The Prison Policy Initiative's accomplishments are those of a much larger organization. Thanks to your support, we've added staff and our capacity to help make social change is growing quickly. Learn more about our current and past staff.
Peter Wagner is an attorney and the Executive Director of the Prison Policy Initiative. He co-founded the Prison Policy Initiative in 2001 in order to spark a national discussion about the negative side effects of mass incarceration. His report, Importing Constituents: Prisoners and Political Clout in New York, launched the national movement to end “prison gerrymandering” more than a decade ago. His research and advocacy caught the attention of the press — including 21 New York Times editorials — and led multiple states and more than 200 local governments to end prison gerrymandering.
Under his leadership, the Prison Policy Initiative has helped propel other parts of the criminal justice reform movement forward by achieving critical victories in regulating the exploitative prison and jail telephone industry and quantifying the counter-productive effects of geography-based punishments.
Through strategic collaborations, he has brought the need for criminal justice and electoral reform to new audiences, including authoring reports exposing the "whole pie" of mass incarceration, helping Hank Green explain the failed mass incarceration experiment in a VlogBrothers video, working with Josh Begley to put each state’s overuse of incarceration into the international context, and putting the problem of prison gerrymandering onto theatre screens nationwide.
In recognition of the victories he led on this and other issues, he is the recipient of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers’ Champion of State Criminal Justice Reform Award (2013) and the American Constitution Society’s David Carliner Public Interest Award (2014).
He is @PWPolicy on Twitter.
Aleks Kajstura, JD, Legal Director. Aleks has worked with the Prison Policy Initiative in various capacities since 2003, and has been our legal director since 2009.
A 2008 graduate of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, Aleks played a central role in building the Prison Policy Initiative’s campaign against prison gerrymandering, including her publication, Prison Gerrymandering in Massachusetts: How the Census Bureau prison miscount invites phantom constituents to town meeting. Aleks has also led the organization's work on its second major issue, sentencing enhancement zones, authoring The Geography of Punishment: How Huge Sentencing Enhancement Zones Harm Communities, Fail to Protect Children and Reaching too far: How Connecticut’s large sentencing enhancement zones miss the mark.
Aleks continues to shed light on other hidden aspects of mass incarceration, for example sparking a New York Times editorial by highlighting mass incarceration's impact on women in States of Women's Incarceration: The Global Context.
In her spare time, Aleks plays hockey, competes in triathlons, and serves on the Finance Committee for the Town of Sunderland.
Wendy Sawyer is the Research Director at the Prison Policy Initiative. Wendy earned a Master's in Criminal Justice from Northeastern University and a Bachelor’s in Afro-American Studies from the University of Massachusetts. Before joining the Prison Policy Initiative, she worked as an investigator for the Civilian Complaint Review Board in New York City and as a research associate for Northeastern's Institute on Race and Justice.
Wendy is the author of numerous reports, including Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2023, which gives the big picture of mass incarceration in the United States. She is also the co-author of Mass Incarceration, COVID-19, and Community Spread, which shows how mass incarceration and the failure to reduce prison and jail populations quickly led directly to an increase in COVID-19 cases, not just inside correctional facilities, but in the communities and counties that surround them.
She's also authored or co-authored reports on youth confinement, the misuse of police and jails to respond to social problems, gender disparities in incarceration, and probation fees. In addition to these reports, Wendy conducted the Prison Policy Initiative's frequently-cited 2017 50-state surveys of wages for prison labor and medical copays charged to incarcerated people, and she frequently contributes shorter briefings on recent data releases, academic research, women's incarceration, pretrial detention, probation, and more.
Wanda Bertram is our Communications Strategist, serving as the Prison Policy Initiative's primary media contact and spokesperson. She was co-author or State of Phone Justice 2022: The problem, the progress, and what's next. She is also our expert on tablet computers in prisons, and has written for the Prison Policy Initiative about prison tablet contracts, bans on physical mail behind bars, and other policies that force incarcerated people and their families to shoulder the costs of incarceration. In her spare time, she is a freelance writer.
Emily Widra is a Senior Research Analyst. She oversees Prison Policy Initiative's work examining the criminal legal system's pandemic response, and was co-author of Failing Grades: States' responses to COVID-19 in Jails & Prisons. Emily was the lead author on our groundbreaking series of reports, Where People in Prison Come From: The geography of mass incarceration, which provide the clearest picture ever of which areas have lost the most residents to mass incarceration. She is also the co-author of States of Incarceration: The Global Context 2021 and has published blog posts on various topics, including how states' "good time" systems can reduce prison populations during the pandemic, resources and data for organizations focused on policing, and why Black women are disproportionately affected by HIV. She is a 2017 graduate of the Smith College School of Social Work.
Mike Wessler is our Communications Director. He's the author of SMH: The rapid & unregulated growth of e-messaging in prisons. Mike has more than a decade of experience helping nonprofit organizations, campaigns, and elected officials accomplish their goals through strategic communication. He has done communications work at the Massachusetts Office of the State Auditor and the Office of the Montana Governor, as well as the Montana Department of Labor and the Montana Democratic Party. He has a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science from Florida State University.
Leah Wang is a Research Analyst at the Prison Policy Initiative. She is the co-author of Beyond the count: A deep dive into state prison populations and Building exits off the highway to mass incarceration: Diversion programs explained. Leah holds a M.S in Sustainability Science from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and a B.A in Economics and Environmental Studies from Bowdoin College. Prior to joining the Prison Policy Initiative, Leah was an analyst at the Massachusetts Department of Correction, and has worked in agriculture, local food systems, and outdoor education. Leah has spent several years teaching and working with prison and jail education programs, like Petey Greene and The New Garden Society.
Danielle Squillante is Prison Policy Initiative’s Development and Communications Associate. In this position, she handles the day-to-day fundraising activities for the organization and helps it reach new audiences with its work. She previously worked for ROCA as a program manager and education support specialist. Danielle is also a former public school teacher. She has a master’s degree from Mount Holyoke College and a bachelor’s degree from Hampshire College.
Sarah Staudt is the Policy & Advocacy Manager at the Prison Policy Initiative. She holds a B.A. in Law, Letters and Society from the University of Chicago and is a graduate of the University of Chicago Law School. Prior to joining the Prison Policy Initiative, Sarah was the Director of Policy at the Chicago Appleseed Center for Fair Courts where she worked intensively on the Pretrial Fairness Act in collaboration with the Illinois Network for Pretrial Justice. She also worked as a Staff Attorney at the Lawndale Christian Legal Center where she represented young people accused of crimes in juvenile and adult court.
Brian Nam-Sonenstein is the Senior Editor and Researcher at the Prison Policy Initiative. Before joining the organization, Brian worked as a columnist and reporter for news outlets including the Portland Phoenix, Marijuana Moment, and Shadowproof, where he is a co-founder and publishing editor. He also organized the Marvel Cooke Fellowship to produce reporting by incarcerated writers. Brian is a co-host of the Beyond Prisons podcast and has been actively producing media for over a decade on issues ranging from drug decriminalization to prisoner-led organizing. His work has been published in Solitary Watch, Truthout, Prison Legal News, SF Bay View, and more. In addition to his work as a journalist, Brian served as the Director of Public Relations for NisonCo, a cannabis & psychedelics PR firm. He holds a B.A. in International Relations from Wheaton College.