by Lucius Couloute,
December 14, 2017
Virtual jail “visits” are quietly sweeping the country. Fortunately, a surge of hard-hitting journalism is pushing back, illuminating the exploitative practice of eliminating family visits in favor of video calls. In two new pieces from The Guardian and Colorado Public Radio, the technological glitches, emotional toll, and human rights violations stemming from an expanding jail video calling industry take center stage.
In Shannon Sims’ deep dive into the video calling industry for The Guardian, she investigates the switch from in-person family visits to expensive video calls in one jail outside of downtown New Orleans:
The guards tell me they think the new system will be an improvement – “it’s better because you can do a video visit from home now” – but since it is so new, they can’t say for sure.
They suggest I check out the new “Video Visitation Center”, located about a 10 minute drive down the freeway. For those without access to a smartphone or a computer, the new visitation center is their only option.
There, an old elementary school building has been converted into the center. Inside, three guards are gathered and laughing around a cellphone behind a glass wall, but outside the parking lot is empty. No one is visiting.
As we’ve detailed before, it’s unlikely that people will actually enjoy driving to a jail or offsite terminal just to visit with a computer screen – the entire experience is dehumanizing. But video calling from home – at $12.99 per call – wasn’t much better for Tiffany Burns, who Sims visited as she was attempting to receive a home video call from her boyfriend Chrishon Brown:
“OK, so he is supposed to call in eight minutes I guess,” she says, staring at her phone, which blinks 6.52pm.
This is her third attempt to video chat with Brown. The first time, she did not know she needed to schedule the call far ahead of time, and the second time, all the slots were filled for the days she was off work. Now, with her slot scheduled and her earphones in, she’s wondering if it will all work out.
Finally, she sees a call coming through.
Her face lights up and then slowly fades as she realizes Brown can’t hear her. She fiddles with her headphones, waves, tries gesturing to him, but ultimately, he never can hear her voice. The two end up simply giggling at the screen image of each other for the remainder of the time.
Later, I speak with Brown by phone and he explains that he believes he was only the third inmate to try to use the video program at the Jefferson Parish jail, and that the other two also said it didn’t work properly.
“We had to pay money for something that didn’t work,” he complains. “I couldn’t even hear what she was saying, and I couldn’t really see her.”
A thousand miles away in Denver, Colorado, Michael Sakas of Colorado Public Radio explores the emotional toll that eliminating in-person visits has taken on one mother’s incarcerated son, who has attempted suicide multiple times while behind bars:
“He is having an emotional breakdown right now because he can’t wait to give me a hug . . . So he wants to plead guilty because he wants to go to prison so that he can give me a hug again.”
Since 2005, the only way to speak to an incarcerated person in Denver’s jails has been through video chats. But a new movement, sparked by grassroots leaders and a report from Denver’s Office of the Independent Monitor, is putting pressure on the local sheriff’s office, which is now considering a reinstatement of in-person visits. The downtown detention center was built without visitation space, which would make reinstating visits expensive, according to jail division chief Elias Diggins. But the city is moving forward with a $1.4 million dollar contract to update the video calling system.
“Can you imagine being in a cell all by yourself, and only being out for a couple of hours everyday? I mean, I couldn’t handle it. Could you?”
The Guardian‘s article raises another important point that we haven’t raised in our own work or seen raised elsewhere: does international human rights law require jails to allow in-person visitation?
“Internationally, multiple legal instruments indicate that it [does]. UN rules call for the allowance of visitors, while the European Prison Rules emphasize that while all forms of visitation may be monitored, maximum contact is the underlying goal: ‘Prisoners shall be allowed to communicate as often as possible by letter, telephone or other forms of communication with their families, other persons and representatives of outside organisations and to receive visits from these persons.'”
This reminder about international human rights law adds an international layer to the clear national consensus — including agreement from editorial boards, public citizens, professional organizations, and policymakers — that erecting unnecessary barriers between incarcerated people and the outside world is bad policy. It’s time for American sheriffs to join the rest of the country, and the world.
by Emily Widra,
December 7, 2017
One of the most popular parts of our 2003 book The Prison Index: Taking the Pulse of the Crime Control Industry concerns the economic power of the criminal justice system. I updated three of the graphs and concepts from that book:
Bureau of Justice Statistics data on the number of justice system employees was not available for the 2000, 2004-2005, and 2008. If you know of a source for this data, please be in touch.
The justice system may have slowed its growth in recent years, but it still has a large hold on the economy. In 2012 — the most recent data available — the more than 2.4 million people who work for the justice system (in police, corrections and judicial services) at all levels of government constituted 1.6% of the civilian workforce.
The expenditures are tremendous, having risen from $36 billion in 1982 to $265 billion in 2012:
These helpful historical figures are different from the our January report Following the Money of Mass Incarceration, which found that mass incarceration costs $182 billion a year. The Bureau of Justice Statistics data counts all justice system expenditures including expenses for the enforcement of civil law, but does not include the various costs to families and defendants. Our report includes those family costs (and offers a detailed breakdown of the expenses) and makes some estimates to exclude those civil costs to focus on criminal law enforcement. While the Following the Money report is useful to answer a lot of specific questions, that analysis is not available over time.
The sheer scale of our nation’s investment in mass incarceration and over-criminalization reflects a larger transformation of our society and our priorities. For example, now more people work for the justice system than work to grow food:
The 2.3 million incarcerated people in the United States are, of course, excluded from the labor force and therefore are not reflected in analyses of labor force participation. Including them would make the portion of the workforce that is involved in the mass incarceration system even larger.
Looking at the historical data shows this huge system didn’t grow overnight, but that the gradual policy changes that led to mass incarceration have created a powerful lobby to defend the status quo. We have our work cut out for us.
The Current Population Survey, conducted by the Bureau of Census for the Bureau of Labor Statistics, reports the number of agricultural workers and the size of the total labor force for each year from 1946 to present.
The Justice Employment and Expenditures Extracts series published by the Bureau of Justice Statistics reports the number of police, corrections and judicial employees for most years from 1982 to 2012. The data for the years 1988, 1989, 1991, 1993, 1994, 1996, 1998, 2000, 2001, 2003-2006, and 2008 were missing, so we imputed by assuming a linear trend between the most recent available years. (We converted these figures to percentages by dividing them by the total labor force figures reported by the Current Population Survey.) Data for 1980 and 1981 did not include judicial employees, so we estimated judicial employment from the 1979 and 1982 values.
by Aleks Kajstura,
December 1, 2017
On Wednesday night I presented my research on women’s incarceration at a working dinner with the Democratic Women’s Working Group (DWWG). Although federal prisons contain about 6% of the women incarcerated in the United States, federal legislation often impacts states’ incarceration policy. So it’s good to see that women’s mass incarceration is getting the attention of the DWWG, which focuses on improving the lives of women and their families.
Representative Barbara Lee organized this month’s dinner, bringing together over a dozen Congresswomen and three presenters (myself, Theresa Hodge of Mission:Launch, and Topeka Sam of The Ladies of Hope Ministries, both of which focus on women’s re-entry) for a dynamic and wide-ranging discussion of women’s incarceration in the United States. In fact, the hour-long dinner was on the verge of spilling into hour three when discussion turned in earnest to actionable next steps for Congress.
Right now the US women’s incarceration rate is skyrocketing, even as the overall incarceration rate has started to drop. I hope the engaged energy of the evening will translate to criminal justice reform that doesn’t leave women behind.
by Wanda Bertram,
November 28, 2017
In a year when the hardships of American women have often dominated the news, one major issue is still off the national radar: women’s incarceration. Criminal justice discussions usually focus on men – and for understandable reasons – so it’s not widely known that women’s incarceration in America dwarfs that of most other Western nations. In every state.
That’s why last month we released Women’s Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2017. For the first time, our movement has a big picture view of women’s incarceration that highlights just how many women are held in jails because they are too poor to make bail. Our report is fueling fresh criticism of the bail system and of the jail conditions that isolate women from their families.
The Prison Policy Initiative exists to tell data-driven stories like these in order to make the moral case for ending mass incarceration. From giving the big picture on the criminal justice system to leading specific campaigns, such as protecting in-person visitation from the for-profit “video visitation” industry, the Prison Policy Initiative is at the forefront of the movement for criminal justice reform.
We are able to do this critical but painstaking work because of the investments of our donors. Can you join them in support of truth, fairness, and justice by making a gift this Giving Tuesday?
P.S. As a bonus, a group of donors will match the first $100,000 that we receive this season. That means any gift you can make will automatically go twice as far.
by Bernadette Rabuy,
November 20, 2017
Policy work sometimes requires tough choices. For example, our campaign to protect in-person family visits in jails has won some major victories at the price of accepting legislation that does not apply to counties that had already replaced in-person visits with inadequate video calls.
In both Texas and California, state bills were successful in protecting in-person visits in a majority of counties but exempted some counties from restoring in-person visits. (This practice of creating an exemption in a law is sometimes called a “grandfather clause” or “grandfathering.”) Our coalitions struggled with these compromises, and I want to share some of the considerations we confronted in the hopes that it might guide similar decisions:
What is the main goal of the legislation?
At the Prison Policy Initiative, we often work in coalitions. One challenge of working in coalitions is that it can be hard to make fast-paced decisions. Planning ahead, creating a structure, and agreeing in advance on the purpose of the legislation can make all the difference. In California, we used a few approaches. We had regular conversations among the coalition members about the purpose of the legislation. This was almost like creating a ranking of the most important purposes of the legislation to the least important purposes. We also elected a smaller group of the coalition that was entrusted to make fast-paced decisions if getting in touch with all of the coalition members didn’t work out. Another approach, which is similar to what we did in Texas, is to alert coalition members to be on stand-by for a last-minute conference call as soon as there is reason to believe that a fast-paced decision is likely.
Is the compromise the right size?
Passing legislation often requires compromise, so the first question, after whether compromise is necessary, is whether it’s the right one. For example, we’ve found it helpful to focus on the extent of that compromise. We’ve thought about whether the compromise is limited to what’s necessary or, on the other hand, takes the teeth out of a bill. For example, for legislation on video calls, we ask ourselves, if a grandfather clause is necessary, how many counties exactly does it make sense to include? Unfortunately, the California bill has an expansive grandfather clause. It not only exempts jails that were built without physical space designated for in-person visitation, but it also exempts jails that are in early stages of construction.
Can we effectively address, at the local level, what the state legislative compromise left out?
When we considered the expansive California exemption, we thought about the feasibility of follow-up campaigns in the counties that would be exempted. In other words, we asked, “Can we fix it later?”
When working with a coalition, it can be helpful to poll members’ capacity to do follow-up work. For example, is the campaign a part of that coalition member’s one-year plan or five-year plan? If most of the coalition is located in a couple of cities, would it be practical to launch a campaign outside of those cities? How difficult would it be to track local policymaking? (For example, are county government meeting agendas posted online regularly and in advance?)
How likely is future reform? Is there opposition and how strong or widespread is it?
We’ve also assessed the political climate. For example, when we were working to protect in-person visits in Texas, it didn’t seem like the opposition would waver if we decided to reject the offered compromise and waited for the next legislative session. In particular, Bexar County was resistant to the bill we were working on because it was building a visitation center in order to replace in-person visits with video calls. Bexar County wasn’t showing any sign of rethinking its plans, and, as home to San Antonio, it seemed to be an influential county.
On the other hand, the initial California bill that would have protected in-person visits in California jails had a long list of supporters and just one opponent (the California State Sheriffs Association). While the Legislature approved the bill with bipartisan support, Governor Brown ultimately vetoed the bill. With just one opponent (and one who conceded that “in-person visitation can bring positive outcomes”), we knew we had momentum to keep the campaign going. We also thought we might have more success at a later moment that wasn’t so close to an election heavy with criminal justice reforms. Ultimately, we were right; we were successful with a second bill.
Are there alternative strategies for reform?
We’ve weighed the potential harm of an exemption with the likelihood that we could adopt alternative strategies for reform. For example, in Texas, some of the counties that had already banned in-person visits were still subject to the law’s requirement to provide in-person visits because they had not in fact incurred “significant expense” to adopt video calls. We knew from our research that it was common for predatory video call companies to install video call systems in jails at no cost to the county. Upon closer investigation, Woods and Hays hadn’t paid for their video systems so they were required to provide in-person jail visits. In Travis County, advocates like Grassroots Leadership, which is based in the County, organized and successfully persuaded the Travis County Sheriff to bring back in-person visits even though he received an exemption.
In California, the coalition that sponsored the initial bill responded to the Governor’s veto by partnering with supportive legislators and family members of incarcerated people. The Senate and Assembly Budget Subcommittee 5 on Corrections, Public Safety and the Judiciary along with the Senate Public Safety Committee hosted an informational hearing on video calls at the State Capitol where members of our coalition testified to raise further awareness of the harm of banning in-person visits. We also organized family members of incarcerated people to share the positive impact that in-person visitation has had on them through public comment or written testimony. As one man who has visited his father in various California jails put it, “Human beings need in person visits. Our minds need it and our hearts need it.” The support of legislators and the public helped us keep our campaign in the spotlight until we were able to protect in-person visits through a second bill.
Legislative compromises are never easy questions. Without a doubt, legislative compromises require assessing factors that vary from one place to another. But our experience working to protect in-person visits in certain states has reminded us that anticipating opposition and brainstorming potential responses in advance can make the decision easier.
by Peter Wagner,
November 13, 2017
We just released our 2016-2017 Annual Report, and I’m thrilled to share some highlights of our work with you. Despite the new challenges posed by the White House, we had a number of big successes, including:
But that’s not all. In our highly-skimmable annual report, we review our work on all of our issues over the last year. Thank you for being a part of our successes over the last year. We are looking forward to working with you in the year to come.
by Elliot Oberholtzer,
November 8, 2017
In the summer of 2013, Chelsea Manning’s high-profile incarceration and subsequent pardon brought the existence of trans women in prison into the mainstream discourse. Activists like Janet Mock and CeCe McDonald have courageously spoken out about their experiences while incarcerated. But while their high-profile cases have resulted in greater awareness about the criminalization of trans people — particularly trans women of color — and the abuses the mass incarceration system heaps upon them, there is very little discussion of actual policies. Advocacy groups and departments of corrections alike are operating with almost no information in this area, leaving incarcerated trans people without resources and at the mercy of widespread ignorance.
To begin to bridge this research gap, the Prison Policy Initiative has conducted a review of the current transgender/gender non-conforming policies1 of 21 states.2
Continue reading →
by Wendy Sawyer,
October 25, 2017
Please welcome our new Communications Strategist, Wanda Bertram.
Wanda is a graduate of the University of Washington, where her focus on national security sparked her interest in prison policy and immigrant detention. She has reported on local criminal justice reform as a Seattle-based freelance writer while producing, managing, and strengthening the communications of area nonprofit organizations.
by Aleks Kajstura,
October 19, 2017
With 219,000 women locked up in facilities operated by thousands of agencies, getting the big picture is anything but easy. In our new report, Women’s Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2017, we use our “whole pie” approach to give the public and policymakers the foundation to end mass incarceration without leaving women behind.
Our new report details, for the first time, the number of women who are locked up by various correctional systems and why. Women’s Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2017, released jointly by the Prison Policy Initiative and the ACLUs Campaign for Smart Justice, is a first look at where women fall within our decentralized and overlapping systems of mass incarceration.
For example, we find that a quarter of incarcerated women are unconvicted, highlighting serious questions about how we use incarceration in the United States. And the report finds that “[i]n stark contrast to the total incarcerated population, where the state prison systems hold twice as many people as are held in jails, incarcerated women are nearly evenly split between state prisons and local jails.” These findings reinforce the importance of considering jails, not just prisons, in ending mass incarceration.
The report provides a breakdown of offense types for women incarcerated in local, state, and federal correctional systems. And while the distribution of offenses is different for women than for the general incarcerated population, our analysis confirms that meaningful reform and ending mass incarceration requires looking beyond non-violent drug and property offenses.
Incarcerated women have long been overlooked in criminal justice statistics. Women’s Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2017 starts to fills that void.
by Wendy Sawyer,
October 13, 2017
California just took an important step forward in dismantling the War on Drugs’ harmful legacy of excessively punitive sentences. On Wednesday, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law a number of criminal justice reforms, including the Repeal Ineffective Sentencing Enhancements (RISE) Act, repealing the state’s three-year sentence enhancements for prior drug convictions. These enhancements were applied consecutively, so three years were added for each prior conviction for anyone convicted again for a similar offense. In a case that exemplifies the senselessness of the law, one woman took a plea deal for six years when faced with a possible 9-year prison sentence for a $5 sale of cocaine.
As we and other advocates of the bill have pointed out, such severe punishments harm individuals and communities, consume resources that should be directed to more effective community programs and treatment, and fail to improve public safety. At at time when Trump and Sessions threaten a return to the ineffective, costly, and destructive policies of the War on Drugs, policymakers will need to follow California’s example and take decisive action at the state level.