living behind bars, set themselves up for success upon release, and gain a better skillset for navigating life outside of the criminal legal system. Prisons often claim to provide appropriate educational programming, vocational training, and other opportunities for growth or “rehabilitation.” But as the most recent, nationally representative data from state prisons show, these facilities provide few opportunities for people looking to make the most of their time inside. Instead, prisons — guided by state policies, as well as the broad discretion of correctional staff — tend to focus on enforcing rigid rules and filling incarcerated people’s time with menial work, without which the prison could not function.

Using data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ 2016 Survey of Prison Inmates, this briefing reveals how prisons fail to implement programs that we know “work” at setting incarcerated people up for success in the future (such as giving people opportunities to earn money, obtain an education, or gain relevant job skills). 1 These failures have far-reaching effects: When people in prison have little to no income, they may accumulate child support debt, suffer without essential commissary items, or be unable to access communication with loved ones, which can impact people on both sides of the bars. Less overall opportunity in prison can mean lowered prospects for employment and finding stable footing upon release.

graph showing that 90 percent of people written up for a rule violation received a sanction

  

Prison work is often compulsory, does little to build useful skills, and pays almost nothing

Prison jobs, often called “work assignments,” are the most common “programming” offered in state prisons. 2 Prisons rely on the labor of incarcerated people for food service, laundry, and other tasks that offset operational expenses. (While less common, some prisons also contract with public and private entities, assigning some people to “prison industries” jobs where they do anything from make eyeglasses to fight wildfires.) In general, work assignments are not thoughtfully designed to provide job skills and development: They are intended to keep the prison running and keep “idleness” at bay.

  • graph showing 70 percent of incarcerated workers are required to work, and 39 percent of incarcerated workers are paid nothing for their work

    Data note: The last time the data were collected by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) on how many workers are paid was in 2004. But in 2022, six states (Ala., Ark., Fla., Ga., S.C., and Texas) still paid nothing for most or all jobs done by incarcerated people, and together, these states made up 30% of state prison populations nationwide in 2019, suggesting that the percentage of workers who are unpaid has likely not changed much since the 2004 survey.

  • graph showing work assignment types of people in state prisons, only 6% of which are for prison industries or contracted services, the rest are helping to run the prison itself

 

Employment as we know it outside of the carceral system is typically a consensual relationship between employer and employee, and protected by employment laws; prison work assignments, on the other hand, are often compulsory, and incarcerated workers have few rights and protections compared to non-incarcerated workers.3 Prison labor is sealed off from standard workplace protections and minimum wage laws by the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which contains an “exception clause” allowing slavery or involuntary servitude as punishment for a crime.

If an incarcerated person refuses to work, they often face disciplinary action. Those who do work receive paltry wages — far less than $1 per hour, typically – and even those mere pennies are often deducted to pay for fees, restitution, and child support, or must be saved for basic necessities like medical visits, hygiene items, and phone calls.

According to the national Survey:

  • 58% of people in state prisons have a work assignment. Most of these jobs help keep the prison functioning, such as janitorial duties (29% of workers); food preparation (20%); working in a prison library, stockroom, barber shop, or similar (12%); groundskeeping (10%); and jobs doing maintenance, repair, or construction (7.4%). Only about 6% work in “prison industries” jobs, producing goods or services for other state agencies or companies.4
  • Considering the broader context of incarcerated people’s lives before prison, 61% of those who had provided at least half of their household’s income before their arrest reported having a prison work assignment in prison. These individuals are now almost certainly earning significantly less than they did in the outside world. And the remaining 39% of former income-providers who now have no work assignment may be experiencing a dramatic shift from providing for their loved ones to having no income to contribute to their families at all.
  • Most (71%) people with a work assignment are required to have one, suggesting that many people are forced to work. While many people in prison want to be productive while behind bars, they lack any control in pursuing relevant, stimulating, and/or safe work assignments.5
  • People in prison who were not forced, but chose to work, said the following reasons were “very important” in their decision: learning new skills (70%), earning money (54%), relieving boredom (51%), or earning good time for earlier release (45%). (Only the 29% of people who chose to work were asked about their motivations.)
  • White people in state prisons were slightly more likely than people of other racial and ethnic groups to have a work assignment (63%, compared to 54%-58% for other groups). Previous studies point to racial bias (and gender bias) in how jobs are assigned to incarcerated people.

The Survey did not ask about wages earned (or even whether respondents earned anything at all), but a recent analysis found that the highest-paid incarcerated people earned over one dollar per hour in “industries” jobs, while the typical state prison job — doing things like laundry, food preparation, or other tasks supporting prison operations — paid only 13 to 52 cents per hour.6 These unthinkably low wages have remained stagnant since our 2017 deep dive into prison earnings (and even then, we found that some prisons were paying workers less than they had in 2001). Considering the additional blow dealt by inflation, people in prison have virtually no chance of building up financial savings, no matter how hard they work.

  

State prisons lack educational opportunities, job training, and programming that would help develop skills

Prison work assignments are not the only area where prison policies are inconsistent with what we know would help incarcerated people. In the words of one group of researchers, prison programs that build skills, confidence, and mental health “reduce recidivism by increasing the opportunity cost of committing crimes.” But the staggering length of waiting lists for education and programming at many facilities nationwide tells us not only that incarcerated people want programming, but that there is not nearly enough.

graph showing people in state prisons are often excluded from education or job training programs

Overall, about two-thirds (68%) of people in state prison have participated in some type of programming, including education (43%); job training (33%); and classes in anger management (35%), parenting (17%), or money management (17%).

According to the Survey:

  • Because most work assignments involve menial tasks that are unlikely to help people find skilled work upon release, it seems likely that job training programs would be popular among incarcerated skill-seekers. But the Survey data show that only one-third (33%) of people in state prisons report ever having participated in job training. This lack of widespread job training opportunities may help explain why 29% of incarcerated workers voluntarily chose to take on their work assignments.
  • Most of those (58%) who were ever enrolled in job training successfully completed their program, but 1 in 5 (20%) people were prematurely cut off from their program before finishing.7
  • White and Hispanic people were the least likely racial or ethnic groups to participate in job training (29% each, compared to 33%-37% for other groups). This disparity could be explained by the fact that white and Hispanic people had the highest rates of pre-prison employment, which could indicate less need for training.

Offering education in prisons has a known return on investment, leading to well-documented reductions in recidivism and providing the credentials that lead to better jobs. People tend to enter prison with lower-than-average education levels, and were often under-supported and over-disciplined while in school.8 Yet instead of being able to make up for lost time by enrolling in educational programs, the Survey data reveal that only 43% of people in state prisons have participated in educational programming (even though 62% had not completed high school upon admission). Participation rates in education are similar among men and women and across age groups, though incarcerated women are more likely to have a high school education than incarcerated men.

Our analysis of the Survey results also found that:

  • Among the 57% of people in state prisons who had never participated in educational programming, the reasons they cite for not participating are illuminating: 18% — over 125,000 people — had never been offered the chance. Another 11% said that they weren’t qualified or allowed to attend, and 7.3% said they could not get into an education program or were waitlisted — again pointing to the widespread problem of waitlists for programming in prisons. Some of these same failures to inform people of educational opportunities and get them enrolled applied to job training programs, too.
  • White people in state prisons were the least likely to participate in an education program compared to all other racial and ethnic groups.9 This finding may be related to the relatively higher educational attainment of white people who enter state prison compared to other groups, particularly Black and Hispanic people, and the requirement in some prison systems that people without a high school education must enroll in basic education courses.
  • Half (53%) of people without a high school credential reported former or current enrollment in education programs, compared to less than 30% of people with at least a high school diploma – further evidence that high school and college opportunities aren’t equally available in prisons.10 While high school equivalency (e.g., GED) programs can start to bridge the education gap between incarcerated people and the general public, the lack of higher education opportunities remains a problem, as a high school education alone greatly limits employment prospects.11

  

Even minor rule violations in prison can have serious consequences

Prisons have strict rules that govern nearly every aspect of life, and incarcerated people face frequent, excessive, and often arbitrary punishment for alleged violations of those rules. Importantly, discipline systems in prison do not have nearly the same level of due process or transparency that courts do: Correctional officers can hand out “tickets” for suspected rule violations at their discretion, setting off a series of administrative hearings and investigations led by prison staff. People behind bars do not have the right to an attorney (related to the violation), to cross-examine witnesses, or to be judged by a jury of their peers, even when they are accused of an action that would be a crime in the free world. And whether the incarcerated person pleads guilty or not, a hearing committee or higher authority can issue sanctions to almost any degree.

graph showing that 90% of people written up for a rule violation received a sanction

In his 1975 illuminating deep-dive, Prisons: Houses of Darkness, law professor Leonard Orland points out the trap set by unjust systems of prison discipline, which still holds true today:

“Punishment imposed by a prison discipline committee constitutes a most unfair kind of ‘triple jeopardy.’ Typically, the same committee that ordered punitive segregation also has the power to take away statutorily or meritoriously earned ‘good time,’ … Moreover, records of such misconduct are seen by the parole boards and may well be a factor in parole denial. Thus, a finding of prison misconduct may result in three separate losses of freedom for the inmate.”

Our analysis of the Survey data shows that people in state prisons can be harshly punished even for minor, non-violent infractions. This is disproportionately true for women, and in some cases for people of color. Specifically:

  • More than half (53%) of people in state prisons had been written up for or found guilty of at least one rule violation in the past year.12 This is the same percentage of people written up for rule violations in 1986 – although state prisons in 2016 held nearly 800,000 more people than they did 30 years prior, so far more individuals are impacted by prison discipline today. Of respondents who were written up at least once in the 12 months prior to the Survey, about 9% reported receiving a “major” violation, a category that includes assault, rioting, attempted escape, and food strikes.
  • graph showing that women are more likely than men to receive a sanction for a rule violation in state prisons
  • Women in prison are more likely to report being written up for a rule violation in the past year than men (58% versus 53%). Of those who were written up at least once, women were more likely to have received a “minor” rule violation than men (70% versus 57%). These data align with research showing that women are more likely to be written up and disciplined for breaking prison rules, and receive disproportionate punishment for minor, subjective infractions like “disrespect.”
  • Nearly all people (90%) with a major or minor rule violation in the previous year received some form of disciplinary action. Of those who were disciplined, about half (53%) lost certain “privileges,” like access to the commissary, visitation, or phone calls, even though these things should arguably be considered “essentials,” not “privileges,” in prison. And 1 in 8 (12%) lost sentence-reducing “good time” (days credited off one’s sentence for good behavior) that they’d already earned. And, of course, these violations become part of each individual’s disciplinary record, which impacts weighty decisions including parole release. All of these punishments underscore the high stakes of prison discipline.
  • One-third (35%) of those who received a disciplinary action for their most recent rule violation were ordered to solitary confinement, an extreme measure that is hardly ever appropriate (and often comes with the losses of other “privileges” mentioned above). This high dependence on solitary confinement is particularly concerning, as the international human rights community considers solitary confinement, as practiced in U.S. prisons, to be torture.13
  • Men (26%) were more likely than women (17%) to receive solitary confinement as a sanction for a rule violation. This finding tracks with national data on the use of “restricted housing,” which includes solitary confinement. Some state prison systems have recently moved to cut down on using solitary for specific populations (for example, Massachusetts eliminated the “restrictive housing unit” at its only women’s prison in 2020). However, women were more likely than men (18% vs. 12%) to be confined to their own cell as punishment, a practice that advocates consider similarly egregious.
  • Racial disparities in sanction types were not readily apparent through the Survey data. For example, between 22% and 28% of each racial or ethnic group was sent to solitary confinement as a sanction, and between 1% and 4% of any given group were transferred to another facility as punishment. Nevertheless, research points to alarming racial disparities in how rule violations in state prisons are recorded and disciplined.14
  • The survey data suggest that prisons lean heavily on solitary confinement for infractions that involve no physical harm, such as “verbal assault.”15 Even respondents who were written up for things falling into the category “other minor violations” ended up in solitary 17% of the time. Even if everyone who was ordered to solitary confinement for their most recent past-year violation served just one day there (and many certainly had much longer stints than that), this amounts to 135,000 days, or 370 years in solitary confinement.

Prison rules and disciplinary procedures are an under-discussed issue that shapes daily prison life. As the Survey findings make clear, just as with work assignments and programming, there is a disconnect when it comes to rule violations between what prisons do in practice and what would actually help people return to their communities with a fair chance at a good life. Solitary confinement, in particular, is incredibly damaging to mental health, even increasing the risk of premature death after release from prison. But any sanctions that disrupt what little support exists for incarcerated people are bound to fail them in the long run.

  

Conclusion and recommendations

In the name of “justice,” states misguidedly send large numbers of people with low levels of education and income to prison, and then offer them little in the way of economic, professional, or personal growth opportunities to increase the odds of a better future. The Survey data show that incarcerated people are starved for opportunities to earn a real living and find purpose in state prisons. It’s in everyone’s best interest to offer meaningful opportunities to incarcerated people — for one, it costs far less to educate someone compared to locking them up. Putting obvious fiscal considerations aside, disrupting the cycles of struggle, unlawful or violent behaviors, and incarceration will require more compassionate — and less carceral — interventions.

Policymakers must drill down to these aspects of everyday prison life to improve outcomes. Without better opportunity and preparation, the hope to which so many incarcerated people cling throughout their sentences will wane, their cycles of incarceration will continue, and the crisis of mass incarceration will continue to be one of our nation’s greatest failures. Therefore, we recommend that states:

Bring prison employment into modern, real-world context:

  • Legally recognize incarcerated workers as employees, affording them workplace protections, the right to unionize, and minimum wages
  • In applicable states, end the requirement to work in prison16
  • Ensure that work assignment and job training opportunities align with skills and technologies that are relevant to today’s job market
  • Establish policies and accountability measures to ensure work assignments are not allocated in a discriminatory manner

Shift priorities away from monotonous work and punishment, toward opportunity:

  • Ensure that all incarcerated people are aware of programming and educational opportunities available to them
  • Shift prison budgets away from costly and counterproductive practices like solitary confinement and toward improvements in job training, high-quality higher education, special education, and English as a second language education, and other programs
  • Provide people who participate in educational or other prison programs with pay equal to what they would receive for a work assignment17
  • Allow people to complete a program before transferring to a facility that does not offer the same program (at a minimum, require that every effort is made to allow continued participation)
  • Ensure that people being released from prison can continue their education or training, instead of having to drop everything and find work immediately to satisfy parole requirements18

Pull back the curtain on rule violations and prison discipline:

  • Acknowledge gender and racial biases in how prison rules are enforced and sanctioned by correctional staff, and work to end excessive and disparate disciplinary practices
  • Prohibit the forfeiture of earned good time as a sanction, as “good time” is a strong motivator for good behavior,19 and an important tool for safely reducing prison populations
  • End the use of solitary confinement and other forms of harmful, long-term segregation

Footnotes

  1. You can read more about the demographic, early life, and health-related results from the 2016 Survey of Prison Inmates in two of our latest reports, Beyond the Count: A deep dive into state prison populations, and Chronic Punishment: The unmet health needs of people in state prisons, and our briefings, What the Survey of Prison Inmates tells us about trans people in state prison and Both sides of the bars: How mass incarceration punishes families.  ↩

  2. According to the Survey of Prison Inmates, 58% of people have a work assignment, compared to the next-highest result, 43% of people who have “ever” participated in educational programming.  ↩

  3. Though not explicitly excluded, the courts have interpreted the Fair Labor Standards Act – which provides federal minimum wage, overtime protection, and other standards – to exclude incarcerated workers.  ↩

  4. The largest nationwide prison industries program partnering with private companies is called the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program (PIECP), which places incarcerated people into jobs for outside-world employers, where they are paid the “prevailing local wage.” In order to participate in PIECP, corrections departments must promise to “provide worker benefits,” assure voluntary participation, and comply with federal environmental policy. Though these criteria represent a step up from the average prison work assignment, not all state jurisdictions – and relatively few incarcerated people – participate in PIECP. At the end of 2021, just shy of 5,400 people – or 0.4% of people in state and federal prisons – were employed through PIECP. Meanwhile, other prison industries participants are not necessarily guaranteed minimum wage or other protections.  ↩

  5. Audits of state prison work programs have revealed that the skills many incarcerated workers are trained in fall short of being relevant for future job-seekers. For instance, one-third of participants in Louisiana‘s state prison enterprises program in 2018 were working in industries expected to decrease in the labor market. And in Mississippi, incarcerated workers were being trained in areas for which there were few actual job prospects in that state.  ↩

  6. Raw data from a previous iteration of the Survey of Prison Inmates, conducted in 2004, revealed that only 57% of incarcerated people with work assignments earned any wages for their labor. And according to analysis from the American Civil Liberties Union, Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas pay nothing at all in wages to many or all of their incarcerated, non-industry workers.  ↩

  7. About 9.5% of people who stopped participating in job training said that they “were no longer allowed to participate”; 6.4% reported that their job training program stopped running before they could complete it; and 4.3% were transferred to another facility before they could complete their program.  ↩

  8. The Survey data reveal that 40% of people in state prisons (compared to just 15% of all U.S. adults) have a physical or cognitive disability; in childhood, students with learning disabilities or special education needs are systemically under-supported by a severe shortage of trained personnel and related services, setting them up for failing grades and higher rates of discipline and bullying at school.  ↩

  9. Participation in educational programming by race and ethnicity breaks down to the following: white (34%); multiracial (43%); American Indian/Native American (45%); Hispanic (46%); Black (49%); and Asian/Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander (57%).  ↩

  10. This finding tracks with other Bureau of Justice Statistics data showing that the majority (87%) of state and federal U.S. prisons offer high school education, but only half (49%) offered any college courses in 2019.  ↩

  11. Additionally, because the average maximum sentence length in state prison is about 15 years (according to the Survey), many people could complete both a high school and a college education during their incarceration.  ↩

  12. This is likely an underestimate, because some prisons did not allow certain people to take the Survey of Prison Inmates – including some who may have been more likely to have been written up for breaking prison rules. According to the survey’s methodology, “Refusals by facilities included prisoners who were deemed by the facility to be a safety or security risk because they were too violent to be interviewed. This group also included prisoners to whom SPI interviewers were not permitted access because they were not housed in the general population.” The methodology also notes that “The majority of these [refusals] were from one state,” though they do not specify which state that was.  ↩

  13. U.N. experts have noted that the U.S.’s use of prolonged solitary confinement is excessive and amounts to psychological torture. As established by the U.N. Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the “Nelson Mandela Rules”), prohibits prolonged solitary confinement (confinement for a period longer than 15 consecutive days), noting that the practice violates the ban on torture and cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment or punishment.  ↩

  14. One researcher examined disciplinary records from North Carolina state prisons in 2020, finding that Black and Indigenous incarcerated people received disproportionate numbers of write-ups and sanctions, compared to their white counterparts. And The New York Times examined disciplinary records from state prisons in New York in 2015, finding that Black and Latino men were disciplined at higher rates and sent to solitary confinement more often than white men. The racial disparity persisted even after controlling for offense type and age.  ↩

  15. According to the Survey, over one-third of those written up for “verbal assault” of a correctional officer or incarcerated person were sent to solitary confinement (36% and 35%, respectively).  ↩

  16. Based on the Survey of Prison Inmates data alone, which doesn’t contain state identifiers, we don’t know which states’ prison systems require incarcerated people to work.  ↩

  17. Compensation for participating in education, programming, or even waiting to enter a program is policy in some state prison systems, including Pennsylvania, but is typically set at the lowest pay tier, disincentivizing participation.  ↩

  18. This recommendation may involve providing a basic income upon release, a practice that would have wide-ranging benefits beyond the ability to pursue education.  ↩

  19. As we explain in our 2018 report Eight Keys to Mercy: How to shorten excessive prison sentences, some states are already extremely frugal in granting good time (or don’t grant it at all), and can take away years of earned good time in an instant, when forfeiture should only be for the most serious rule violations.  ↩


Report shows every community in California is harmed by mass incarceration

August 31, 2022

Today the Essie Justice Group and the Prison Policy Initiative released a new report, Where people in prison come from: The geography of mass incarceration in California, that provides an in-depth look at where people incarcerated in California state prisons come from. The report also provides 20 detailed data tables — including localized data for Los Angeles, San Diego, San Jose, San Francisco, Fresno and Santa Clara County — that serve as a foundation for advocates, organizers, policymakers, data journalists, academics and others to analyze how incarceration relates to other factors of community well-being.

The data and report are made possible by the state’s landmark 2011 law that requires that people in prison be counted as residents of their hometown rather than in prison cells when state and local governments redistrict every ten years.

The report shows:

  • Every single county — and every state legislative district — is missing a portion of its population to incarceration in state prison.
  • While no county sends as many people to prison as Los Angeles County, many of the state’s smaller counties, including Kings, Shasta, Tehama, and Yuba, have a far larger portion of their residents imprisoned.
  • Native reservation and trust land in California has an imprisonment rate of 534 per 100,000 people, nearly double the state average of 310 per 100,000.
  • There are dramatic differences in incarceration rates within communities, often along racial and economic lines. For example, in Los Angeles the 14 neighborhoods with the highest imprisonment rates are clustered in South Central Los Angeles, where 57% of residents are Latino, 38% are Black, and 2% are white. Meanwhile, the LA neighborhoods with the lowest imprisonment rates are mostly in the predominately white and wealthier Westside region.
  • The large number of adults extracted from a relatively small number of geographical areas seriously impacts the health and stability of the families and communities left behind. It specifically impacts women and gender non-conforming people, where 1 in 4 women and 1 in 2 Black women have an incarcerated loved one.

Data tables included in the report provide residence information for people in California state prisons at the time of the 2020 Census, offering the clearest look ever at which communities are most impacted by mass incarceration. They break down the number of people locked up by county, city, town, zip code, legislative district, census tract and other areas.

The data show the counties with the highest state prison incarceration rates are Kings (666 per 100,000 residents), Shasta (663 per 100,000 residents) and Tehama (556 per 100,000 residents). For comparison, Marin County has the lowest prison incarceration rate, at 80 people in state prison per 100,000 residents, more than 8 times lower than Kings County.

Map showing incarceration rates by census tract in California

“The nation’s 40-year failed experiment with mass incarceration harms each and every one of us. This analysis shows that while some communities are disproportionately impacted by this failed policy, nobody escapes the damage it causes,” said Emily Widra, Senior Research Analyst at the Prison Policy Initiative. “Our report is just the beginning. We’re making this data available so others can further examine how geographic incarceration trends correlate with other problems communities face.”

The report cites studies that show that incarceration rates correlate with a variety of negative outcomes, including higher rates of asthma, depression, lower standardized test scores, reduced life expectancy and more. The data included in this report gives researchers the tools they need to better understand how these correlations play out in California.

“When someone is incarcerated, families and communities are destabilized and women-especially Black women, bear the burdens of mass incarceration through financial devastation and profound health implications. This report provides the most cutting-edge data we have to date to help us better understand how specific regions of the state are experiencing incarceration,” said Felicia Gomez, Senior Policy Associate at Essie Justice Group. “We now have an additional layer of analysis, that connected to the lived experiences of women with incarcerated loved ones, sheds light on which regions in California are sending the most people to prison and how that is impacting communities and their constituents. And just as importantly, it uplifts the urgent need for the state to close more prisons and make full investments into care and community safety.”

The report is part of a series of reports examining the geography of mass incarceration in America.

California is one of more than a dozen states and 200 local governments that have addressed the practice of “prison gerrymandering,” which gives disproportional political clout to state and local districts that contain prisons at the expense of all of the other areas of the state. In total, roughly half the country now lives in a place that has taken action to address prison gerrymandering.


The number of people going through reentry each year vastly exceeds the resources available to them in most communities.

by Wendy Sawyer, August 25, 2022

The key role of reentry programs and services in the success of people released from prisons and jails cannot be overstated. People returning to their communities from even relatively short periods of incarceration often have acute needs related to health, employment, housing, education, family reunification, and social supports – not to mention challenges obtaining essential documents like birth certificates, Social Security cards, and driver’s licenses or other identification. The service gaps between these predictable needs and the resources available to people in the critical time period following release contributes directly to both early deaths and the cycle of re-incarceration (“recidivism”) for far too many people.

In 2019, we wrote about the extreme gap between needed and available reentry services for women, who report a higher need for services than men, but who are frequently overlooked in reentry programs targeted at the much larger population of incarcerated men.

Since that publication, journalists, advocates, and service providers have reached out asking about the total number of people released from prisons and jails in their state each year. 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. 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; only the more infrequently-collected Census of Jails data can be used to make state-level findings.

map showing the number of people released from state prisons in each state in 2019 Annual releases from state and federal prisons as of 2019. This map doesn’t include people who are released from local jails, which experience much higher rates of population turnover (sometimes referred to as “jail churn”) due to shorter average length of stay.

To aid those who need these statistics to make the case for devoting more resources to reentry services, or simply wish to understand the scale of reentry in their state, we compiled the most recent available Bureau of Justice Statistics data about releases from both prisons and jails, by state:

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

Bureau of Justice Statistics sources: 2019 National Prisoner Statistics (for prisons); and 2019 Census of Jails (for jails). Deaths in prison, which are generally included in prison release data, were excluded from state release totals to better reflect the “reentry” population. Local jail data were weighted and aggregated to the state level by the Prison Policy Initiative. Note that in most states, jails and prisons are operated by distinct systems, with local city or county authorities operating jails and state correctional agencies operating prisons. But “jail” data is not readily available in six states – Alaska, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Rhode Island, and Vermont – because those states operate combined or “unified” prison and jail systems, and the “jail” portion of those systems is not represented in the relevant national Bureau of Justice Statistics data collections. For that reason, the population released from “jails” (i.e., people detained pretrial or serving sentences of 1 year or less) is marked as “N/A” in the jail releases column above. Alaska is a partial exception among these states, because there are still 14 locally operated jails that report data separately from the unified system. For more details, see the original sources linked above. *Note about D.C. prison releases: The District’s prison population is part of the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) system. Releases of individuals from the federal system to D.C. are included in the Federal (BOP) data in the table above; however, the BOP also publishes state-specific release information for every month since January 1992 on its website. In 2019, 1,717 people were released from BOP custody to D.C.
State Prison releases Jail releases Total releases
Alabama 12,920 285,461 298,381
Alaska 1,714 5,284 6,998
Arizona 12,933 189,370 202,303
Arkansas 10,259 170,060 180,319
California 37,462 949,971 987,433
Colorado 9,840 217,597 227,437
Connecticut 4,473 N/A 4,473
Delaware 2,269 N/A 2,269
District of Columbia N/A* 10,473 10,473
Federal (BOP) 50,692 N/A 50,692
Florida 29,737 656,962 686,699
Georgia 17,200 576,856 594,056
Hawaii 1,654 N/A 1,654
Idaho 4,416 70,068 74,484
Illinois 23,791 253,962 277,753
Indiana 10,988 243,482 254,470
Iowa 7,114 133,703 140,817
Kansas 6,007 159,332 165,339
Kentucky 19,580 291,455 311,035
Louisiana 16,835 249,332 266,167
Maine 755 31,032 31,787
Maryland 7,408 79,185 86,593
Massachusetts 2,362 59,477 61,839
Michigan 11,440 280,341 291,781
Minnesota 6,964 201,329 208,293
Mississippi 6,971 149,942 156,913
Missouri 18,533 264,369 282,902
Montana 2,475 42,423 44,898
Nebraska 2,336 66,855 69,191
Nevada 6,646 157,020 163,666
New Hampshire 1,339 22,417 23,756
New Jersey 8,182 118,749 126,931
New Mexico 3,528 112,716 116,244
New York 20,791 167,614 188,405
North Carolina 17,106 382,070 399,176
North Dakota 1,358 46,509 47,867
Ohio 20,275 396,059 416,334
Oklahoma 9,365 207,432 216,797
Oregon 5,870 182,921 188,791
Pennsylvania 17,897 201,432 219,329
Rhode Island 720 N/A 720
South Carolina 6,208 181,834 188,042
South Dakota 4,576 66,673 71,249
Tennessee 14,205 397,931 412,136
Texas 78,119 993,910 1,072,029
Utah 4,017 96,963 100,980
Vermont 2,528 N/A 2,528
Virginia 12,602 284,217 296,819
Washington 24,455 266,757 291,212
West Virginia 4,124 45,942 50,066
Wisconsin 5,820 207,820 213,640
Wyoming 1,010 28,422 29,432
Total 610,235 10,203,729 10,813,964

Often, conversations about reentry focus on people released from prisons rather than jails, because people in prison are generally confined for much longer than people in jail and because felony convictions make finding housing and employment particularly difficult. We decided to include jail releases here because while many people who go to jail are released quickly, others languish behind bars for months, often without being convicted or sentenced. Moreover, particularly vulnerable people are often arrested, jailed, and released repeatedly, and these individuals have high levels of need for community-based supports rather than punishment. For more information about the needs of people in jail, see our report Arrest, Release, Repeat, and for more on the unmet needs of people in prisons, see Beyond the Count and Chronic Punishment.

 

Looking for releases to your local community?

For readers hoping for prison release data more local than the state level, we can offer a few suggestions:

First, as we recently explained in a separate post, we have published a series of reports about the places people in prison call home in the states that have ended prison gerrymandering. In these states, home address data is collected by the prison system, which we have aggregated at various geographic levels including counties, cities, ZIP codes, and even neighborhoods in select cities. Assuming that people released from prison each year are distributed across the state in a way that’s similar to the distribution of people in prison, you can use this data to estimate how many people from each of these places are released each year. You simply need to know the state-level ratio of annual prison releases (from the table above) to the number of people reallocated to their home addresses in our state-level reports. You can then multiply that ratio by the number of people in prison from the geographic area you are interested in to arrive at an estimate of how many people from that area are released each year.

For example: Let’s say you want to estimate how many people from Buffalo, New York are released from New York prisons annually. In New York state, there were 20,903 people released from prison in 2019. And according to our report, 39,027 people were reallocated to their home addresses from state prisons, which is a ratio of 53.5% (20,903 divided by 39,027). You can then multiply that ratio by the number of people in prison from Buffalo (1,703) to estimate that about 912 Buffalo residents are released from New York prisons each year.

For readers from states that have yet to end prison gerrymandering, other proxy measures may work well. Many states publish data on the counties that send people to prison (“county of commitment”). The Vera Institute of Justice uses these data, wherever possible, to break down state prison populations to the county level in its Trends tool (under the label “prison incarceration”). While “county of commitment” data refer to where an incarcerated person was convicted and sentenced – not their home address – it’s a safe bet that many people are from the same county as where they were convicted, as most criminal activity occurs close to home. To estimate releases based on county of commitment numbers, you can follow the same method described above, but substitute the county of commitment number for the data from our reports.

 

Looking for a more recent estimate of jail releases in your state?

Again, because jails are operated locally and the Bureau of Justice Statistics only surveys all jails every six years or so in the Census of Jails, precise data on the number of people released from all the jails across a given state are not available for every year. However, the fact that most people are in jail for a relatively short period of time means that in most states, the number of admissions is very close to the number of releases each year. Similarly, the number of arrests tracks closely with the number of admissions; the Vera Institute of Justice points out that for every 100 arrests, there are 99 jail admissions. So if you know the number of arrests or jail admissions in your state in a given year, that number is likely quite close to the number of jail releases.

We hope this data and the links help you with your advocacy in your state.


The BRAC process, which is used to close military bases, has successfully avoided political minefields. Could a similar process be created to close prisons?

by Stephen Raher, August 22, 2022

The Sentencing Project recently released an important report about prison closures and the need to thoroughly plan for repurposing former facilities. The report, Repurposing Correctional Facilities to Strengthen Communities, summarizes trends in prison closures, emphasizes the need to reinvest in communities that have been destabilized by mass incarceration, and provides case studies of closed prisons that have been reinvented–ranging from the widely-praised repurposing of New York’s Mid-Orange Correctional Facility to the entertainment-themed redevelopment of Tennessee’s Brushy Mountain prison (a tourist attraction that scholar Judah Schept has accused of being reliant on “interpersonal violence and depravity to narrate and sell…the ideology of punishment”).

The complex dynamics of repurposing closed prisons is an important problem for activists to confront. But we don’t even get to that stage without deciding to close correctional facilities in the first place. And closures are often blocked by local political leaders who insist that prisons are the indispensable key to host-communities’ economic survival. When prison populations decline and governors or legislatures make plans to close unneeded facilities, host communities reliably assemble in force to proclaim the “extreme difficulty” of finding replacement jobs and question the ability of their town to even exist in the absence of a prison. Elected officials often cave in the face of such local opposition.

But there is a model for closing government facilities notwithstanding strong local opposition. Military bases are spread throughout the country (the average congressional district receives about $80 million in annual spending from the Army alone), making it notoriously difficult to get base closures through Congress. Realizing that the country had too many military bases, in 1988 Congress chose to get past the local politics of base closures by creating the “base realignment and closure” (“BRAC”) process.

The mechanics of BRAC are complicated, but two components are particularly relevant to advocates seeking to close prisons. First, decision-making in the federal BRAC process is insulated from political pressure. The secretary of defense appoints an independent BRAC commission that studies the assets and needs of the military and then issues a report listing bases to be closed. Although the report is subject to review by elected politicians, the framework deliberately prevents piecemeal meddling: The president and Congress can reject the recommendations in their entirety, or they can allow them to go forward; they cannot pick and choose certain bases to remove from the closure list.

The second important aspect of the federal BRAC process is how local communities receive assistance in repurposing closed bases. Normal surplus property regulations are bypassed so that local communities can give input on the best ways to reuse facilities. The federal government also provides financial assistance for communities to plan redevelopment, upgrade utilities, demolish unneeded buildings, construct new buildings, and retrain workers.

Every year, states throughout the country debate closing prisons. Achieving closures–and making sure they are permanent–requires acknowledging the needs of local communities (both those that host closed prisons and those that have been depopulated through mass incarceration) and avoiding the political minefield of provincial pork-barrel politics. Adopting a modified BRAC-like process for closing prisons is an idea whose time has come.


Congress has created reduced postage rates for special groups in the past...it's time for it to create one for incarcerated people and their families.

by Stephen Raher, August 17, 2022

Between paying bills online and the convenience of “forever stamps,” it’s probably been a while since most readers have thought about the cost of mailing a letter. But for someone in prison, it could take six hours of work to pay for one postage stamp — and that cost is about to go up even higher.

In 2020, the US Postal Service obtained the legal authority to raise first-class postage rates faster than the rate of inflation (previously, rate increases had been capped at the consumer inflation rate). The following year Congress directed the Postal Regulatory Commission to study how this new rate structure impacts consumers. We submitted comments last month in conjunction with the Commission’s study, explaining how high mailing costs hurt incarcerated people and their families.

Not only are postal rates a substantial burden for someone earning 10 cents an hour, but incarcerated people depend on the mail much more than the average person does in today’s online world. As we explain in our comments:

Mail is the primary channel by which people in prison and jail can conduct personal business. Incarcerated people must still use paper for basic activities that have migrated online for many segments of society — activities like filing tax returns… submitting documents in judicial proceedings; monitoring credit reports for purposes of preventing identity theft; staying on top of personal finances; and laying the groundwork for post-release jobs or educational programs.

Mail is also crucial for incarcerated people to maintain family ties. Mail is the most common way that people in state prisons with minor children keep in touch with their kids, according to recently-released BJS data:

graph showing how parents in state prison keep in touch with their children

Disappointingly, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy recently announced his intent to seek yet another rate hike in the coming months. DeJoy cites inflation as the justification for another price increase. But while the average person who only mails a few letters or bill payments each month might be able to afford an extra 3-5 cents per stamp, this is a substantial burden on incarcerated mailers. While wages in general may inch up in an inflationary era, wages for incarcerated workers are stagnant:

In 2017, PPI surveyed prison wages in all 50 states and discovered that wage scales for people incarcerated in state prison systems average 14 cents to 60 cents per hour for standard prison-based jobs.

When researchers at the ACLU and the University of Chicago Law School conducted a similar survey in 2022, they reported virtually unchanged wages, with averages ranging from 13 cents to 52 cents per hour.

Raising postal service rates for incarcerated people will make it harder for families to stay in touch and for incarcerated people to prepare for their release, while sapping the little money they are able to save at their prison jobs.

Needless to say, the Commission should reconsider its order that allows the Postal Service to increase rates faster than inflation, but there’s another long-term step that would protect incarcerated people and their families from the disproportionate impacts of postal price hikes. Throughout American history Congress has created special reduced postage rates for special groups like periodical publishers, nonprofit organizations, agricultural groups, libraries, and blind people. Postal rates today may be less of a concern to the population-at-large than in years past, but it’s time for Congress to create a special rate classification for people who truly depend on postal communications — people in prison or jail and the family members who write to them.

The world of prison communications is already rife with burdensome restrictions and exploitative telecom charges that make it harder for families to stay connected. A special reduced rate for mail to or from incarcerated people is necessary now to protect the oldest, most reliable form of communication incarcerated people have.


Government survey results illuminate the broader consequences of locking up people with children.

by Leah Wang, August 11, 2022

We know that family contact can help incarcerated people cope with being locked up and reduce their chances of returning to prison. Yet self-reported data from people in state prisons show just how difficult it is to communicate with loved ones, provide financial support even when legally obligated, and make decisions with and about their families. Millions of families and minor children throughout the country are punished emotionally, economically, and otherwise by a loved one’s incarceration.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics’ Survey of Prison Inmates data provide the deepest nationwide look yet at the challenges and impossibilities of parenting from prison. Conducted in 2016 but released as a limited public dataset in late 2020, the Survey asked people housed in state prisons about a wide range of topics, from their upbringing and childhood, to the offense that led to incarceration, to their life in prison.1 Here, we offer data and analysis revealing the ways in which prisons fail entire families — and society more broadly — by separating millions of children from their parents, and by enforcing harmful policies that perpetuate cycles of poverty and disadvantage.

  

Half of people in prison are parents to minors, leaving 1.25 million kids struggling to cope

Nearly half (47%) of the approximately 1.25 million people in state prison are parents of minor children, and about 1 in 5 (19%) of those children is age 4 or younger.2 Altogether, parents in state prison reported roughly 1.25 million minor children, meaning the number of people in state prison almost exactly mirrors the number of impacted minor children. Research indicates that children of incarcerated parents face formidable cognitive and health-related challenges throughout their development.

image showing that there are roughly equal numbers of adults in state prisons and children with a parent in state prison

The challenges of parenting from prison are particularly likely to affect women. The Survey reveals that women in state prisons are more likely than men to be a parent of a minor child (58% of women, compared to 46% of men). Women were also more likely to have been living with their children prior to their imprisonment: About 52% of women with minor children report living with their child(ren) at the time of their arrest, compared to 40% of men. Finally, women were more likely to lead a single-parent household, as 39% of incarcerated mothers of minors lived with children but no spouse, compared to 21% of fathers.

  • chart showing that a greater percentage of women in state prison have minor children, lived with their child at the time of arrest, and led single-parent households at the time of arrest when compared to men
  • chart showing that incarcerated parents often grew up in difficult circumstances, including foster care, having an incarcerated parent, experiencing homelessness, low income, and not completing high school
  • slide showing that 33% of people in state prisons had an incarcerated parent, 69% are parents, almost half are parents of minors, and together, they are parents to 1.25 million minor children

Slideshow 1. Scroll to learn more about parents in prison and family cycles of incarceration.

And like the state prison population overall, incarcerated parents themselves grew up in struggling households:

  • 17% spent time in foster care;
  • 43% came from families that received public assistance (i.e., welfare) before they turned 18;
  • 19% lived in public housing before they turned 18;
  • 11% were homeless at some point before age 18; and
  • 32% had (or currently have) an incarcerated parent of their own.3

  

Many children are uprooted by a parent’s arrest and incarceration

What happens to children when the parent they live with goes to state prison? Most go on to live with other family members: Incarcerated parents who lived with their minor children at the time of their arrest report that their child (or children) is now in the care of the other parent or step-parent (71%), a grandmother (13%) and/or grandfather (4%), or other relatives (5%). Still, other children have been moved into the homes of friends, an “agency or institution,” someone else, or they live on their own (about 4% in all).4

A small percentage of these parents (0.3%) reported that their child is currently incarcerated.5 While certainly not all children who experience parental incarceration are destined to become incarcerated themselves, the arrest and incarceration of a parent is a painful experience, and has been linked to a child’s own, eventual justice system involvement. The Survey result is too small to break down by gender or race, but research suggests that children of incarcerated mothers are more likely to become incarcerated compared to children of incarcerated fathers.

About 3,400 parents (1.8% of parents living with their minor children before arrest) report that their minor children ended up in the foster care system (separate from the “agency or institution” outcome above). This outcome, in particular, can mean an end to parental rights altogether: 1 in 8 incarcerated parents with children in foster care have their parental rights terminated, according to a Marshall Project analysis of government data.6

Currently, federal policy regarding foster children fails to acknowledge the realities of mass incarceration and long prison sentences,7 and makes it likely for incarcerated people with children in foster care to lose them permanently. For children, placement in foster care can lead more easily to criminal legal involvement, particularly those in group homes or who experience multiple moves as a foster child. In one study, by the age of 17, more than one-half of all foster care youths (not just those with an incarcerated parent) had experienced an arrest, conviction, or overnight stay in a correctional facility.

The deep despair felt by both parent and child amounts to a colossal but largely invisible crisis: the mass punishment of over 1 million children. Short of the parent being released from prison and being offered needed supports, one of the best ways to mitigate these negative impacts is by limiting barriers to meaningful contact between children and incarcerated parents.

  

Most incarcerated parents and their children find ways to stay in touch, but prisons make family contact difficult

Many children want, and all children deserve, the opportunity to visit their incarcerated parents. Yet two-thirds of parents in prison with minor children have never received a visit from them. Not only are many prison visitation policies excessively strict, such as onerous pre-approval processes and rules about what visitors can wear,8 but many parents are simply incarcerated too far from home for visits to be logistically or economically feasible. A national survey in 2004 revealed that almost two-thirds of people in state prisons were located more than 100 miles from home, and more than 10% were over 500 miles away, and distance is a strong predictor of receiving visits.

  • chart showing that most parents in prison keep in touch with kids through phone calls and postal mail, with fewer using email or receiving visits
  • chart showing the logistical and personal barriers to visits from children according to parents who have not received visits. One-third say the child lives too far away, and about a quarter say the other parent doesn’t want the child to visit

Slideshow 2. Scroll to see more about family contact and barriers to visitation.

This most recent Survey did not ask about physical distance from home to prison, but it did ask parents about why they thought their children had not visited. Among parents in prison who had children under 18, but had not received a visit:

  • The most common reason for not receiving a visit, reported by 33% of parents who had not received a visit, was that their child lives too far away.
  • About one-fourth (23%) of parents responded that the child’s non-incarcerated parent or guardian did not want the child to visit. This reluctance could stem from a wish to protect the child — it can be painful to witness a parent in prison — but it could also have to do with distance, logistics, strained relationships between the adults, or cost.
  • A smaller share of parents (14%) said they did not want their child to visit, possibly for some of the same reasons. Even though research shows positive impacts of parent-child contact during incarceration, it’s understandable that an adult might want to keep a child away from the prison setting.
  • Just 3% of parents reported that it’s the child themselves who is reluctant to visit, signaling that most children do want to maintain a connection with their parent.

Despite these challenges, one-third (33%) of parents in prison with minor children have received at least one visit from their child. Prison policies or resources likely play a role in low levels of in-person visitation, such as a lack of visitation assistance (providing transportation to and from prisons), or eliminating visitation altogether — sometimes justifying these restrictions by exaggerating the volume of contraband items that come in through visitors.

Of course, parents in state prison and their children keep in touch in other ways: 60% of parents report phone calls with their kids, and 70% of parents send their children physical mail. (Some of this correspondence appears to be one-sided, however: only 57% report receiving mail from their children.) A smaller number of parents also report sending (10%) or receiving (13%) email from their children via computers or tablets available in prisons, indicating that more modern avenues for communication are available to some incarcerated people.

These remote (rather than in-person) connections happen more frequently than visits. Over two-thirds (72%) of phone calls, and more than one-third (35%) of incoming mail from children, are received daily or weekly, but only one-fifth (20%) of visits happen that often. Still, phone calls, mail, and email are subject to all manner of exploitation by the private companies that run prison communications. Further, prison administrations can change snail mail policies at the drop of a hat, increasingly toward “mail scanning” schemes that reduce sentimental letters and art into blurry scans — that is, if they’re delivered at all.

  

Child support debt follows parents into prison, despite the impossibility of paying it off

Parents also often enter prison with legal financial obligations to their children: More than one-fourth (27%) of parents in state prisons with minor children owe ongoing child support, and most of those (80%), unsurprisingly, owe back pay. Men are more than twice as likely to owe child support (29% of fathers, compared to 14% of mothers).

However, it’s extremely difficult for incarcerated people to fulfill this legal-financial obligation. People who enter prison are among the nation’s poorest, and even those who do work a prison job earn appallingly low wages. Knowing this, at least 13 states automatically modify child support payments when a noncustodial parent is incarcerated, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In other states, however, the parent must act within a narrow time window to submit payment modification paperwork, or else they may accumulate astronomical debt while incarcerated.9

If 500,000 people are released from state prisons every year — a conservative estimate10 — that means about 63,000 of them are parents saddled with this debt, reentering society with little to no savings and lower earning potential due to their criminal-legal involvement. If they manage to land a job upon release, their wages are usually garnished for child support; without employment and automatic payments, however, missing just one child support payment can thwart other reentry steps like obtaining a driver’s license, filing a tax return — and critically, even staying out of jail.

  

What can be done for families experiencing incarceration?

State policies fail to recognize what so many advocates, researchers, and directly impacted people already know: that state prison incarceration has devastating and far-reaching impacts on family members and entire communities. States and prisons should take steps to ease these burdens, such as making family contact easier through expanded family visitation, visitation assistance, low-cost or free phone calls, and policies that allow real, sentimental mail to be sent from child to parent. What’s more, prisons should ensure that parents are incarcerated as close as possible to their home communities, as in-person visitation may yield some of the most positive impacts on health and behavior. 11

Of course, intervention is possible much earlier than in prison: in some states, primary caregiver laws or family-based sentencing allow for diversion or other community-based alternatives to incarceration for parents or guardians. In Oregon, a family sentencing pilot program kept nearly 400 children out of the foster care system over five years, and led to lower rates of recidivism and revocation compared to similar non-program participants.

Meanwhile, incarcerated parents who maintain a role in their kids’ lives should not have their relationships permanently severed: At the federal level, Congress can repeal the Adoption and Safe Families Act, relieving states of inflexible timelines for terminating parental rights. Further, for noncustodial parents, all states should adopt automatic suspension or modification of child support payments. As we continue to tell the story of incarcerated people through findings from the Survey of Prison Inmates, these data serve as a reminder that the story also belongs to over 1 million children, countless loved ones, and whole communities left behind by harmful state policies.

   

Footnotes

  1. You can read more about the demographic, early life, and health-related results from the survey in two of our latest reports, Beyond the Count: A deep dive into state prison populations, and Chronic Punishment: The unmet health needs of people in state prisons, and our briefing, What the Survey of Prison Inmates tells us about trans people in state prison.  ↩

  2. 69% of people in state prison report having one or more children of any age, and 69% of those have a child under 18, equating to 47% who were parents of minor children at the time of the 2016 Survey.  ↩

  3. These statistics refer to incarcerated parents of any-age children, not just those of minor children.  ↩

  4. The 2016 Survey of Prison Inmates asked “Who do the children [that they lived with at the time of arrest] live with now?” The children only needed to be under the age of 18 before someone’s arrest that led to incarceration. Therefore, these results likely describe the current living arrangements of both minor and grown children, who experienced parental incarceration while they were a minor child. Additionally, due to a technical survey error, some parents who were eligible for this question were skipped, so these results do not represent all surveyed parents who lived with their minor children at the time of arrest.  ↩

  5. According to this Bureau of Justice Statistics analysis of the Survey of Prison Inmates, about 5% of people in state prison reported that a child of theirs has ever been incarcerated, regardless of living situation at the time of the respondent’s arrest.  ↩

  6. The Marshall Project analyzed approximately 3 million child welfare case records, created between 2008 and 2016, from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. They found that incarcerated women (who, according to the Survey, were almost three times as likely as men to have their child move into the foster care system) saw their rights terminated more often.  ↩

  7. Here, we refer to the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) of 1997, a bipartisan policy designed to minimize a child’s time in the foster care system. Under the Act, states must move (with a few exceptions) to terminate parental rights once a child has been in foster care for 15 of the previous 22 months. Given that the average state prison sentence of those currently incarcerated, according to the Survey of Prison Inmates, is just over 10 years — eight times as long as the ASFA deadline of 15 months — incarceration essentially guarantees that many of these impacted families will never be legally reunited. While some states have attempted to mitigate the ease with which incarcerated parents can have their parental rights terminated under ASFA, some advocates argue that these reforms are not enough. Currently, there is a movement being led by groups like the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls and the Movement for Family Power to repeal the ASFA.  ↩

  8. State policies vary, but in-person visitation in state prisons is highly regimented. Visitors must often be pre-approved, and visits are scheduled in advance, to be completed within a strict time window; attire, conduct, and activities are all tightly controlled and monitored by correctional staff. For a real-life example, see the 32-page visitation manual from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.  ↩

  9. Despite federal action on carceral child support, the burden is generally still on the incarcerated parent to navigate bureaucracies in order to have their payments modified.  ↩

  10. The most recent available data, from 2020, show that 502,000 people were released from state prisons in 2020 (see Table 9 in the Bureau of Justice Statistics report Prisoners in 2020); however, we know that state prisons regularly released many more people in the years prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2016, for example, there were more than 570,000 releases from state prisons, not including deaths.  ↩

  11. In New York and New Jersey, state law requires the department of corrections to consider a parent or primary caregiver’s proximity to their children when they determine where to confine sentenced individuals.  ↩


Report shows communities in all corners of the state are harmed by mass incarceration

August 9, 2022

Today Silver State Voices, the ACLU of Nevada, and the Prison Policy Initiative released a new report, Where people in prison come from: The geography of mass incarceration in Nevada, that provides an in-depth look at where people incarcerated in Nevada state prisons come from. The report also provides fourteen detailed data tables — including data for city council wards in Las Vegas, North Las Vegas, Sparks, Henderson, and Reno, as well Native lands — that serve as a foundation for advocates, organizers, policymakers, journalists, academics and others to analyze how incarceration relates to other factors of community well-being.

The data and report are made possible by the state’s landmark 2019 law that requires that people in prison be counted as residents of their hometown rather than in prison cells when state and local governments redistrict every ten years.

The report shows:

  • Mass incarceration is a problem harming all corners of the state, with 99.9% of the state’s residents living in a county that is missing a portion of its population to imprisonment. Only Esmeralda County, with a population of 729 people, did not have any residents in state prison at the time the data was collected.
  • While Clark County sends the most people to prison — 5,957 for an imprisonment rate of 263 per 100,000 residents — the smaller Nye and White Pine Counties have significantly higher imprisonment rates; both are at 365 per 100,000 residents.
  • There are dramatic differences in incarceration rates within communities, often along racial and economic lines. For example, in Las Vegas, city council wards 3 and 5 have the highest imprisonment rates in the city, (553 per 100,000 residents and 685 per 100,000 residents, respectively) and highest poverty rates.
  • Some Native communities are hit particularly hard by mass incarceration, with South Fork Reservation, Ely Reservation, Carson Colony, and Battle Mountain Reservation reporting imprisonment rates that are more than four times higher than the state average.

Data tables included in the report provide residence information for people in Nevada state prisons at the time of the 2020 Census, offering the clearest look ever at which communities are most impacted by mass incarceration. They break down the number of people locked up by county, city, town, zip code, legislative district, census tract, and other areas.

The data show the cities with the highest state prison incarceration rates are Ely (482 per 100,000 residents), Las Vegas (330 per 100,000 residents) and Reno (316 per 100,000 residents). For comparison, Lovelock has the lowest imprisonment rate at 55 residents per 100,000 residents. The state imprisonment rate is 252 residents per 100,000 residents.

Map showing most people in Nevada state prisons are from Las Vegas, Reno, and North Las Vegas.

“The nation’s 40-year failed experiment with mass incarceration harms each and every one of us. This analysis shows that while some communities are disproportionately impacted by this failed policy, nobody escapes the damage it causes,” said Emily Widra, Senior Research Analyst at the Prison Policy Initiative. “Our report is just the beginning. We’re making this data available so others can further examine how geographic incarceration trends correlate with other problems communities face.”

The report cites studies that show that incarceration rates correlate with a variety of negative outcomes, including higher rates of asthma, depression, lower standardized test scores, reduced life expectancy and more. The data included in this report gives researchers the tools they need to better understand how these correlations play out in Nevada.

“The work of our Nevadans Count coalition during the census and redistricting process was the precursor to this report,” said Emily Persaud-Zamora, Executive Director at Silver State Voices. “Our report provides a more precise picture of the nexus of systemic oppression and mass incarceration. Compounded with the other health disparities in the report, it shows our communities have never been voiceless; they have been muted. Through our rights restoration work, Silver State Voices is committed to amplifying and sustaining the message that BIPOC communities and those impacted by the criminal legal system can reclaim their political power.”

“Through the dissemination of this report, we hope to continue to bring light to the pervasiveness of inequity within the criminal legal system,” said ACLU of Nevada Policy Manager Lilith Baran. “Mass incarceration continues to undermine our democracy and the impact is far and wide.”

The report is part of a series of reports examining the geography of mass incarceration in America.

Nevada is one of more than a dozen states and 200 local governments that have addressed the practice of “prison gerrymandering,” which gives disproportional political clout to state and local districts that contain prisons at the expense of all of the other areas of the state. In total, roughly half the country now lives in a place that has taken action to address prison gerrymandering.









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