We analyze gender and racial disparities in traffic and street stops, including arrests, searches, and use of force that occurs during stops.

by Prison Policy Initiative, May 14, 2019

Jails have been described as the criminal justice system’s “front door,” but jail incarceration typically begins with the police, with an arrest. Before any bail hearing, pretrial detention, prosecution, or sentencing, there is contact with the police. But despite their crucial role in the process, we know less about these police encounters than other stages of the criminal justice system.

In particular, the experiences of women and girls1 – especially Black women and other women of color – are lost in the national conversation about police practices. They are also largely invisible in the the data. But as Andrea Ritchie details in Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color, women, too, are subject to racial profiling, use of excessive force, and any number of violations of their rights and dignity by police. In fact, women make up an increasing share of arrests and report much more use of force than they did twenty years ago. Yet while increasing recognition of women as a growing share of prison and jail populations has prompted facilities to adopt gender-responsive policies and practices, women’s rising share of arrests and other police contact has received less attention and policy response.

The current study

To shed more light on how women’s experiences at the front end of the criminal justice system differ from men’s experiences, we look at both arrest data and data about women’s other contacts with police. We first look at trends in arrest data from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program. To complement this data, we also examine differences in other police encounters reported in the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) Contacts Between Police and the Public (CPP) reports, which are based on responses to the Police-Public Contact Survey (PPCS).

Critically, the UCR Program does not require police to report arrests by both sex and race/ethnicity, so that dataset offers no way to compare arrest trends of white, Black, and Latina women to each other or to their male counterparts. The PPCS partially fills that gap by including both sex and race/ethnicity of survey respondents; however, the BJS reports based on that survey do not engage this valuable intersectional data.2 The second section of this briefing includes our analysis of the most recent PPCS survey (conducted in 2015), to finally offer a view – from nationally representative data – of how women of different races and ethnicities experience police-initiated encounters differently than each other and men.

 

Part 1: Gender differences in interactions with police

Arrests: Women make up an increasingly large share of arrests

In the past two decades, the total number of arrests in the U.S. has dropped by more than 30 percent, from 15.3 million in 1997 to 10.6 million in 2017. However, this drop was mostly due to fewer arrests of men: the number of men arrested declined by 30.4 percent in that time, while the number of women arrested declined only 6.4 percent. As men’s arrest rates have fallen women’s arrest rates have remained fairly flat. As a result, women make up an increasingly large share of all arrests; as of 2017, women accounted for 27 percent of all arrests, up from 21 percent in 1997, and just 16 percent in 1980.3

An increase in arrests of women for drug offenses helps explain why women’s arrest rates have remained steady, even as crime rates have hit historic lows and men’s arrest rates have plummeted. Of the more than 2 million arrests of women in 2017, 13.9 percent were for drug abuse violations – second only to property crimes (15.8 percent), and far more frequent than arrests for violent crimes (3.8 percent). Over the past five years – while the country has been in the throes of the opioid epidemic – drug arrests have increased 6 percent among men, but almost 25 percent among women.4

Changes in arrest patterns over 5 years, by sex

Percent change over 5 years (2013-2017)
Male Female
All arrests -8.7% -6.4%
Index violent crimes +1.8% +4.4%
Index property crimes -18.8% -24.9%
Drug abuse violations +6.1% +24.7%
Table 1. Total UCR arrests declined more dramatically among men than among women between 2013 and 2017, due in part to a much greater increase in arrests of women for drug violations. Source: Crime in the United States 2017 Table 35

 

Other police-initiated contact: Women interact with police more than arrest statistics suggest

A key finding from the Contacts Between Police and the Public series is the true scale of women’s interactions with police, which is far greater than arrest numbers alone suggest. While arrests are sometimes used as a measure of the “first stage” of involvement with the criminal justice system, many encounters between the public and police do not result in arrest. This is especially true for women, who account for a much greater share of public-police interactions than they do actual arrests.

In 2015, there were about 2.1 million arrests – but about 12 million police-initiated contacts5 – with women ages 16 and over.6 That means that for every woman arrested, five more women were approached by police, either in a traffic stop, street stop, or in the execution of an arrest warrant. All police-initiated contacts are non-voluntary encounters, which are more likely than resident-initiated contacts (e.g. calling the police for help) to lead to arrest, further justice involvement, and other negative outcomes. The 2015 survey shows that women made up almost half (44 percent) of all police-initiated contacts, 41 percent of traffic stops (in which they were the drivers), and 36 percent of street stops, compared with 27 percent of all arrests. This is a critical point when assessing the need for gender-responsive policing policies and practices: basing an analysis solely on arrests would grossly underestimate the non-voluntary interactions women have with police.7

 

Use of force: Nearly doubled for men since 1999, but more than quadrupled among women

As with women’s share of arrests, women’s share of police encounters that involve the use or threat of force has increased significantly since 1999.8 That year, women made up just 13 percent of the approximately 422,000 people who experienced use of force during a police encounter. This percentage almost doubled by 2015, when women accounted for 25 percent of all people who experienced police use of force. Moreover, the total number of people experiencing police use of force more than doubled in that time, to 985,300 in 2015. But the increase in use of force was especially dramatic among women: the number of women experiencing police use of force in 2015 was 4.5 times (353%) the number experiencing force in 1999, up from 55,181 to 250,200. Meanwhile, the number of men experiencing police use of force doubled from 366,533 in 1999 to 735,100 in 2015.

 

Traffic stops: Stops declined more for men, and women make up a larger share of those searched during stops

The 2015 survey shows another noteworthy shift in the numbers of men and women stopped by police while driving. While the percentages of both men and women experiencing traffic stops declined since 1999, women saw a smaller decline in stops than men did. In 2015, 10 percent of male drivers were stopped (down from 12.5 percent in 1999) compared with 7 percent of female drivers (down from 8.2 percent). These changes may sound small as percentages, but the decline in the rate among women actually masks a 378,000 increase in total number of traffic stops of women since 1999, while men were stopped 451,000 fewer times than in 1999.9

Women also make up a larger percentage of all people searched during traffic stops. In 1999, men who were stopped while driving were about four times as likely to be searched during the stop than women; by 2015, men were just twice as likely to be searched. The narrowing of this gap reflects a decline in searches of men; for women, the share of stops that resulted in search remained the same, at 2.3 percent. In 1999, police searched the driver or vehicle in 9.4 percent of stops of men, which amounts to over one million stops involving a search. In 2015, however, the percentage of stops involving male drivers that resulted in search or arrest dropped by half, to 4.7 percent – or over 500,000 stops. Female drivers, however, saw no change in their likelihood of search or arrest during a traffic stop.

 

Part 2: Race, Ethnicity, and Gender in Police Stops

Data from the Police-Public Contact Survey (PPCS) allow us to take a more intersectional view of women’s contact with police, going beyond gender differences to include racial and ethnic differences among men and women, too. Again, this is the only national data we are aware of that enables any intersectional analysis of civilian experiences with police, and the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) does not attempt this analysis in its report on the survey’s results. That arrest data indicate racial disparities is well documented, but little is known – outside of individual stories – about how Black, Latinx, and white women experience police contact differently from each other and from their male counterparts.

Our analysis examines how race and gender, together, affect police-initiated stops, including arrests and use of force that occur during stops. It’s worth noting that police stops and arrests during these stops are relatively infrequent events, and that our findings are based on survey data from over 90,000 respondents, not the total U.S. population. That said, we find that the race, ethnicity, and gender affect policing outcomes differently depending on the context:

  • Both race and gender affect the likelihood of a traffic stop.
  • Race seems to matter more for men when it comes to street stops and more for women when it comes to arrests during a stop.
  • Racial disparities are most apparent in use of force during a police-initiated stop, with Black and Latino men experiencing use of force more often than other groups, and Black women reporting similar use of force rates to white men.

 

Traffic stops: Black women are more likely than white or Latina women to be stopped

Both race and gender affect a person’s chances of being stopped by police while driving (excluding accidents or when they were passengers). Most broadly, the PPCS data shows that women were less likely than men to be stopped, and Black drivers were more likely to be stopped than white and Latinx drivers.10 More specifically, Black women were about 17 percent more likely to be in a police-initiated traffic stop than white women, and 34 percent more likely to be stopped than Latina women. Among men, Black drivers were about 12 percent more likely than white drivers – and 17 percent more likely than Latino drivers – to be stopped.

Percentage of drivers who experienced a vehicle stop in 2015

Women White 7.1%
Black 8.3%
Latina 5.5%
Men White 9.9%
Black 11.1%
Latino 9.2%
Table 2. See the Appendix for tables that show the statistical significance of differences between Black and Latina women compared to white women and all groups compared to white men.

These estimates are not adjusted for driving behavior, however, and given reported differences in driving patterns between demographic groups, it is likely that traffic stops of Black and Latina women per mile driven could be even higher compared to other groups than the survey data suggest.11

 

Street stops: Significant racial disparities among men, but not women

In contrast to traffic stops, the survey data on police-initiated street stops only showed significant racial disparities among men – not among women. Less than one percent of white, Black, and Latina women surveyed experienced a police-initiated street stop in 2015. However, the percentage of Black men who experienced a street stop (2.2 percent) was double that of white men (1 percent). A slightly greater portion of Latino men (1.2 percent) reported experiencing a street stop than white men, but this difference was not statistically significant.

Percentage who experienced a street stop in 2015

Women White 0.7%
Black 0.7%
Latina 0.5%
Men White 1.0%
Black 2.2%
Latino 1.2%
Table 3. See the Appendix for tables that show the statistical significance of differences between Black and Latina women compared to white women and all groups compared to white men.

 

Arrests during stops: Significant racial disparities among women, but not men

Police-initiated traffic and street stops sometimes result in arrest, and the survey data show that Black women were at least as likely as white men to be arrested during a stop. White women, meanwhile, were about half as likely as white men to be arrested during a stop. Black women were arrested in 4.4 percent of police-initiated stops, which was roughly three times as often as white women (1.5 percent), and twice as often as Latinas (2.2 percent).

Among men, racial disparities in arrest-during-stop rates appear to be more related to the frequency of being stopped than the likelihood of being arrested if stopped. For women, on the other hand, racial disparities seem to be more related to what happens during the stop than whether they are stopped at all.

Percentage who were arrested during a traffic or street stop in 2015

Women White 1.5%
Black 4.4%
Latina 2.2%
Men White 2.7%
Black 3.5%
Latino 4.2%
Table 4. See the Appendix for tables that show the statistical significance of differences between Black and Latina women compared to white women and all groups compared to white men.

 

Use of force during stops: Rates of Black women similar to white men; Black and Latino men most likely to experience force

About one percent of people surveyed indicated that they had experienced force or threat of force12 during a police-initiated stop, but use of force rates were higher for Black women than white or Latina women,13 and were highest among Black and Latino men. Black women actually experienced use of force during a stop about the same rate as white men, while white women were significantly less likely to experience use of force than white men. The marked gender disparity in reported use of force that is included in the BJS report Contacts Between Police and the Public, 2015 (2.7 percent for men versus 0.9 percent for women) masks the reality that these percentages are averages of racial and ethnic groups that are experiencing force at markedly different rates.

Percentage who experienced force during a police-initiated stop

Women White 0.3%
Black 0.9%
Latina 0.32%
Men White 0.8%
Black 3.6%
Latino 2.5%
Table 5. See the Appendix for tables that show the statistical significance of differences between Black and Latina women compared to white women and all groups compared to white men.

 

Conclusion

As women become a more visible presence in our criminal justice system, it becomes increasingly urgent that we understand their experiences within it, both to better meet their needs and to enhance our analysis of how justice works (and doesn’t work) in the U.S. The policing of women, especially women of color, has received less attention than the policing of men; it’s even received less attention than the incarceration of women. Similarly, while correctional facilities are increasingly adopting gender-responsive policies and programs, there have been virtually no concerted efforts to create or implement trauma-informed or gender-responsive policing practices.

This oversight has serious consequences. Rates of sexual and physical abuse are high among justice-involved women – estimates range from half to over 90 percent – and are much higher than reported for men. Almost a third (31 percent) of women in jail have a current serious mental illness, which is over twice the rate among men in jail (14.5 percent) and over six times the rate among women in the general population (4.9 percent). With 12 million women per year experiencing police-initiated contacts – many of which involve searches, use of force, and other traumatizing experiences – it is critical that law enforcement take seriously the need for more female police officers,14 protocols, and trainings that can improve police-public interactions and reduce the harms to women.

Finally, the invisibility of Black women and other women of color in the national discourse about policing – even in the wake of high-profile tragedies like the arrest and jail death of Sandra Bland – means that the full scope of racial discrimination in policing is unknown, and certainly understated. Making policing more transparent, accountable, effective, and just will mean bringing the experiences of these women to light.

 

Data sources and methodology

Arrest data come from the FBI Uniform Crime Reporting Program (reported annually in the Crime in the United States series). Other police contact data are from the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ Police-Public Contact Survey (PPCS), most recently conducted in 2015 and published in 2018. The police contact data in Part 1 comes from the BJS reports based on the results of that survey, in the Contacts Between Police and the Public series. The analysis in Part 2 used the raw PPCS data, available from the National Archive of Criminal Justice Data (NACJD) here.

Using the PPCS data for the analysis in Part 2, respondents were coded into one of eight mutually exclusive sex-race categories: Black female, Black male, Latina (female), Latino (male), white female, white male, non-Hispanic other race female, and non-Hispanic other race male (the last two categories include multi-racial respondents, and results were not included in this report because of the small sample sizes and the disparate racial and ethnic categories they included.)

Our analysis focuses on non-voluntary, police-initiated stops. Therefore, the two types of police contacts included in the analysis were “stopped by police in public place (non-vehicle)” and “stopped by police while driving.” Types of police contacts excluded from the analysis were: “respondent in vehicle stopped by police” (i.e. not driving), “in traffic accident,” “other police stops or approaches,” “crime/non-crime emergencies,” and “seeking other help from police.”

“Arrests” in our analysis of the PPCS (in Part 2) refer to only those arrests that occurred during non-vehicle (street) stops, vehicle (traffic) stops, or either type of stop. Use of force refers to whether, during the encounter, the police officer did any of the following to the respondent: push, grab, kick, hit, spray with chemical or pepper spray, use an electroshock weapon (Taser), or point a gun at them.

We used Wald tests to determine whether there were statistically significant differences in average (mean) incidence of stops, arrests, and use of force between each sex-race category in comparison to two references categories: white women and white men. We used the weighting provided by the Bureau of Justice Statistics to approximate a nationally representative sample.

Acknowledgements: This briefing was a collaborative effort, but Wendy Sawyer served as the editor and created the graphics. We thank Public Welfare Foundation for their support of our research into the experiences of women who come into contact with the criminal justice system.

Footnotes

  1. The terms “women” and “girls” in the introductory and concluding sections of this briefing are inclusive of transgender women and girls. However, the government data we reference (both the FBI’s arrest data and the Bureau of Justice Statistics police contact data) do not address how transgender people are classified. The FBI data are reported by police agencies around the country, and therefore likely vary in terms of how transgender people are classified by different agencies. The BJS Police-Public Contact Survey (as a supplement to the National Crime Victimization Survey) asks respondents to identify as either male or female.  ↩

  2. While the public report series Contacts Between Police and the Public does not provide breakdowns by sex and race/ethnicity, this information is available in the raw data from the 2015 Police-Public Contact Series.  ↩

  3. These percentages were calculated using estimates from the Bureau of Justice Statistics Arrest Data Analysis Tool, which provides estimates by sex from 1980 to 2014 (as of May 2019).  ↩

  4. The increase in the number of drug arrests from 2013 to 2017 was also higher for women than for men: There were 54,738 more arrests of women for drug violations in 2017 than in 2013, versus an increase of 48,887 arrests of men for drug violations over the same time period. See Crime in the United States 2017 table 35 for these five-year arrest trends.  ↩

  5. Police-initiated contacts include those where police approached or stopped respondents, such as being pulled over while driving (an example of a traffic stop) or being stopped by police while in a public place (an example of a street stop). Other types of contact excluded from this analysis include resident-initiated contact (such as calling the police for help or to report a crime) and contact resulting from traffic accidents.  ↩

  6. BJS indicated in the methodology that people involved in police-initiated contacts might have been somewhat less likely to respond to the survey than those without police-initiated contacts, which may underestimate this contact.  ↩

  7. Since women’s share of police-initiated stops has remained fairly flat since 1999 but their share of arrests has increased, we looked into whether those stops are more likely to result in arrest than they were twenty years ago. We calculated the ratio of arrests to people experiencing police-initiated contact for both women and men age 16 or older in 1999 and 2015, and found that while that ratio has fallen for both sexes, it’s decreased more dramatically for men. In 1999, among men, there were 0.69 arrests for each man whose only police contact that year was police-initiated; among women, there was 0.24 arrests for each woman who only experienced police-initiated contact. By 2015, the ratio among men had fallen by 60 percent to 0.28 arrests for each man with any police-initiated contact, but the ratio for women fell by only 29 percent to 0.17 arrest per woman with police-initiated contact. (Methodology notes: The measures are slightly different in these two surveys, with the 1999 measure being “police initiated contact was only contact” and the 2015 measure including any police-initiated contact during the year. We calculated the ratios using data from the 1999 Contacts Between Police and the Public spreadsheet cpp99f2.csv, estimates of women and men experiencing any contact with police in table 1 of the 1999 Contacts report, Table 1 in the 2015 Contacts report, the BJS Arrest Tool for 1999 arrest estimates, and Crime in the United States 2015 tables 39 and 40.)  ↩

  8. 1999 is the first year BJS published a Contacts Between Police and the Public report that is comparable to later reports. A pilot test of the PPCS was conducted in 1996 but it used a smaller sample size and a less detailed set of questions. We did not attempt to compare those results to later years.  ↩

  9. BJS estimates that there were more women drivers in 2015, which would explain the increase in the total number of stops of women drivers.  ↩

  10. It should also be noted that the survey uses U.S. Census definitions of race and ethnicity: Black, Latinx, and white are mutually exclusive categories.  ↩

  11. The U.S. Department of Labor data indicate that car ownership varies by race and ethnicity, with 90 percent of white, 74 percent of African-American and 83 percent of Latinx households owning at least one car in 2015. In addition, a National Highway Traffic Safety report indicates that, on average, men drive a third more miles per year than women (13,393 miles versus 8,854 in 2017), and that higher incomes are associated with more driving. Therefore, analyzing vehicle stops on a per-mile basis could show very different patterns. For example, if Black and Latina women drive the fewest miles due to factors of race, gender and income, their vehicle stops per mile driven could be significantly higher compared to other groups than the PPCS data suggest.  ↩

  12. Use of force was defined as a push/grab/hit/kick, use of pepper spray or electroshock weapon (Taser) or having a gun pointed at them. The BJS Contacts report included handcuffing, but because that can be standard protocol during arrests, it was not included here.  ↩

  13. 0.8 percent of Black women surveyed reported use or threat of force during a police-initiated stop, compared to 0.3 percent of white women and 0.32 percent of Latina women. However, this difference was not statistically significant.  ↩

  14. Female police officers are less likely to use excessive force and their share of law enforcement officers has barely moved from 10.7 percent in 1999 to 12.5 percent in 2017.  ↩

 

Appendix

Appendix Table 1 provides the data behind the graph titled “Women experiencing police use of force rose dramatically between 1999 and 2015.”

Use of force has increased overall, but most dramatically among women
1999 1999 2015 2015 1999 to 2015
Percentage of all people who experienced use of force during a police encounter Estimated number of people that experienced use of force during a police encounter Percentage of all people who experienced force during a police encounter Estimated number of people experienced use of force during a police encounter Percent increase in number of people experiencing police use of force
Men 87% 366,533 75% 735,100 100%
Women 13% 55,181 25% 250,200 353%
Total 100% 421,714 100% 985,300 137%
Appendix Table 1.

Expanded tables from Part 2

Reading these tables: There are two reference groups for looking at whether differences are statistically significant. First, we look at whether the differences in contact for Black and Latina women compared to white women are statistically significant. We then look at all sex-race groups compared to white men. The level of statistical significance is indicated for each difference, for example, “p<0.1%" indicates that a difference is statistically significant at the 90% confidence level. Where there isn’t a comparison made (for example, white women are not compared to themselves), the cell is marked with “--” and when there is no statistically significant difference between groups, this is indicated simply with “No.”

Percentage of drivers who experienced a vehicle stop in 2015
Percentage who experienced a vehicle stop Is difference from white women statistically significant? Is difference from white men statistically significant?
Women White 7.1% Yes (p<.01)
Black 8.3% Yes (p<.05) Yes (p<.01)
Latina 5.5% Yes (p<.01) Yes (p<.01)
Men White 9.9%
Black 11.1% Yes (p<.1)
Latino 9.2% No
Appendix Table 2.
Percentage who experienced a street stop in 2015
Percentage who experienced a street stop Is difference from white women statistically significant? Is difference from white men statistically significant?
Women White 0.7% N/A Yes (p<.01)
Black 0.7% No Yes (p<.1)
Latina 0.5% No Yes (p<.01)
Men White 1.0%
Black 2.2% Yes (p<.01)
Latino 1.2% No
Appendix Table 3.
Percentage who were arrested during a stop in 2015
Percentage who were arrested during a stop Is difference from white women statistically significant? Is difference from white men statistically significant?
Women White 1.5% Yes (p<.01)
Black 4.4% Yes (p<.05) No
Latina 2.2% No No
Men White 2.7%
Black 3.5% No
Latino 4.2% No
Appendix Table 4.
Percentage who experienced force during a police-initiated stop in 2015
Percentage who experienced force during a stop Is difference from white women statistically significant? Is difference from white men statistically significant?
Women White 0.3% Yes (p<.05)
Black 0.9% No No
Latina 0.32% No No
Men White 0.8%
Black 3.6% Yes (p<.01)
Latino 2.5% Yes (p<.05)
Appendix Table 5.

All too often, proposals to expand local jails receive no pushback or critical attention. A new report helps counties think twice.

May 6, 2019

Easthampton, Mass. – A new Prison Policy Initiative report gives cities and counties a long-needed tool for fighting mass incarceration: a guide to preventing unnecessary jail expansion. The report, Does our county really need a bigger jail?, lays out 33 questions that local decision-makers should ask in evaluating proposals for new or bigger jails.

“It’s very common today for jails to be overcrowded, because the number of people in jails nationwide has tripled in the last 30 years,” said report author Alexi Jones. “But in too many counties, jail growth is rooted in known policy failures like an overreliance on money bail. Local policymakers owe it to their constituents to find out if there is a better fix to overcrowding than just building a new or bigger jail.”

The report’s 33 questions for policymakers include:

  • On a typical day, how many people are confined in the existing jail who have not been convicted?
  • How many people in the county are incarcerated because they cannot afford to pay fines and fees?
  • What specialized “diversion” courts and treatment programs is the county using to divert people struggling with substance use and mental illness into more effective treatments than jail?
  • Do official cost estimates for building new jail space include not only the cost of construction, but the cost of debt service on the loan, annual operation costs, and collateral costs such as adverse impacts on public health?
Graph showing growth in the number of people who have served 10 or more years in prison

“Building new jail space typically costs tens of millions of dollars or more, even as other options that are both more cost-effective and more compassionate are ignored,” said Jones. “If policymakers can’t answer these questions about why more jail space is necessary, they should not be undertaking jail expansion.”

For all 33 questions, the report also offers a set of alternatives and best practices, including:

  • Releasing more pretrial defendants on their own recognizance, and investing in pretrial services to help them make their court dates;
  • Requiring judges to set fines and fees based on a defendant’s ability to pay;
  • Investing in specialized “problem-solving” courts for people with mental health or substance use disorders that serve as true alternatives to jail time.

The report’s recommendations are accompanied by helpful graphics, as well as examples of local and state governments successfully implementing alternatives to jail expansion. “We know that the answer to mass incarceration begins at the local level,” said Jones. “That’s why it’s critical to help cities and counties think beyond jail expansion when it comes to improving public safety.”


At a time when phone calls for the rest of us cost almost nothing, there is no reason to force the poorest families in Iowa to pay outlandish rates.

April 26, 2019

For immediate release — The Prison Policy Initiative has filed objections to five phone companies’ proposed phone rates for Iowa county jails. At a time when the cost of a typical phone call is approaching zero, phone providers in Iowa jails frequently charge incarcerated people and their families 30 cents per minute or more for a phone call. (And one provider charges as much as $4.41 for the first minute.)

In January, the Iowa Utilities Board required these providers to file rate disclosures – or “tariffs” – for state approval. By state statute, the Utilities Board must ensure that rates are just and reasonable and that “no unreasonable profit is made.” The Prison Policy Initiative’s research has found that phone calls from Iowa’s jails are among the most expensive in the nation, and more than four times as expensive as calls from the state’s prison system.

In February, the Prison Policy Initiative report State of Phone Justice uncovered the cost of phone calls in over 2,000 jails nationwide, explaining why sheriffs sign lucrative phone contracts that prey on people in jail and their families:

  • Phone providers compete for jail contracts by offering sheriffs large portions of the revenue – and then charge exorbitant phone rates.
  • Providers exploit sheriffs’ lack of experience with telecommunications contracts to slip in hidden fees that fleece consumers.
  • State legislators, regulators and governors traditionally pay little attention to jails, even as they continue to lower the cost of calls home from state prisons.

The report found that calls home from Iowa jails are the 13th most expensive in the nation. “There is no reason to force the poorest families in Iowa to pay these outlandish rates, particularly at a time when phone calls for the rest of us cost almost nothing,” said Peter Wagner, Executive Director of the Prison Policy Initiative.

The objections were filed with the research assistance of volunteer attorney Stephen Raher, and the organization is now being represented pro bono before the Iowa Utilities Board by David Yoshimura of Faegre Baker Daniels in Des Moines.

The Prison Policy Initiative’s objections to the tariffs are available for: Global Tel*Link, Public Communications Services, Prodigy Solutions, Reliance Telephone of Grand Forks, and Securus.

Yesterday, the Iowa Utilities board granted our request to intervene and docketed the tariffs for further review. Further comments about the proposed tariffs are due May 13.


People on probation are much more likely to be low-income than those who aren't, and steep monthly probation fees put them at risk of being jailed when they can't pay.

by Mack Finkel, April 9, 2019

Over 3.6 million people are under probation supervision in the U.S., and in most states, they are charged a monthly probation fee. The problem? Many of them are among the nation’s poorest, and they can’t afford these fees. From our previous research in Massachusetts – and from reports from around the country – we know that the burden of probation fees often falls disproportionately on the poor. To determine the extent of the problem nationally, we examined the incomes of people on probation in a recent survey, the National Survey of Drug Use and Health. Our analysis confirms that, nationwide, people on probation are much more likely than people not on probation to have low incomes.

The National Survey of Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) is an annual survey that asks respondents about a broad range of topics, including their annual income and whether they were on probation in the past 12 months. The inclusion of recent probation history in the survey makes it a valuable data source for criminal justice research; it comes closer than any other source to offering a recent, descriptive, nationally representative picture of the population on probation.1 Prof. Michelle Phelps of the University of Minnesota, for example, used this survey in her recent analysis comparing people on probation to those in prison, using educational attainment as a measure of economic status.

Our analysis of the 2016-2017 NSDUH data shows that people on probation typically have much lower incomes than those who aren’t on probation:

Chart comparing the portion of the probation population making less than $20,000 per year, $20,000 to $49,999 per year, and $50,000 or more per year to the portion of the population that was not recently on probation. Most notable is that two-thirds of the probation population has an annual income below $20,000, compared to just 40% of the non-probation population.People on probation are much more likely to be low-income than those who aren’t on probation, and steep monthly probation fees often put them at risk of being jailed when they can’t pay. For a more detailed comparison, see the Appendix table.

Key findings from our analysis include:

  • Nationwide, two-thirds (66%) of people on probation make less than $20,000 per year.
  • Nearly 2 in 5 people on probation (38%) make less than $10,000 per year, well below the poverty line.
  • On the wealthier end of the spectrum, few people (9%) on probation have annual incomes of $50,000 or more, while more than a quarter (28%) of those not on probation make at least $50,000 per year.

Monthly probation fees may be just one of several fees that someone on probation has to pay regularly. As part of the conditions of their probation, an individual might have to pay court costs, one-time fees, monthly supervision fees, electronic monitoring costs, or any combination of these charges. Sometimes the law strictly defines the cost of these fees, and sometimes “reasonableness” is the only statutory guideline. Depending on the state, courts, departments of corrections, sheriffs’ departments, and the probation programs themselves can all collect revenue from these fees.

Even though the Supreme Court has said it is unconstitutional to incarcerate someone because they cannot afford to pay court ordered fines and fees, many courts effectively do just that. Judges often fail to consider the individual’s ability to pay (as opposed to their willingness to pay) and treat nonpayment of fees as a violation of probation. This flies in the face of many state statutes that allow incarceration only when there is evidence that the individual is able to pay but refuses.2 As a result, poor people on probation face a very real risk of being incarcerated because they can’t afford monthly fees. As the National Criminal Justice Debt Initiative shows, many state laws amount to “poverty penalties” and “poverty traps” and failure to pay can mean an extended probation sentence, driver’s license revocation, mandatory work program, or incarceration.

 

Unaffordable fees and low-income probation populations, select states

*In Massachusetts, the fees have two tiers, $50 for administrative and $65 for supervised probation. In Oklahoma, there are two separate monthly supervision fees, one up to $40 and another up to $20.

**Due to the small number of NSDUH respondents in Maine and South Carolina who were on probation at any time in the past 12 months, the survey does not make the necessary data available for those states as part of NSDUH’s efforts to protect respondents’ identities.

This table includes states where probation fees can cost $50 or more each month, and shows that in almost all of these states, over half (and even as many as 83%) of people on probation have annual incomes below $20,000. For them, unaffordable probation fees can lead to a cycle of poverty and incarceration. (Sources: Criminal Justice Debt Reform Builder, for probation fees, and the National Survey on Drug Use and Health: 2-Year RDAS (2016-2017) for income data on the population experiencing probation in the past 12 months.)
State Monthly supervision fee Portion of probation population
making less than $20,000 per year
Colorado Up to $50 48%
Idaho Up to $75 67%
Illinois $50 65%
Louisiana $71 to $121 69%
Maine $10 to $50 NA**
Massachusetts $50 or $65* 52%
Michigan Up to $135 67%
Mississippi $55 67%
Montana At least $50 64%
New Mexico $15 to $150 83%
North Dakota $55 77%
Ohio Up to $50 62%
Oklahoma Up to $60* 75%
South Carolina $20 to $120 NA**
Washington Up to 100 50%

 

Such high fees – and high stakes – defeat the purpose of probation. In theory, probation (often touted as an “alternative” to incarceration) allows people to continue to work and manage family responsibilities while under supervision. But people faced with unaffordable fees are more likely to violate the conditions of supervision, experience housing and food instability, and struggle to support their children. And when failure to pay is treated as a violation of probation, individuals can be incarcerated, have their probation extended, and/or lose public benefits like food stamps and supplemental security income.

Louisiana is an especially punishing state for poor people on probation. The average probation sentence there lasts three years, and probation fees are among the highest in the country, at $71 to $121 per month, even though 69% of people on probation make less than $20,000 per year. Data from a report by the state’s Justice Reinvestment Task Force shows just how unreasonable these fees are. In Louisiana in 2015:

  • While under community supervision, the average person owed $1,740 in supervision fees alone. (Supervision fees were just one type of a number of court-ordered fines and fees.)
  • On average, people under supervision could only pay about half of the imposed fees; at the end of their supervision term, the average person still owed 48% of their supervision fees.

Louisiana’s probation system creates impossible debts that unfairly burden poor probationers. As in many states, failure to pay can lead to license suspensions, extension of supervision terms, and incarceration.

Fortunately, this is slated to change. Under a new law going into effect in August 2019, Louisiana courts will hold hearings on ability to pay, and defendants may have their fees waived or reduced if the court finds that fees will cause substantial financial hardship. While the fees are still far too high, the new law offers hope for low-income people on probation. (It’s worth noting that judges, district attorneys, and court clerks whose offices benefit from the fees have fought to delay the implementation of the law.)

As long as probation sentences include unreasonable fees and harsh punishments for failure to pay them, probation will continue to punish people just for being poor. Some states have begun to implement reforms to reduce the unnecessary incarceration and other unintended consequences of their probation fee systems. But as our analysis shows, this is a widespread problem that every state imposing probation fees should address. States must acknowledge that people on probation are mostly low-income, and driving them further into poverty through monthly fees is cruel and counterproductive.

 

Footnotes

  1. Although the survey does not ask about current probation status, the recency of their probation status makes those who have been on probation in the past 12 months a reasonable proxy for the general probation population. We therefore use the term “probation population” to refer to this group in our analysis.  ↩
  2. For state statutes that allow incarceration as a response to nonpayment of supervision fees, see these results from the Criminal Justice Debt Reform Builder.  ↩

 

Appendix table: Percentage of Probation Population vs. Non-Probation Population in Each Category of Personal Annual Income (Source: NSDUH 2016-2017)

Personal Annual Income Less than $10,000 $10,000 to $19,999 $20,000 to $29,999 $30,000 to $39,000 $40,000 to $49,999 $50,000 to $74,999 $75,000 or more
On probation in the past 12 months 37.9% 27.7% 12.4% 7% 5% 6.1% 2.9%
Not on probation in the past 12 months 21.8% 17.9% 13% 10.7% 9% 12.3% 15.3%

A merger between the two companies would have curtailed the ability of prisons and jails to choose a phone provider, to the detriment of incarcerated people and their families.

April 2, 2019

Easthampton, Mass. – Prison phone industry giant Securus has abandoned its attempt to purchase ICSolutions, the industry’s third largest company, after the Federal Communications Commission and the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division signaled that they would likely block the deal. The merger would have effectively handed the market for prison and jail phone services over to Securus and its last major competitor, GTL.

“Based on a record of nearly 1 million documents comprised of 7.7 million pages of information submitted by the applicants, as well as arguments and evidence submitted by criminal justice advocates, consumer groups, and other commenters, FCC staff concluded that this deal posed significant competitive concerns and would not be in the public interest,” said FCC chairman Ajit Pai in a press release.

“Securus and ICS [Inmate Calling Solutions] have a history of competing aggressively to win state and local contracts by offering better financial terms, lower calling rates, and more innovative technology and services. This merger would have eliminated that competition, plain and simple,” said Makan Delrahim, Assistant Attorney General of the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division in a press release. “The companies’ decision to abandon this deal is the right outcome – correctional facilities, inmates and their friends and families will continue to benefit from the robust competition between these firms.”

“All too often, calls home from jails cost an unconscionable $1/minute,” said Peter Wagner, Executive Director of the Prison Policy Initiative. “Had the companies merged, facilities would have had a harder time negotiating contracts with lower rates for families – which, thanks to our movement’s ongoing advocacy, they’re finally beginning to do.”

In our objection to the merger, filed in July 2018 with a coalition of groups working for prison phone justice represented by probono attorneys Davina Sashkin and Cheng-yi Liu, we argued that the FCC should stop the merger.

We argued that Securus’ history of repeatedly flouting commission rules – including deliberately misleading the FCC during a similar review last year, for which it was punished with an unprecedented $1.7 million fine – made it ineligible to purchase one of its competitors. We explained that the company has repeatedly tried to circumvent regulation in order to increase its profits from prison phone calls, and as recently as May 2018 was caught enabling illegal cell phone tracking.

Our filing included a detailed analysis of the concentration of the prison and jail telephone industry. We calculated market share in two different ways; by either measure, Securus and GTL were poised to control between 74% and 83% of the market. Except for ICSolutions – which Securus was seeking to acquire – no other company had above 3% market share.

Below is a historical timeline originally prepared for our report State of Phone Justice: Local jails, state prisons and private phone providers, showing how aggressively Securus and GTL have been gobbling up their competitors:

Graphical timeline showing how Securus and GTL have gobbled up most of their competitors in the prison and jail telephone market from the breakup of AT&T in the early 1980s through early 2019
For more information about this timeline, the companies, their respective sizes, the role of companies like CenturyLink that operate only in partnership with Securus and ICSolutions, or the historical role of AT&T and Verizon, see our report, the footnotes, and appendices to State of Phone Justice: Local jails, state prisons and private phone providers.

Updated April 3, 2019 10am with FCC press release and 1pm with the Department of Justice’s press release.


California's AB 964 would require in-person visits in all California jails

by Bernadette Rabuy, March 30, 2019

comment letter

For the past few years, California policymakers have been at hard work to protect in-person jail visitation from sheriffs and private companies who are eager to replace crucial human contact with impersonal video chats. While legislators were successful in preventing jails who provided in-person visits in January 2017 from later eliminating them, jails that had already banned in-person visits are permitted to continue their video-only policies.

That could change this legislative cycle thanks to Assembly Member Medina’s AB 964. AB 964 would require that all California jails provide in-person visits. Specifically, jails that are currently exempted would need to restore in-person visits by 2025.

The Assembly Public Safety Committee will be voting on AB 964 on April 2. We submitted a comment, encouraging committee members “to recognize and support the positive role families play in rehabilitation” and, more importantly, that “human beings need in person visits.”


The Mass. Senate is considering building a new women's jail. We offer a number of reasons why this is a bad idea.

by Wendy Sawyer, March 29, 2019

The Massachusetts Senate is once again considering construction of a new jail for women in Middlesex County. But I would caution against any expansion of correctional facilities without first reckoning with the inherent harms of jail incarceration and exploring better alternatives.

The proposal – Senate 1851 – would “establish a commission to identify a suitable location for a justice complex” in Middlesex County. I find it interesting that the commission is to identify a location, rather than consider whether a jail is needed at all. According to the text of the bill, this proposal is in line with a law passed in 2008 to expand jail capacity. But that law was passed in the wake of the state’s highest-ever rate of jail incarceration; since then, the state’s jail rate has seen a steady decline. This begs the question: why would the state need more capacity, when jail rates are down?

Chart showing Massachusetts jail rates from 1970 to 2015. In 2015, there were 216 per 100,000 residents ages 15 to 64 in jailThe Vera Institute of Justice’s Incarceration Trends tool shows that jail incarceration rates in Massachusetts have fallen over the past decade.

Despite the overall downward trend in the state’s jail rate, two groups have been jailed at steady or increasing rates: women and people being detained pretrial – and these are the two populations being used to justify the “need” for a new jail.

Chart showing Massachusetts jail rates for women from 1970 to 2015. While the total jail rate has fallen in the past decade, the rate for women has steadily climbed since 1991 from 4 to 35 per 100,000 women ages 15-64 in 2015The Vera Institute of Justice’s Incarceration Trends tool shows that the female jail rate in Massachusetts has risen steadily since the early 1990s.

Chart showing that while the number of people serving sentences in Massachusetts jails has declined since 1993, the number of people held pretrial has increased steadilyThe pretrial population in Massachusetts jails has increased for decades, while the number of people serving sentences there has fallen dramatically since 1993.

But despite the growth in the female and pretrial jail populations, there are some important arguments against building a new jail to hold these groups.

First, jails are uniquely harmful to women, and their needs are better met by community-based programs and services. Women in jails have higher rates of mental health and substance use disorders, and often have a history of abuse or other trauma; incarceration more often exacerbates these problems than alleviates them (for more information, see the “Context” sidebar in our 2018 report). As of December 2018, the Massachusetts Department of Corrections (DOC) reported that “74% [of women held by the DOC] were open mental health cases, 15% had a serious mental illness (SMI), and 56% were on psychotropic medication” – all rates roughly double those of the male population. Women in jails (especially women of color) are also poorer, on average, than their male counterparts, and therefore often are detained pretrial because they can’t afford even low bail amounts. Furthermore, separation from children leads many women to accept plea deals just to get out of jail sooner, which in turn leaves them with criminal records that may not reflect actual guilt or innocence.

Second, pretrial detention leads to worse outcomes, from high risk of suicide to increased likelihood of conviction, longer sentences, and reoffending. Yet pretrial detention has driven all of the jail growth in the U.S. over the last 20 years, which means that jails – like the one being proposed – are being built because more people who have not been convicted and are legally presumed innocent are being locked up. This trend reflects an increasing reliance on money bail – essentially, wealth-based release decisions – rather than an increase in “dangerousness” or flight risk. According to DOC data, the female pretrial population held by the DOC has increased 18% since 2010. If Massachusetts wants to relieve jail overcrowding, it should start by minimizing the number of people held pretrial, especially those who are there because they can’t afford bail.

Another problem that should be addressed before expanding jail capacity is the racial disparity evident in the state’s female pretrial population. As of Jan. 1, 2018, nearly a third (32%) of the women held by the DOC (in Framingham) were being detained pretrial. However, this proportion varied by race and ethnicity. 44% of Hispanic women and 35% of Black women held by the DOC, versus 31% of “Other” and 29% of white women, were held pretrial.

The idea to build a new women’s jail is not a new one. For years, a handful of Massachusetts counties have sent women detained pretrial to the women’s prison, MCI-Framingham, because they didn’t have separate jail space for women in the county jails. And for years, MCI-Framingham was overcrowded for precisely that reason. In 2007, the state opened a new jail for women farther west, and sent women from counties without separate women’s facilities that were west of Worcester to the new jail to await trial or serve their sentences. The result? Women jailed there were farther from crucial contacts, including their families and children, and their lawyers – which in turn made it harder to prepare their defense. Now, lawmakers want to build again, this time near the existing Framingham facility in southern Middlesex County.

The legislators behind the new jail project undoubtedly see a new jail as an “upgrade” for the state’s incarcerated women, since it would alleviate crowding and would be more updated housing than the nearly 150-year-old prison. But the real solution for women in jails would be to return to their communities. They would be better served awaiting trial at home, participating in diversion programs, and getting needed treatment and support for underlying problems through community-based programs. If legislators care about improving conditions for justice-involved women, they should focus on investing in community services and alternatives to incarceration that interrupt women’s distinct pathways to prison – not just building them newer, bigger, jails.


An index of the incarceration rates of the most populous counties in 39 states.

by Emily Widra, March 28, 2019

How has mass incarceration impacted the city you live in? This question frequently drives our readers to ask about the incarceration rates of specific cities. Because of the decentralized nature of criminal justice data, drilling down to the city level is difficult-to-impossible, but now you can calculate the prison (but not jail) incarceration rate of a city’s surrounding county using the Vera Institute’s Incarceration Trends Database. Using that tool, we calculated the imprisonment rates of the most populous counties in 39 states (all those where data were available) – and uncovered a few surprises.

Rates are per every 100,000 residents. In its Incarceration Trends tool, the Vera Institute presents rates for counties per every 100,000 residents aged 15-64; we calculated the rates using the total populations in their downloadable dataset to make them comparable with the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ total state incarceration rates. (BJS state incarceration rates are for the jurisdictional population sentenced to greater than 1 year.)
State Most Populous County Associated City County Residents in State Prisons: Rate per 100,000 residents Total State Prison Incarceration: Rate per 100,000 residents
Okla. Oklahoma County Oklahoma City 937 703
Pa. Philadelphia County Philadelphia 897 387
Wis. Milwaukee County Milwaukee 812 372
Mich. Wayne County Detroit 737 430


Ariz. Maricopa County Phoenix 666 600
Ala. Jefferson County Birmingham 627 613
Ohio Cuyahoga County Cleveland 627 444
Ind. Marion County Indianapolis 596 413
Texas Harris County Houston 574 572
Tenn. Shelby County Memphis 564 427
Colo. Denver County Denver 551 367
Iowa Polk County Des Moines 526 282
Ga. Fulton County Atlanta 508 506
Miss. Hinds County Jackson 502 609
Ill. Cook County Chicago 464 378
Ky. Jefferson County Louisville 453 490
Nev. Clark County Las Vegas 451 448
S.D. Minnehaha County Sioux Falls 443 423
Calif. Los Angeles County Los Angeles 427 330
S.C. Greenville County Greenville 416 416
Ore. Multnomah County Portland 401 379
Wyo. Laramie County Cheyenne 336 408
Neb. Douglas County Omaha 336 280
W. Va. Kanawha County Charleston 335 372
Hawaii Honolulu County Honolulu 326 263
Mo. St. Louis County St. Louis 304 531
Fla. Miami-Dade County Miami 301 500
N.C. Mecklenburg County Charlotte 273 354
N.Y. New York County New York City 262 261
Minn. Hennepin County Minneapolis 211 197
Utah Salt Lake County Salt Lake City 207 217
N.H. Hillsborough County Manchester and Nashua 186 218
Wash. King County Seattle 167 256
N.D. Cass County Fargo 157 236
Maine Cumberland County Portland 139 132
Va. Fairfax County Washington DC suburbs 118 448
Md. Montgomery County Washington DC suburbs 117 354
N.J. Bergen County Hackensack 92 229
Mass. Middlesex County Boston 81 132

With many large cities currently making criminal justice reform a priority – and with the highest rates of incarceration now in small cities and towns – you might expect large cities to be less punitive than the states they belong to. But 14 counties I evaluated (such as Philadelphia County and Los Angeles County) still have disproportionately high prison incarceration rates compared to the rest of their states. And only 13 of the counties I evaluated had incarceration rates significantly (that is, more than 10%) lower than the states they belong to.

You might also wonder: How does my city compare to other cities on incarceration? For the most part, cities in famously punitive states tend to be punitive compared to other cities. But there are some notable exceptions. For instance, while Missouri and Florida have some of the highest state rates of incarceration, St. Louis County and Miami-Dade County not only have lower rates than their states do; they have lower rates than most other urban areas nationwide.

Likewise, a few states that have relatively low incarceration rates should note that their major cities tell a wildly different story. Colorado, Michigan and Iowa have lower incarceration rates than many states, but the counties containing their major cities – Denver, Detroit and Des Moines, respectively – have some of the highest incarceration rates of all the urban areas I evaluated. These counties send disproportionately high numbers of people to prison.

So why do most of these counties differ significantly from the states they’re located in when it comes to incarceration? Clearly, local incarceration rates are impacted by much more than sentencing laws and other factors determined at the state level.

To state the obvious, cities and towns vary widely in their levels of poverty and in the quality of their social services (such as education, drug treatment and health care), both of which impact crime. But other factors matter too. Police departments and prosecutors differ in how aggressively they target crime, especially low-level crime. Cities and towns that invest in diversion programs for veterans, people with mental illness, and people with a substance use disorder may send fewer people to prison than areas without the same community services. The same is true for states with well-funded public defenders’ offices. And the availability of reentry services (like affordable housing), as well as the punitiveness of the community, affects the likelihood that a city’s formerly incarcerated people will be sent back to prison.

Given the wide variation among cities and towns, it’s clear that incarceration rates are just the beginning of any local analysis. If you’re curious to learn more about your city or state, check out Vera’s database, our extensive Research Library, and our state profiles.


With this year's updated edition of Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie, we once again answer the essential questions of how many people are locked up, where, and why.

March 19, 2019

Easthampton, Mass. – Are there 1.3 million people incarcerated in the U.S., or is it actually closer to 2.3 million? Why – and where – are these millions of Americans behind bars? The country’s fragmented systems of confinement make answering basic questions about mass incarceration unnecessarily difficult. With this year’s updated edition of Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie, we answer these essential questions with the most recent data, highlighting causes of incarceration that get too little attention as well as incarceration “myths” that receive too much.

Pie chart showing how many people are locked up on a given day in the U.S. by facility and offense type.

The publication of the new report caps a year-long effort to update the public on the major drivers of incarceration – state prisons and local jails – as well as confined populations too often overlooked, such as people in post-release “civil commitment centers” and undocumented immigrants in detention.

“With such high public support for criminal justice reform, it’s urgent that we have a clear picture of who is locked up and where,” said author Wendy Sawyer. “For instance, many people don’t realize how much of mass incarceration is local. But one in four incarcerated people – and one in four ICE detainees – are held in local jails controlled by county sheriffs.”

The report’s other key findings include:

  • 76% of people in local jails are not convicted of a crime, and many are there simply because they can’t afford money bail.
  • 49,000 people are held by ICE for immigration offenses – a 43% increase since 2016. (This does not include the 11,800 immigrant children currently detained by the Office of Refugee Resettlement.)
  • In a single year, 168,000 people were incarcerated for nothing more than a “technical violation” of probation or parole, such as a failed drug test.
  • Contrary to a popular myth, only 7% of incarcerated people are held in privately-run facilities – but virtually all incarcerated people generate profit for private companies by paying for phone calls, medical care or other necessities.

The United States locks up more people than any other country, at a rate more than five times higher than most other nations. One impediment to reform is the lack of available data to guide that conversation. In Whole Pie, the Prison Policy Initiative provides the comprehensive view of mass incarceration that society needs in order to plot a path forward.

Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie is one in a series of reports that provide equally comprehensive snapshots of women’s incarceration and youth confinement. Previous national reports from the Prison Policy Initiative include Following the Money of Mass Incarceration, which uses economic data to show who pays for and who benefits from mass incarceration, and Correctional Control, which breaks down the number of people in every state who are incarcerated, on probation, or on parole.

The non-profit, non-partisan Prison Policy Initiative was founded in 2001 to expose the broader harm of mass criminalization and spark advocacy campaigns to create a more just society. The organization leads the nation’s fight to keep the prison system from exerting undue influence on the political process (via prison gerrymandering) and plays a leading role in protecting the families of incarcerated people from the predatory prison and jail telephone industry and the video calling industry.

The full report and graphics are available at https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie2019.html


Tablet computers are delivering a captive audience to profit-seeking companies, while enabling prisons to cut essential services like law libraries. We investigate.

by Mack Finkel and Wanda Bertram, March 7, 2019

Eight states have recently signed contracts with prison telecom companies to provide tablet computers to incarcerated people – a sharp increase since we began analyzing these contracts in 2017. Though many prisons already allow incarcerated people to buy tablets, these contracts provide something different: Tablets for free, ostensibly at no cost to either consumers or taxpayers. (To be clear, these aren’t like the iPads you can buy at a store; they’re cheaply made, with no internet access.)

But as with most state contracts that appear to cost nothing, there is a catch – several, in fact.

First, the “free” tablets charge users at every opportunity, including above-market prices for phone calls, video chats and media. Even sending an email requires a paid “stamp.” Furthermore, our recent analysis of these contracts suggests that they actually put the interests of incarcerated people last, prioritizing cost savings and the provider’s bottom line.

For instance, many of these contracts:

  • Guarantee the Department of Corrections a portion of tablet revenue.
  • Allow tablet providers to alter the prices of services – such as email, music and money transfer – without state approval.
  • Allow providers to terminate tablet services if the tablets aren’t profitable enough.
  • Exempt providers from replacing a broken tablet if they think it was “willfully” damaged – a loophole ripe for exploitation, as prison tablets are cheaply made and break easily.

More details below:

Contract Active since Does the DOC receive a portion of tablet revenue? Can the provider cancel the service for reasons related to profitability? Are the terms of use subject to DOC approval? Will the provider replace broken tablets?
Colorado DOC and GTL August 2015 (suspended in 2018) Yes. DOC earns a flat payment of $800,000 per year. Yes. GTL can cancel the service if there is insufficient tablet revenue, or if more than 10 tablets in any one housing unit need to be repaired. No, DOC does not have to approve the Terms and Conditions. GTL has discretion to determine whether damage was “willful,” and does not have to replace willfully damaged tablets. GTL also does not have to replace more than 5 (or 5%, whatever is greater) tablets in a housing unit every year.
Missouri DOC and JPay March 2017 Yes, DOC earns a 20% commission on songs, albums, movies, ebooks, and games. Yes. JPay can cancel the service if there is insufficient revenue. No. Terms of use not mentioned in contract (and therefore likely not subject to DOC oversight.) Unclear.
New York DOCCS and JPay August 2017 Yes. DOC earns a percent commission on purchases of emails, music, financial services, and other content. No, contract does not specify circumstances in which service can be canceled. No. Terms of use not mentioned in contract (and therefore likely not subject to DOC oversight.) Unclear.
South Dakota DOC and GTL March 2018 Yes. DOC earns a 50% commission on electronic messages and 24.2% on most types of phone calls. Yes. GTL can cancel the service if there is insufficient revenue or if equipment is “subjected to recurring vandalism.” No, DOC does not have to approve the Terms and Conditions. GTL has discretion to determine whether damage was “willful,” and does not have to replace willfully damaged tablets.
Indiana DOC and GTL July 2018 Yes, DOC earns a 10% commission on purchased content (not including phone or video calls made on tablets). Yes. GTL can cancel service in housing units where 10 or 10% of tablets are damaged in a year. Yes, DOC must approve the Terms and Conditions. GTL has discretion to determine whether damage was “willful,” and does not have to replace willfully damaged tablets.
GTL does not have to replace tablets more than once for any given incarcerated person, nor does it have to replace more than 5 or 5% of tablets in a housing unit every year.
Delaware DOC and GTL (pilot program) October 2018 No. Yes. GTL can cancel the service if too many tablets are damaged. Yes, DOC must approve Terms and Conditions. Unclear.
Maine DOC and Edovo December 2018 No. No, contract does not specify circumstances in which service can be canceled. Yes, DOC must approve Terms and Conditions and Privacy Policy. The facility has discretion to determine whether they or Edovo will replace damaged tablets. Edovo does not have to replace more than 5% of tablets for free every year.
South Carolina DOC and GTL January 2019 No. No, contract does not specify circumstances in which service can be canceled. No. Terms of use not mentioned in contract (and therefore likely not subject to DOC oversight). GTL is required to repair or replace damaged tablets or equipment, regardless of the cause of damage or loss.

Table 1. Findings from our analysis of eight “no-cost” contracts between state Departments of Corrections and tablet providers. Contracts are listed from oldest to newest. For more on GTL and Securus (JPay), the predominant tablet providers, see our recent report State of Phone Justice. In this table, “Active since” denotes the date that installation of tablet equipment in the correctional facility began.

Providers and DOC officials often describe free tablets as a gift to incarcerated people, but they more closely resemble a corporate investment than a gift. For the companies, free tablets with expensive services more than pay for themselves down the line. And for prison administrators, tablets pave the way for the elimination of essential services. We’ve already seen prisons eliminate:

  • Law libraries. South Dakota eliminated its paralegals and physical law library after rolling out tablets. A subsequent lawsuit alleged that the tablet software meant to replace the law library is often unusable, and deprives incarcerated people of meaningful access to the courts.
  • Physical books. Last year, Pennsylvania ended book donations to incarcerated people in favor of costly e-books, many of which were lifted directly from the free online library at Project Gutenberg. New York and Maryland also tried to end book donations (before public pressure forced them to backtrack), and one large Florida jail even took away Bibles, replacing them with low-quality e-Bibles on tablets.
  • Postal mail, which prisons can eliminate in favor of digital mail scans (as Pennsylvania did) and paid electronic messaging.

All this being said, there is nothing inherently wrong with tablet technology, in or out of a prison setting. It’s certainly possible to imagine using tablet technology to substantially improve prison life. But before states can write better contracts, they – and the public – must learn to distinguish truly innovative policies from high-tech ploys to cut costs.









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