The new resource uses data generated by New York’s law ending prison gerrymandering.

February 19, 2020

A new project from the Prison Policy Initiative maps where people in New York state prisons come from, down to the neighborhood level — providing a groundbreaking tool for studying how incarceration relates to community well-being.

The project, Mapping Disadvantage: The Geography of Incarceration in New York, provides anonymized residence data for everyone in New York state prisons at the time of the 2010 Census. Readers can download the data at several geographic levels, including counties, cities, and legislative districts.

“If you want to study how mass incarceration has impacted specific communities in New York, or how incarceration tracks with other indicators of community health, we’ve just published the geographic data you need to do that,” said Prison Policy Initiative Research Director Wendy Sawyer.

In a short report, produced in collaboration with VOCAL-NY, the Prison Policy Initiative provides examples of what can be done with the new dataset. The report shows that:

  • In New York City neighborhoods with high rates of asthma among children, incarceration rates are also significantly higher.
  • In city school districts, 5th grade math scores are very strongly correlated with neighborhood incarceration rates.
  • Across the state of New York, every 1% increase in a particular Census tract’s unemployment rate is correlated with an uptick in the incarceration rate.

A landmark 2010 law made this mapping project possible. In 2010, New York passed a bill ensuring that people in prison would be counted as residents of their hometowns at redistricting time. This reform ended the electoral distortion known as “prison gerrymandering,” which had given extra political influence to the legislative districts that contained large prisons. The law required the state prison system to share its own records of where incarcerated people actually resided with redistricting officials. Using these records, redistricting officials produced a corrected dataset that they used to draw new district lines, and the Prison Policy Initiative repurposed this dataset for its report.

For the 2020 round of redistricting a total of seven states — California, Delaware, Maryland, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, and Washington — have passed legislation to end prison gerrymandering and nine additional states — Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia, and Wisconsin — have legislation pending.

“These states are passing laws to end prison gerrymandering because they believe that everyone should have the same access to political power, regardless of whether they live next to a large prison. But these laws also have a secondary positive impact: they can make a deeper understanding of our criminal justice system possible,” said Executive Director Peter Wagner.


Prison systems have shown they are unprepared and unwilling to care for an aging prison population - whether by improving healthcare or expanding compassionate release.

by Emily Widra, February 13, 2020

A new Bureau of Justice Statistics report released yesterday shows that from 2015 to 2016, the number of deaths in U.S. state prisons increased from 296 to 303 per 100,000 people. What accounts for these deaths?

Chronic illnesses continue to be the leading cause of death in state prisons, according to the report — far outpacing drug- and alcohol-related deaths, accidents, suicides, and homicides combined. The number of deaths from chronic illness — including a growing number of deaths from cancer in prison, at a time when overall deaths from cancer are going down — is a testament to the extremely poor healthcare incarcerated people receive. It also highlights the ways that prisons are unable and unwilling to care for their elderly residents, who comprise a growing share of the prison population.

Chart showing that the percentage of people 45 and older has grown from 17 to 30 percent since 2001, while the share of people younger than 45 has fallen from 83 to 70 percent.

Sources: Bureau of Justice Statistics, Mortality in State and Federal Prisons, 2001-2016 and Mortality in Local Jails and State Prisons, 2000-2013

Prison accelerates aging and increases the risk of early death from illness

As we’ve written about previously, each year of time served in prison takes two years off an individual’s life expectancy. Evidence suggests that the reason for this is that incarcerated people experience “accelerated physiological aging.” Prison ages incarcerated people by 10 to 15 years on average, which in turn makes them more vulnerable to chronic health conditions earlier in life than would be expected. As we see in the new prison mortality data, these chronic conditions – cancer, heart disease, liver disease, and respiratory diseases – are among the most frequent causes of death in state prisons.

Chart showing that the leading causes of death among people in prison over age 45 from 2001-2016 were cancer, heart disease, liver disease, and respiratory disease

Researchers have identified a number of reasons why prisons increase the risk of illness and early death (for a concise review, see Novisky 2018). These include, but are not limited to: varying degrees of health literacy and capital among incarcerated people; constraints on transportation to necessary appointments outside the prison; and inadequate healthcare in prisons due to insufficient resources, limited medical providers, restrictions on medication administration, and treatment bias because of stigmas attached to incarcerated patients. And – particularly for older or otherwise more vulnerable people – punitive practices like solitary confinement compound existing physical and mental health concerns and risks.

Prisons are not prepared for the health problems and mortality of their aging populations

Nationally, the imprisonment rate for people over 45 years old has more than doubled over the past three decades while the rate for those under 45 has actually dropped slightly. Mortality has become an urgent issue in places like the Louisiana State Penitentiary (“Angola”), where the average age is over 40 and the average sentence is longer than 90 years. With thousands of aging adults facing the prospect of dying in prison in the coming years, how are prison systems preparing to handle the increased physical and psychological needs of the graying prison population? In short, they’re not preparing at all.

While the country incarcerates more older adults for longer sentences, prison systems have not adapted to the changing needs of the prison population. Despite examples of increased spending on prison healthcare, access to necessary healthcare remains inadequate. There are frequently lapses between prescription refills, as well as unmet dietary needs and unaffordable medical copays. We know that copays jeopardize the health of incarcerated populations, staff, and the public because when healthcare is unaffordable, sick people avoid the doctor, and diseases are likely to worsen and require more aggressive care. Yet most states still require copays to see medical staff behind bars. And even when incarcerated people do see medical staff, they face long waits: older adults in federal prisons wait an average of 114 days to see needed medical specialists in cardiology and pulmonology, which also puts them at risk for late diagnoses or no treatment at all.

Recent research from Prof. Meghan Novisky reveals how older incarcerated adults cope with the difficulties of accessing healthcare in prison. In her extensive qualitative study, Novisky finds that older incarcerated adults must rely on their networks – both in and outside of prison – and strategically use the limited resources available to them. Specifically, these older adults try to access health information from outside, from the prison library, and from other incarcerated people with medical backgrounds; they use the commissary and access to the kitchen to supplement the insufficient diet provided them; and they doggedly advocate for themselves with providers and through the grievance process, all in an effort to get their basic health needs met.

Beyond individual health outcomes, the financial burdens of the aging prison population can’t be overlooked: care for this population costs 2-3 times more than for their younger counterparts. The federal prison system reports spending 5 times more on medical care and 14 times more on medications per inmate in facilities with higher percentages of older inmates.

Bringing a measure of dignity to death in prison: Hospice programs

As the recent BJS report reminds us, mortality rates in prison are unlikely to slow, given the aging population and systemic healthcare problems. This reality begs the question: what does mortality behind bars actually look like for the people who are dying?

Currently, less than 4% of prisons have hospice programs. Most prisons and jails were not built with any consideration for the fact that they would house people dying of cancer, pulmonary diseases, liver failure, and dementia. But hospice has become one of the few humane attempts to address mortality in prison.

Hospice care involves a team of providers who care for people with life-limiting illnesses and their families with medical care, pain management, and emotional and spiritual support. The hospice model of care, based on a belief that every person has the right to die pain-free and with dignity, has made strides to fit into what Fleury-Steiner (2008) calls “the prison’s ‘natural environment’ of aggressive discipline and custody.”

“When speaking on end-of-life care, no one should be excluded. Dying with dignity is an essential component of our humanity and needs to be extended even into the shadows of our society.”
Marvin Mutch, Human Prison Hospice Project

About half of these prison hospice programs use incarcerated people as volunteers or as employed (and underpaid) caregivers. They become a crucial part of the care team, given that medical staff are often spread thin and correctional officers don’t have the necessary training to provide end-of-life care. (Incarcerated volunteers who work in hospice do receive appropriate training.)

While having access to hospice care in prison is certainly better than dying there without such care, dying in prison is a bleak scenario no matter what. One hospice patient at the California Medical Facility expressed this succinctly to a New York Times journalist entering the hospice unit, greeting her with, “Welcome to death row.”

The alternative: Compassionate release

For terminally ill incarcerated people, the other option is compassionate release: the early release of individuals who are facing imminent death and do not pose a threat to the public. Compassionate release was created by Congress to release incarcerated people “when it becomes ‘inequitable’ to keep them in prison any longer.” This option allows incarcerated people to seek hospice care outside of prison, a chance for dignified death, and time with family. Moreover, it has the practical benefit of reducing medical costs to the state and federal government.

However, this more humane release mechanism is extraordinarily underutilized, for a number of bad reasons: narrow eligibility requirements, a burdensome application process, protracted hearings, third party veto power, a lack of formal timelines, reluctance of providers to provide a prognosis, lack of medial knowledge of parole board members, and no systematic procedures for tracking applications and decisions. According to The New York Times, between 2013 and 2017, the federal Bureau of Prisons approved only 6% of the 5,400 compassionate release applications received; meanwhile, 266 other applicants died in prison. Their analysis of federal prison data shows that it takes over six months, on average, for an incarcerated person to receive an answer on their compassionate release application from the BOP. In one tragic example, prison officials denied an application for someone because the BOP determined he had more than 18 months to live, despite prison doctors’ prognosis of less than six months. Two days after receiving the denial, he died. With a timeline like that, it is no wonder that the number of older adults dying behind bars continues to grow.


In 2016, over 1,000 people died in local jails - many the tragic result of healthcare and jail systems that fail to address serious health problems among the jail population, and of the trauma of incarceration itself.

by Alexi Jones, February 13, 2020

A new Bureau of Justice Statistics report reveals that over 1,000 people died in local jails in 2016, underscoring the dangers of jail incarceration. Most troublingly, the report finds at least half of these deaths are preventable, with suicide remaining the leading cause of death. These preventable deaths are the tragic result of healthcare and jail systems that fail to address serious health problems among the jail population – both inside and out of the jail setting – and of the trauma of incarceration itself.

The new report reveals that half of all deaths in jails are due to suicide, accident, homicide, and drug or alcohol intoxication, all of which are largely preventable. Once again, suicide was the leading cause of death in jails. The jail suicide rate is far higher than that of state prisons or among the American population in general.

This graph shows that, since 2000, the suicide rates in jails far surpass the suicide rates in state prisons and in the general population.

The other half of deaths in jails are due to illness, such as heart disease or liver disease, many of which likely could have be prevented if not for the abysmal healthcare in jails.

People in jail often have serious physical and mental health needs. They are five times more likely than the general population to have a serious mental illness, and two-thirds have a substance use disorder. They also are more likely to have had chronic health conditions and infectious diseases. Moreover, many people experience serious medical and mental health crises after they are booked into jail, including withdrawal, psychological distress, and the “shock of confinement.”

This graph shows that suicide has been the leading cause of death in local jails every year since 2000, followed by heart disease, drugs/alcohol, cancer, and liver disease.

Yet despite their serious needs, people in jail rarely have access to adequate healthcare. History has shown that jails are unable to provide effective mental health and medical care to incarcerated people.

For example, CNN recently published a scathing investigation into WellPath (formerly Correct Care Solutions), one of the country’s largest jail healthcare providers. The investigation found that WellPath provides substandard healthcare that has led to more than 70 preventable deaths in local jails between 2014 and 2018. WellPath, like other correctional healthcare companies, has been accused of prioritizing cost-cutting over patient health, with little governmental oversight. CNN found that WellPath doctors and nurses often denied specialized testing, medication, and treatments. They have also failed to diagnose and treat psychiatric disorders, denied emergency room transfers for urgent cases, and allowed common infections and conditions to progress to the point of fatality.

Previous research also shows that the jail environment itself can lead to serious health crises. As a report from the Department of Justice explains, “certain features of the jail environment enhance suicidal behavior: fear of the unknown, distrust of an authoritarian environment, perceived lack of control over the future, isolation from family and significant others, shame of incarceration, and perceived dehumanizing aspects of incarceration.” People in jails are regularly denied contact with family and friends through the elimination of in-person visits and the high cost of phone calls, denied access to adequate medical care and nutritious food, exposed to unbearable heat and cold, and often subjected to the torturous conditions of solitary confinement.

Moreover, jails are often understaffed and/or have inadequately trained staff, and the vast majority of people working in jails are trained as correctional officers, not health providers or social workers. Despite years of evidence that suicide is the leading cause of jail deaths, many jail staff are not even trained in suicide prevention. Worse, some jail staff display indifference toward incarcerated people’s lives, often refusing to take their health concerns seriously and cutting off access to healthcare – with fatal consequences. For example, Clackamas County Jail workers were caught on camera laughing and joking about a military veteran overdosing in his cell. Even a nurse on duty reportedly spent less than five minutes with the man, who died after authorities finally took him to a hospital.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics data released yesterday emphasizes, yet again, the dangers of even short jail stays: 40% of jail deaths occur within the first week of a person’s incarceration. Given how just a few hours or days in jail can turn deadly, the report underscores the need to divert people away from jail – especially those with mental health and substance use disorders who are at increased risk – as well as the urgency of reducing the use of pretrial detention.


Most "consumers" of telecom services in jails are families in poverty. Counties can and should negotiate contracts that treat them more fairly.

by Prison Policy Initiative, February 7, 2020

The average cost of a phone call from a Texas county jail is 44 cents per minute1 — which can add up to hundreds of dollars a month for families trying to stay in touch — but Dallas County may soon lower its rates to 1 cent per minute. How? The county is aggressively renegotiating its contract with jail phone provider Securus, prioritizing getting the lowest rate possible for the families making the calls.

For other counties wondering how to negotiate contracts that treat consumers more fairly, we’ve just published three “best practices” guides. Our three guides cover the three most common types of telecommunications contracts in jails: contracts for phone services, contracts for video calling technology, and contracts for electronic tablets.

The simplest and best policy for a county is to pay for these services out of its general fund, thus making communication free. (Otherwise, personal wealth determines which families can stay in touch and which families can’t.)

For counties that won’t go that far, though, it’s still possible to write a jail contract that holds the vendor accountable, and allows families to stay in touch without paying dearly. Our best practices guides show how smart agencies can:

  • Get the lowest rates possible for families by refusing commissions
  • Protect customers from predatory fees, such as unnecessary “account maintenance” fees or high deposit fees.
  • Make sure that vendors return customers’ unspent funds
  • Ensure that expensive technology is never used to “replace” vital (and free) existing services
  • Avoid excluding good providers from the bidding process by accident

During the contract award process, county procurement officials are often outmatched by their counterparts in the jail telecom industry — highly experienced businesspeople intent on maximizing their returns. Because of this imbalance, far too many poor families end up paying hundreds or thousands of dollars a month to stay in touch. But county governments that do their homework can get families a fairer deal.

To learn more, see our new best practices guides about:

And if you are new to these issues, see our research and advocacy about phone services in prisons and jails, protecting in-person visits from the video calling industry, and exploitation on prison tablets.

Footnotes

  1. Our survey of jail phone rates in 2018 found that the average cost of a phone call in Texas county jails was $6.53 for a 15-minute call, or approximately 44 cents per minute. For the complete results of our survey, see Appendix 2 in our report State of Phone Justice.


Nearly one out of every 100 people in the United States is in a prison or jail.

by Peter Wagner and Wanda Bertram, January 16, 2020

We’re often asked what percent of the U.S. population is behind bars. The answer: About 0.7% of the United States is currently in a federal or state prison or local jail. If this number seems unworthy of the term “mass incarceration,” consider that 0.7% is just shy of 1%, or one out of a hundred. And a little more context shows that this fraction is actually incredibly high.

Because talking about portions of a percentage can be confusing, this concept is more often expressed as a rate: The United States currently incarcerates 698 per 100,000 people. (The rate is out of 100,000, rather than 1,000 or 10,000, because back when incarceration was much rarer you needed a larger denominator to express the rate in whole numbers. But either way, these are all different ways of expressing the same percentage.)

In some ways, though, looking at the portion of a country that is incarcerated understates the sheer size of mass incarceration, because the denominator includes many groups that are infrequently incarcerated. For example, no toddlers, few adolescents, and not very many teenagers are incarcerated.

Age curve of youth in the juvenile justice system.

Rather than calculating how many people in the U.S. are incarcerated, you could calculate how many adults are incarcerated (0.88%), or how many working-age adults are incarcerated (1.07%). These statistics are rhetorically useful, but are often difficult to pair with compatible data from other countries, states or topics, so they’re not used very often.

There is another way to look at the scale and uniqueness of the U.S mass incarceration experiment: Less than 5% of the world’s population is in the United States, but 20% of the world’s incarcerated people are right here:

Graph showing that 1 out of 5 prisoners in the world is incarcerated in the U.S.

For more perspectives on the scale of mass incarceration, see:


At a time when cutting the adult prison population by 50% seems radical to many people, states have already cut the number of confined youth by 60% since 2000.

December 19, 2019

Why are 48,000 children and teenagers locked up in the United States, and where exactly are they? How are the juvenile justice system and the criminal justice system similar, and how are they different? In a new infographic and report, the Prison Policy Initiative answers these unexpectedly difficult questions about youth confinement.

Pie chart showing how many youth are locked up in the U.S., what types of facilities they are held in, and the offenses for which they are held.

Youth Confinement: The Whole Pie 2019 reveals failures in the juvenile justice system that mirror failures in the adult system, including:

  • Unnecessary pretrial detention. On any given day, 9,500 youth – or 1 in 5 youth in confinement – are locked up before trial.
  • Incarceration for the most minor offenses. 19% of youth in juvenile facilities are locked up for “technical violations” of probation or parole, or for status offenses (behaviors for which an adult would not be prosecuted).
  • Glaring racial disparities. While only 14% of children under 18 in the U.S. are Black, 42% of boys and 35% of girls in juvenile facilities are Black.

But the number of youth in confinement is also falling dramatically. “At a time when cutting the adult prison population by 50% strikes many people as radical, states have already cut the number of confined youth by 60% since 2000, and that trend is continuing,” said report author Wendy Sawyer. The report describes state reforms that have helped shrink the juvenile justice system, such as:

  • Reducing incarceration for certain offenses, including status offenses, technical violations, and misdemeanors
  • Closing large detention facilities and developing new community-based supervision and treatment programs
  • Limiting the amount of time youth may be incarcerated or under court supervision

“States have reduced youth incarceration without seeing an increase in crime, which is very encouraging, but there are still far too many youth in confinement,” said Sawyer, “Today, there are 13,500 youth locked up away from home for drug possession and low-level offenses, not to mention 7,000 other youth detained before trial. That means this country still has a lot of work to do.”

For the full report and more infographics, see https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/youth2019.html.


We list 24 high-impact policy ideas for state legislators looking to reform their criminal justice systems.

by Wanda Bertram, December 12, 2019

State legislatures can determine the future of mass incarceration. That’s why we just published — as we do every December — a report on 20+ winnable criminal justice reforms that state legislators can take on.

We publish this report as a PDF with links to more information and model bills, and we’ll soon send it to state legislators across the country. This year, our list of reforms ripe for legislative victory includes:

  • Eliminating probation fees and regulating privatized probation services
  • Banning Departments of Corrections taking kickbacks from prison retailers
  • Decreasing state incarceration rates by reducing jail populations
  • Repealing ineffective and harmful “sentencing enhancement” zones
  • Offering medication-assisted opioid treatment to reduce deaths in prison
  • Protecting in-person visits and letters from home in local jails
  • Ending automatic driver’s license suspensions for nonpayment of fines and fees, and for drug offenses unrelated to driving
  • Capping maximum probation terms
  • Reducing or eliminating jail time for technical violations
  • Reducing barriers to housing for formerly incarcerated people

Our full report on winnable criminal justice reforms includes more ideas for reducing state prison populations, eliminating burdensome costs for incarcerated people, supporting people leaving prison, and promoting public health and community safety.

Will your state be working on any of these reforms? We’re looking forward to the progress we can make together in 2020!


Our 50-state survey finds that in spite of national standards, most states lack important policies on prenatal care and nutrition for pregnant women.

by Roxanne Daniel, December 5, 2019

This past August, released surveillance footage showed 26-year-old Diana Sanchez alerting Denver County Jail deputies and medical staff that she was in labor just hours before she gave birth to her son, alone in her cell. With her pleas ignored by staff, Sanchez was forced to give birth without any medical aid or assistance. Her experience is not isolated, as a number of reports by women in prisons and jails across the country have revealed a similar disregard for pregnant women’s basic needs.

What’s more, the documentation of pregnancies and pregnancy care is sparse, sometimes anecdotal, and rarely generalizable on a national level. The most recent data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) was collected more than 15 years ago. In 2002, BJS found that 5% of women in local jails were pregnant when admitted. For prisons, BJS reported that in 2004, 4% of women in state prisons and 3% of women in federal prisons were pregnant upon admission. The government has not released any further national data since.

Chart showing estimated number of women in prisons and jails in 2017 who were pregnant when admitted. Based on pregnancy rates from BJS, we estimate that 470 women in federal prisons, 3,950 in state prisons, and 5,060 in local jails were pregnant in 2017. BJS reports that 3% of women are pregnant when admitted to federal prison, 4% are pregnant when admitted to state prisons, and 5% are pregnant when admitted to local jails.These estimates are based on the number of women under local, state, and federal jurisdiction in 2017 and the percentages of women in prisons and jails who were pregnant when admitted, as reported by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. *Note that the estimate for women in local jails is based on the jail population on a single day, not the much greater number of women admitted to jail over the course of a year.

A recent study of 22 U.S. state prison systems and all U.S. federal prisons, published in the American Journal of Public Health, found a similar pregnancy rate; roughly 3.8% of the women in their sample were pregnant when they entered prison from 2016-2017. While the rate of pregnancy in prison may have remained stable since the early 2000s, the additional 10,000+ women imprisoned since then indicates that the number of women who are incarcerated while pregnant has grown, too. As long as the mass incarceration of women endures, incarcerated pregnancies will continue to rise.

Given the scale and stakes of this issue, it is imperative that correctional systems set policies that ensure the health and well-being of pregnant women in their custody. Provisions for adequate nutrition and prenatal medical care must be codified in policy to protect against negative health outcomes, such as miscarriages and low fetal birth weights, that can impact mothers and their children for the rest of their lives.

To see the extent to which these concerns are currently being addressed, we evaluated the policies of each state’s prison system and the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to screen for adherence to nationally recognized guidelines. Troublingly, many states fail to meet even basic standards.

Continue reading →


When the only way to get necessities in prison is to buy them from a single retailer, exploitation is the result.

by Wanda Bertram, November 14, 2019

As John Oliver explained in a recent episode of Last Week Tonight, people in prison are consumers too: Incarcerated people must pay for basic necessities such as phone calls, soap, and medicine, to say nothing of “luxury” items such as books. But how are consumer rights and protections different for people behind bars, and what can be done to protect these consumers from exploitation?

The Hastings Race and Poverty Law Journal has just published an article by Prison Policy Initiative volunteer Stephen Raher, presenting a comprehensive survey of consumer law issues in prisons and jails. Raher will speak about his article, The Company Store and the Literally Captive Market, at this weekend’s Consumer Rights Litigation Conference, sponsored by the National Consumer Law Center. Raher’s article explains:

Report cover thumbnail.

  • How incarcerated consumers are denied basic aspects of customer care – such as refunds for shoddy products, meaningful warranties, or even the expectation that a product will be well made. (pp. 72-76)
  • How prison retail companies attempt to justify the high prices they charge incarcerated customers. For instance, prison retailers often claim that high prices are necessary because of the overhead costs associated with security. But these overhead costs — to the extent that they are real–are likely canceled out by common business functions that prison retailers don’t have to spend money on, such as advertising and operating a network of brick-and-mortar stores. (p. 25)
  • How prison retail companies have avoided regulation. For instance, some prison phone companies are attempting to brand themselves as “information services” companies, a class of company subject to fewer regulations and less oversight. (p. 52)
  • How prisons and jails themselves exacerbate the problem. Not only have a growing number of correctional facilities shifted the costs of incarceration onto incarcerated people (for example, by making people pay for medical supplies or clothing), they also frequently garnish portions of family members’ deposits into their loved ones’ trust accounts, making it even more expensive for people on the outside to support their loved ones. (pp. 81-82)
  • What sources of protection are available. Incarcerated people and their family members may have rights under existing laws like the Communications Act, the Electronic Fund Transfer Act, or state consumer-protection statutes. Some activist groups have scored major victories under these laws, but often legal action is impossible or impractical given ubiquitous arbitration clauses and class-action bans that appear in companies’ terms of service. (p. 33)

There are also detailed discussions of data breaches impacting incarcerated people (pp. 40-44), deceptive advertising practices (pp. 36-40), and the rapidly-expanding practice of utilizing computer tablets inside prisons and jails (pp. 21-23).

Historically, there was little need for consumer protection in correctional facilities because the facilities used to provide basic necessities and incarcerated people had little need to engage in commercial transactions. But as more essential goods and services — toothpaste, phone calls, socks, etc. — are accessible only via purchase, people are faced with commercial exploitation while they are incarcerated.

Unfortunately, incarcerated people are uniquely vulnerable because in many segments of American law (like telecommunications), government regulators have taken a hands-off approach under the belief that consumers will choose companies that don’t treat them unfairly, and therefore the market will self-police. This logic has no place in correctional facilities, where phone and commissary vendors enjoy monopoly powers, and consumers have one choice: submit to an unfair transaction, or go without toothpaste or a phone call with family.

The article concludes with eight concrete policy proposals that describe how state and local governments, and federal lawmakers, can take modest but meaningful steps to protect incarcerated people and their families from unfair and oppressive commercial transactions.

The article is long and detailed, so we prepared a table of contents for it with links to the individual sections:

Table of contents

  1. Background p. 5
  2. Surveying the Landscape of Prison Retailing p. 9
    1. End Users p. 9
    2. Payers p. 10
    3. Facilities p. 12
    4. Vendors p. 15
      1. Telecommunications p. 16
      2. Commissary p. 17
      3. Money Transmitters, Correctional Banking, and Release Cards p. 18
      4. Tablets: The New Frontier p. 21
  3. Unfair Industry Practices p. 23
    1. Masquerading as Cream: Inflated Prices and Inefficient Payment Systems p. 24
    2. What Law Applies? p. 30
    3. Terms of Service: Carrying a Bad Joke Too Far p. 33
    4. Advertising, Privacy, and Consumer Psychology p. 35
    5. Data Insecurity p. 40
  4. Potential Sources of Protection p. 46
    1. Telecommunications Law p. 46
      1. Technology Has Outpaced the Regulatory Framework p. 51
      2. The New Cross-Subsidies p. 54
      3. Advocacy and Activism p. 56
    2. Financial Services Law, Money Transmitters, and Prepaid Accounts p. 58
      1. Categorizing Prepayments p. 60
      2. Financial Services Law and Prison-Related Transfers p. 61
      3. Legal Issues Related to Release Cards p. 64
    3. UDAP Statutes p. 66
      1. Prices p. 68
      2. Terms and Conditions p. 70
      3. Sales of Goods p. 72
    4. Antitrust p. 75
  5. Policy Recommendations p. 76
    1. State and Local Governments p. 77
      1. Reimagine Procurement Practices p. 77
      2. Foster Competition p. 78
      3. Conduct Rulemaking Proceedings to Protect Consumers p. 80
      4. Provide Protection for Trust Account Balances p. 81
      5. Develop Independent ADR Systems p. 82
    2. Federal p. 83
      1. CFPB Regulation of Correctional Banking p. 83
      2. Congressional Action p. 84
      3. Wright Petition, Post-Remand p. 85
  6. Conclusion p. 86

The Bureau of Justice Statistics is tasked with collecting, analyzing, and publishing data about the criminal justice system. But its reports are slowing down - and its framing of criminal justice issues is becoming more punitive.

by Wendy Sawyer, November 14, 2019

We’ve heard this question from a few advocates and journalists who, like us, depend on the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) and other government data sources for timely information about the justice system. And while monitoring changes in federal data collections isn’t a core part of our work, we have observed a troubling trend: Since 2017, data releases are slowing down.

We aren’t the only ones who have noticed. Last month, a coalition representing thousands of academic and nonprofit researchers and advocates wrote to the Office of Justice Programs with questions about missing and delayed data releases as well.

I probably don’t have to convince our regular readers that timely data is essential for identifying both social problems and effective policy solutions — and that it’s especially important in the context of criminal justice, where the human costs are so high. And admittedly, it’s not news that government justice data has long been less well-funded, less timely, and less comprehensive than, say, labor statistics.

tweet from a Brennan Center for Justice staffer about data gaps in the criminal justice field.

Even so, these publications have slowed even further — and even been curtailed — under the current administration. To see the extent of this trend, I went through the BJS’ list of publications since 2000 and compared the time between the data collection reference dates and the corresponding report publication dates for six annual report series. I found that there has indeed been a dramatic change in the past several years:

Graph showing that since 2016, BJS data reports have been delayed by many months.The time between data collection and data publication for most regular Bureau of Justice Statistics reports has increased dramatically in the last few years.

Publication delays in annual Bureau of Justice Statistics reports

I looked at six report series that have been on annual schedules for years: Jail Inmates, Prisoners, Probation and Parole in the United States, Correctional Populations in the United States, Jails in Indian Country, and the Mortality series (formerly Deaths in Custody). These are the reports that we rely on to produce our Whole Pie and Correctional Control reports, and provide data for many of our other briefings and publications.

I found that while data collection activities for these series have continued, BJS data releases and reports have all experienced significant delays, starting in 2017:

  • The annual Prisoners report provides a “snapshot” of who’s incarcerated in state and federal prisons on a given day, allowing the public and policymakers to spot trends and respond to them as quickly as possible. These reports came out like clockwork for years, typically within 7-12 months of the year-end data collection. The 2017 prison data was 4 months later than usual, released in April 2019. We have not yet seen 2018 data from BJS, but the Vera Institute of Justice released state prison data it collected independently earlier this year, essentially “lapping” the government’s data collection and publication.
  • Since 1996, the Jail Inmates report, which offers a similar “snapshot” of local jail populations across the U.S., has been published within one year of the data collection reference date (usually June 30). The 2017 report was released 22 months after the midyear reference date, and it’s already been over 16 months for the 2018 data. The delay on this report is especially concerning, given how quickly jail populations can shift with changes in policing, prosecution, or court processes.
  • The Probation and Parole report serves a similar trend-monitoring purpose, but focuses on the 4.5 million people on probation and parole in the U.S. These reports were reliably released in late fall of each year after data collection, dating back to 2004. (In the 10 years before that, these reports came out even sooner, by late August.) The 2016 report, however, was released in April 2018, and we’ve now been waiting over 22 months for the 2017 data.
  • The Correctional Populations reports present data on people who are incarcerated and those under community supervision, and sometimes include useful data on these populations before the more targeted prison or jail reports are published. These reports were published consistently in late fall of the year following data collection until December 2016, when 2015 data were reported. The 2016 report was late, and we have yet to see the 2017 data, which now reflect the correctional populations of over 22 months ago.
  • The very narrow glimpse we have into how the justice system operates on tribal lands largely comes from the Jails in Indian Country reports. Typically released within 12-18 months of the June 30 data reference date, it’s now been almost 2 years since the last time BJS released a report in this series, although the 2017 and 2018 data have been collected.
  • Finally, the Mortality reports are our only “official” source of information about deaths in prison and jail custody; they are essential for holding correctional agencies accountable for preventable deaths from suicide and homicide. They also help shine a light on the life-threatening health problems among incarcerated people. Yet the last two Mortality reports only gave us part of the picture, reporting only deaths in prisons in 2014 and only HIV-related deaths in prisons in 2015. And although these reports are published on a slightly slower schedule (18-24 months from the data reference date), these, too, have been badly delayed. The most recent data on jail deaths available is from 2013 — despite increasing attention to jail suicides and a law requiring this data to be reported annually — and three years of data have been collected since we last saw any reports.

Graph showing that the time between data collection and data release for BJS's Mortality in Custody reports has increased.

Researchers and advocates are concerned about other delays at BJS

In October, as I mentioned above, a coalition headed by the Crime and Justice Research Alliance and COSSA wrote to the Office of Justice Programs with questions about other missing and overdue BJS publications.

Of special concern is the 2016 Survey of Prison Inmates (SPI). The SPI was conducted every 5-7 years from 1974-2004, and was finally conducted again in 2016. In the intervening years, we saw the high-water mark of mass incarceration thus far, and witnessed tremendous growth and change in correctional control. Yet BJS has published none of the invaluable data contained in this survey, which includes “demographic characteristics, current offense and sentence, incident characteristics, firearm possession and sources, criminal history, socioeconomic characteristics, family background, drug and alcohol use and treatment, mental and physical health and treatment, and facility programs and rule violations, etc.” Almost none of the 2016 data has been released, three years later and counting. Only a report on the methodology and a report on a subset of the data on firearms have been released to date.

The coalition’s letter also highlights delays in the annual Background Checks for Firearms Transfers reports (the last data reported are from 2015), and asks whether a planned survey of police forensic units, commissioned by the Department of Justice in 2014, has been abandoned.

It gets worse: Important data on jails and pretrial detention won’t even be collected for years

The Bureau of Justice Statistics is also many years behind schedule for at least one crucial and long-awaited data collection, the Survey of Inmates in Local Jails (SILJ). The SILJ was collected every 5-7 years from 1972-2002, and it provides the most comprehensive, nationally representative data available on people held in local jails. It’s especially important for the information it offers about the pretrial (or unconvicted) population. Unbelievably, the 2002 SILJ is the most recent source we have to measure what portion of people held pretrial are there because they can’t afford a bail bond, what racial disparities exist among pretrial detainees, and what offenses people are locked up for before trial. After much delay, the current plan has the next survey slated for 2021; assuming it is released in 2022, it will be 15 years off-schedule.

Another data series that sheds light on pretrial decisions, State Court Processing Statistics, was “halted in 2009 due to concerns about cost and representativeness,” according to a recent BJS-funded study by the Urban Institute. According to that report, BJS “plans to implement a new data collection series to develop national statistics on the processing of pretrial defendants…This program, National Pretrial Reporting Program (NPRP), was conceptualized to supplement or replace the State Court Processing Statistics (SCPS) program.” While the feasibility study tested an experimental survey and recommended an alternative sampling method that would make the sample nationally representative, it’s been 10 years now since BJS has released any new data on pretrial processes.

Beyond delays: “Trimmed” data from the FBI, politicized language at OJJDP and BJS

Government justice agencies have not merely delayed their data releases: They’ve also made partisan decisions that undermine the transparency and impartiality we expect from them. These issues extend beyond the Bureau of Justice Statistics to other reporting agencies.

In 2017, the FBI “strategically trimmed the amount of tables” from 81 to 29 in the agency’s annual report on arrest data and trends, Crime in the United States. The missing data included information as fundamental as arrests by sex. In response to “user feedback” — and very likely, assertions that it reflected the Trump administration’s “suppression of government data and…unwillingness to share information” — 70 “supplemental” tables were later released.

Advocates have also noticed troubling changes on the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention’s website, changes “that indicate a shift toward a more punitive approach to juvenile justice under the Trump administration.” For example, a webpage with the OJJDP’s policy guidance on “Eliminating Solitary Confinement for Youth” was taken down, and the new administration also issued a “language guidance” document directing OJJDP employers and contractors to replace widely-accepted terms with decidedly less pointed terms that downplay systemic problems. The document suggested changing references to “justice-involved youth” with the more stigmatizing “offender” label, “underserved youth” with “all youth,” and avoid referring to juvenile delinquency or crime as a “public health issue” and always emphasize “public safety.”

This signaling of the new administration’s priorities wasn’t just performative; the new OJJDP administrator Caren Harp also attempted to undermine efforts to reduce racial disparities among justice-involved youth by “slashing the kinds of data that local agencies must collect.” Harp reasoned that there hadn’t been enough progress to justify the data collection — leaving advocates wondering how collecting less data would improve matters.

In a previous briefing, I’ve already highlighted some alarmist framing in a recent BJS press release; other analysts and advocates have noted these “heavily politicized” communications as well. While the BJS reports themselves remain valuable data sources and politically neutral in tone, the headlines of the accompanying press releases in the past year or so have become increasingly alarmist and reflective of the Trump administration’s rhetoric. (Of course, this is not the first administration to politicize press releases: many will remember that former BJS Director Lawrence Greenfeld was replaced in 2005 because he objected to the Bush administration’s attempts to suppress findings of racial disparities in a BJS press release.)

So what’s going on?

The reasons behind these decisions and delays are unclear — is it funding problems? Staff shortages? Changes in leadership? It could well be any, or all, of these problems.

BJS has been “flat funded” for years, despite the massive growth in the number and size of the correctional agencies they survey, and despite increasing demands for justice system data under laws mandating annual data collection, like the Prison Rape Elimination Act and the Deaths in Custody Reporting Act. A National Academies publication explains that this has been a problem under both Democratic and Republican administrations, going back decades.

The Crime and Justice Research Alliance and COSSA — the coalition that wrote the October letter to the DOJ I mentioned earlier — suggest that staffing problems may explain the delays. They write, “[M]any in the criminal justice research community have heard of an alarming decline in the number of BJS staff as a consequence of hiring freezes, staff attrition, and failure to replace departing staff and experts.” Again, this is an agency that has been chronically underfunded and understaffed relative to the herculean task of collecting and analyzing the nation’s decentralized justice system data.

And then there is the issue of leadership. With its mandate to produce reliable, large-scale studies with national, state, and local policy implications, effective leadership at BJS requires “strong scientific skills, experience with federal statistical agencies, familiarity with BJS and its products, [and] visibility in the nation’s statistical community,” among other qualities. That’s according to four former BJS Directors and the President of the American Statistical Association, who wrote to former Attorney General Sessions in 2017 to encourage the appointment of an experienced research director to head up BJS.

That didn’t happen. Instead, since late 2017, the Bureau of Justice Statistics has been under the leadership of Jeffrey Anderson, whose only prior statistical experience appears to be the co-creation of a college football computer ranking system in 1992. On criminal justice, all I could find in his history were a handful of 2015-2016 articles in which he argues against criminal justice reform. In a National Review article, he called Obama-era Washington “tone-deaf on crime,” despite the widespread bipartisan support of criminal justice reform. Sadly, the problems we’re seeing with data delays and politicized language suggest that the current leadership may not agree about the importance of the agency they lead.









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