Advocacy Toolkit

Prison Policy Initiative’s Advocacy Department works with criminal legal system reform or abolition activist groups and elected officials to provide free research help and technical support. We prioritize state and local groups that have reduced resources, ones that are in areas without strong organizing networks, and ones led by directly-impacted people.

We work on projects about all stages of the criminal legal system, from pre-arrest diversion all the way to post-conviction issues. Each project we do is slightly different, and tailored to the needs of the individual organization we are working with. See below for some of the kinds of help we provide.

If your organization would like to explore partnering with our advocacy department, you can use our contact form. Although we cannot help every group that contacts us, we would love to meet with you to see if a collaboration would be a good fit.

What can our advocacy department help you with?

Every advocacy department project is a little different, but below are some ways we have helped advocacy organizations in the past.

  • Providing written or virtual oral testimony on legislation at the state, local, or national level to support meaningful criminal legal system reform.
  • Completing custom research projects for organizations without other access to research staff to help inform or bolster advocacy campaigns.
  • Collaborating on fact sheets, social media posts, press releases, explanatory memos, and other public-facing documents summarizing criminal legal system issues or advocacy efforts.
  • Boosting and highlighting substantial local and state advocacy efforts on social media.
  • Brainstorming new state-level advocacy campaigns informed by our national-level lens on criminal legal system policy.
  • Reviewing and critiquing legislation, policy documents, and reports. We have particular expertise in critiquing jail “needs assessments” that are created to make the case for new, bigger jails.

We have also developed a range of written resources for advocates, which you can find below.

Skills-based trainings

  • Public records — Every state and the federal government has laws that give the public access to most government information. However, getting access to that information can be difficult. This guide will help you navigate the system to get the documents you need.
  • Writing guide — A key part of our strategy hinges on getting to people to read what we write. This guide will help you write about complex topics in a way that is informative and persuasive.
  • Designing effective visuals — A compelling visual can quickly make a point about a topic that might otherwise take hundreds of words to describe. We've pulled together a few tips that have helped us make powerful visuals that can motivate people to action.
  • Data sources — Getting access to quality data is one of the most difficult parts of our work. We've pulled together a list of some of the sources we use most in our research on policing, incarceration, probation, parole, and more.
  • Managing and organizing data — Data is at the heart of nearly everything we do. In this guide, we provide a few tips and tricks we've learned to work with datasets effectively, without getting overwhelmed.

Issue-specific trainings

  • Video visitation — A collection of resources for protecting in-person visitation from the for-profit video-calling industry. It includes information on the benefits of in-person visits, reports, history, and more.
  • Jail expansion
    • Understanding jail assessments — When counties discuss building or expanding their jails, they often commission “jail assessments” to analyze current operations and recommend new construction. These assessments are usually dense, but riddled with obvious flaws. This guide helps you understand these documents and push back on jail construction proposals.
    • Arguments against jail expansion — Research and resources to help advocates illustrate the harms of jails to local decision makers. It includes findings about jail overcrowding, counterarguments against jail expansionists, and points of intervention in jail fights.
    • Fighting Jail Expansion Webinar — Across the country, communities are fighting against efforts to expand the carceral system and build new jails. In this webinar we brought together activists who have pushed back against jail expansion to discuss strategies they employed to prevent new jails from being built and give an overview of the tools and support that Prison Policy Initiative can provide to support these efforts.
  • Lowering jail phone rates — In this guide we explain how to find out what your local jail charges for calls, identify ways it can reduce prices, and time your campaign for the greatest chance of success.
  • Contending with Carveouts: How and Why to resist Charge-Based Exclusions in Reforms — Too often, reforms are handicapped because they exclude large categories of people impacted by the criminal legal system — usually people convicted of violent, sex-related, or other serious charges. In this guide we provide resources that show the problems with the carveouts and arguments to avoid them.
  • In their own words: Organizing legislative testimony from incarcerated people — Lawmakers need to hear from directly impacted people in order for them to understand criminal legal system issues and make meaningful reforms. But it can be difficult to get the voices of incarcerated people heard by legislators. In this guide, we provide tips from state-level advocates who have successfully coordinated legislative testimony from incarcerated people so that advocates around the country can work to expand this practice.
  • Reviewing public housing authority policy exclusions for people with criminal histories — Local public housing authority policies often unnecessarily limit or completely deny public housing assistance to people with criminal histories. We put together a guide to help advocates identify ways public housing policies can be more inclusive.
  • Prison gerrymandering — A guide to help residents who want to end prison gerrymandering in their local community. It provides tips, worksheets, and tools to determine whether and to what extent prison gerrymandering is occurring in your area.

Tools & Data

  • Ten statistics about the scale and impact of mass incarceration in the U.S. — A curated list of some of the most useful statistics to help the public comprehend the magnitude of criminalization in the U.S.
  • Correctional Contracts Library — Through our work to expose and stop the abusive practices of private companies that profit off of incarcerated people and their loved ones, we've amassed a collection of hundreds of documents, including contracts, bids, evaluations, and more that show how for-profit companies work with jails and prisons to squeeze money out of people who can least afford it. We’ve made these documents public in one place to help advocates, journalists, researchers, and policymakers stop these exploitative practices.
  • Data Toolbox — All of our reports and many of our briefings compile previously unavailable or incompatible data. We've put these unique datasets here to empower advocates and researchers to build on our work
  • Departments of corrections policy manuals — To help researchers and advocates, we've pulled together links to the policy manuals for the policy manuals for state departments of corrections, as well as the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

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