High prison rates, high jail rates, high first minute charges, and more

by Peter Wagner and Alexi Jones, September 11, 2019

It can be hard to figure out where to start to improve phone justice in each state, especially in the states where legislators, regulators, or individual correctional facilities have already instituted partial reforms. For that reason, we’ve re-organized our national survey of in-state phone rates in to this handy map showing the biggest remaining issues in each state:

color coded map of the United States showing the biggest priorities for prison and jail phone justice in 40 of the states as of 2019

No state is perfect on prison and jail telephone issues, and there are many ways to measure “how bad” a state’s prison and jail phone rates are. Some states have good phone rates if they are measured by one criterion, but terrible if measured by a different one. For example, the Minnesota Department of Corrections charges only $0.75 for a 15-minute in-state call from state prison, but the jails in the state charge, on average, $7.19 for the same call. To give a more complete picture of how, exactly, each state is failing, we compiled data on five different measures of prison and jail phone justice (see Table 1 below). For states that rate poorly on multiple measures, the map above offers our opinion about which issue is most important and actionable in that state.

Table 1. How each state fares on five measures of phone justice.
State State prisons still charge $3.00 or more for a fifteen-minute in-state call (See Table 2) The average rate charged by jails is $6.00 or more for a fifteen-minute in-state call (See Table 3) Calls from county jails are far more expensive than calls from the state prison (See Table 4) At least one jail charges $12.00 or more for a fifteen-minute in-state call (See Table 5) Jails typically charge far more for the first minute of calls than additional minutes (See Table 6)
Alabama X
Alaska X
Arizona X
Arkansas X X X
California X
Colorado X X X


Connecticut X
Delaware
Florida X
Georgia
Hawaii
Idaho X
Illinois X X X X
Indiana X X X
Iowa X X X
Kansas X X X
Kentucky X
Louisiana X
Maine
Maryland X
Massachusetts X
Michigan X X X
Minnesota X X X
Mississippi X
Missouri X X X
Montana X X X
Nebraska X X X
Nevada X
New Hampshire X X
New Jersey
New Mexico
New York X X
North Carolina X
North Dakota X X X
Ohio
Oklahoma X X X
Oregon X
Pennsylvania X X
Rhode Island
South Carolina X
South Dakota X X
Tennessee X X
Texas X X X X
Utah X X
Vermont
Virginia X X
Washington X
West Virginia
Wisconsin X X
Wyoming X X
Table 2. Most expensive state prison rates for in-state calls (showing states were the cost is $3 or more)
State 15-Minute Rate from State Prison
Alabama $3.34
Alaska $3.15
Arizona $3.34
Arkansas $4.80
Connecticut $3.65
Indiana $3.60
Kentucky $3.15
Louisiana $3.15
Oklahoma $3.00

 

Table 3. Average rate charged by jails in each state for in-state calls (showing the most expensive states)
State Average rate for 15-minute call from jail
Arkansas $14.19
Colorado $6.50
Illinois $7.11
Indiana $6.31
Iowa $7.03
Kansas $8.49
Michigan $12.03
Minnesota $7.19
Missouri $6.90
Montana $9.24
Nebraska $8.02
New York $7.79
North Dakota $7.62
Oklahoma $6.34
South Dakota $7.11
Texas $6.53
Wisconsin $7.99
Wyoming $7.77

 

Table 4. How much more expensive are jail phone calls in each state compared to prison calls? (Comparing the cost of 15-minute in-state calls and showing states where jail phone calls cost at least 5 times as much as prison calls.)
State Disparity between average cost of jail call vs. a state prison call
Illinois 52.7
Maryland 5.8
Michigan 5
Minnesota 9.6
Mississippi 9.6
Missouri 9.2
Nebraska 8.5
New Hampshire 23.2
New York 12
North Dakota 6.4
South Carolina 6.9
South Dakota 5.9
Texas 7.3
Virginia 7.4

 

Table 5. Highest cost for a call in each state (Showing states where at least one jail charges more than $12 for an in-state call)
State Highest 15-Minute Rate
Arkansas $24.82
California $17.80
Colorado $14.85
Idaho $17.25
Illinois $15.52
Indiana $15.15
Iowa $14.10
Kansas $18.62
Michigan $22.56
Minnesota $12.02
Missouri $20.12
Montana $14.68
Nebraska $15.80
Nevada $14.25
North Carolina $12.00
North Dakota $12.00
Oklahoma $18.87
Oregon $15.75
Pennsylvania $12.20
Tennessee $14.29
Texas $17.25
Utah $15.06
Virginia $14.65
Washington $17.35
Wisconsin $21.97
Wyoming $14.22

 

Table 6. How much more expensive is the first minute of a jail call with subsequent minutes? For example, many jails in New York charge $4.35 for the first minute and $0.40
for subsequent minutes, for a disparity of almost 11 times.) Setting higher first minute rates is a complicated but particularly exploitative practice. (Showing the average disparity between first and subsequent minutes in each state where the first minute cost is at 7 or more times higher than subsequent minutes. States like New York where some or many counties have high first/subsequent minute disparities are not included if the state’s average disparity was less than 7. For county-by-county data, see our 2018 Phones Rate Survey.)
State Disparity between first minute and subsequent minutes
Colorado 25.04
Florida 7.8
Illinois 8.98
Iowa 9.29
Kansas 25.47
Massachusetts 20.26
Montana 22.84
New Hampshire 9.65
Pennsylvania 7.04
Tennessee 22.49
Texas 15.03
Utah 33.16

 

For even more detailed data for individual facilities in each state, see these appendix tables from our State of Phone Justice report:

Now that leaders and advocates in each state have easy access to the biggest issues standing in the way of phone justice in their states, it’s time to get moving on making justice a reality.


Our analysis reveals that at least 4.9 million people cycle through county jails each year - and most have serious medical and economic needs.

August 26, 2019

Police and jails are supposed to protect the public from serious public safety threats, but what do they actually do? Until now, attempts to answer this question have been missing the most basic data points: how many individuals cycle through local jails every year and who these individuals are.

A new report from the Prison Policy Initiative, Arrest, Release, Repeat, fills this troubling gap in the data. Building on its popular annual snapshot of the U.S. county jail population, the Prison Policy Initiative finds that:

Chart showing how many people in the U.S. go to county jails each year.

  • At least 4.9 million people are arrested and booked in jail every year.
  • At least 1 in 4 people who go to jail in a given year will return to jail over the course of a year.
  • At least 428,000 people will go to jail three or more times over the course of a year – the first national estimate of a population often referred to as “frequent utilizers.”

“4.9 million people go to jail every year — that’s a higher number than the populations of 24 U.S. states,” said report co-author Alexi Jones. “But what’s even more troubling is that people who are jailed have high rates of economic and health problems, problems that local governments should not be addressing through incarceration.”

The report reveals that:

  • 49% of people with multiple arrests in the past year had annual incomes below $10,000, compared to 36% of people arrested only once and 21% of people with no arrests.
  • Despite making up only 13% of the general population, Black men and women account for 21% of people who were arrested just once and 28% of people arrested multiple times.
  • People with multiple arrests are much more likely than the general public to suffer from substance use disorders and other illnesses, and much less likely to have access to health care.
  • The vast majority of people with multiple arrests are jailed for nonviolent offenses such as drug possession, theft or trespassing.

Graph showing that people who go to jails multiple times have serious health needs.

In a series of policy recommendations, the report explains how counties can choose to stop continuously jailing their most vulnerable residents and instead solve the economic and public health problems that often lead to arrest. “Counties should stop using taxpayer dollars to repeatedly jail people,” said report co-author Wendy Sawyer, “and use the savings to fund public services that prevent justice involvement in the first place.”


Without federal aid, the rate of college course participation in prisons dropped by half.

by Wendy Sawyer, August 22, 2019

Journalists, policymakers, and advocates frequently ask us to answer tricky but important questions about the criminal justice system. Until now, however, many of our answers to these common questions have gone unpublished, gathering dust in our email archives. This post is the first in what we anticipate will be an ongoing “Since You Asked” series that makes our answers to these important questions public. (Want to send us your questions? Use our contact page.)

Q: How many people participated in college-in-prison programs before and after the 1994 crime bill? (And how many participate in prison education programming today?)

Graph breaking down college participation among people in prison over time.

A: To understand the drop in college participation in prisons following the 1994 “crime bill,” it’s important to know that most in-prison college programs, unlike colleges and universities in the “free world,” largely depend on funding from the Pell Grants program and other federal aid programs. This is largely because incarcerated people are overwhelmingly poor and can neither afford college tuition nor make generous gifts as alumni.

According to a historical overview by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), prisons “witnessed a surge in demand for college courses” after the passage of the Higher Education Act of 1965, a law that greatly expanded federal aid for college participation nationwide. By 1982, 350 college-in-prison programs enrolled almost 27,000 prisoners (9 percent of the nation’s prison population), primarily through Pell Grants. … By the early 1990s, it is estimated that 772 programs were operating in 1,287 correctional facilities across the nation.”

A 1992 amendment to the Higher Education Act made people serving life sentences without parole and those sentenced to death ineligible to receive Pell Grants. Then, the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act banned everyone incarcerated in prisons from receiving Pell aid, even though these grants made up less than 1 percent of total Pell spending. “By 1997,” the AEI briefing continues, “it is estimated that only eight college-in-prison programs existed in the United States.” The remaining programs were those that received financial and volunteer support from other sources.

According to the American Historical Association, “States followed by further blocking access to funds through regional programs.” In 2005, the New York Times Magazine wrote that there were “about a dozen” prison college-degree programs, “four of them in New York State.”

The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) 2003 publication Education and Correctional Populations includes some data that reflects these changes (see Table 4). In 1991, 13.9% of people in state prisons, and 18.9% of those in federal prisons, had taken a college course since admission. By 1997, these numbers had dropped to 9.9% for people in state prisons, and 12.9% in federal prisons. The 2004 BJS Survey of Inmates in State and Federal Correctional Facilities (variable V2503) shows that the downward trend continued: In 2004, just 7.3% of respondents in state prisons had taken a college-level class since admission.

More recently, results from a 2014 study of people in prison found that 2% of respondents had completed an Associate’s degree while incarcerated, and 1% had completed a Bachelor’s degree or higher. Notably, 58% of respondents reported that they had not completed any further education while incarcerated.

But these statistics do not reflect a lack of interest in higher education among people in prison: To the contrary, 40% of respondents to the survey said that they would like to enroll in an Associate’s or Bachelor’s degree program, and an additional 29% wanted to enroll in a postsecondary certificate program. Nor are most people in prison unqualified for such programs: A recent report from the Vera Institute of Justice and Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality analyzed the same survey results and found that “the majority of incarcerated people are academically eligible for postsecondary-level courses.”

As we’ve previously found, educational exclusion is a strong predictor of incarceration in the U.S. But federal and state governments are far from powerless to repair the harm that results. Restoring Pell Grants to incarcerated people would make approximately 463,000 people in prison eligible for free college courses.

It’s time for the government to not only restore this critical aid, but expand it.


by Bernadette Rabuy, August 9, 2019

In case you missed it, John Oliver exposed the high fees and low wages pervasive in prisons and jails on last Sunday’s episode of Last Week Tonight.

Oliver cited our research to shine a light on the low wages — or no wages, in the case of Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia and Texas — that incarcerated people receive for their hard work.

Despite the low wages paid to people in prison, Oliver explained, prisons squeeze money out of incarcerated people and their families by forcing them to pay for basic needs, such as:

  • Hygiene products: Too often, prisons do not provide sufficient hygiene products and incarcerated people are forced to buy additional items on their own dime. We found, for instance, that the average person in an Illinois prison spends $80 a year on toiletries and hygiene products.
  • Copays for medical visits: Our 2017 state-by-state analysis revealed that fourteen states charge co-pay amounts equivalent to charging minimum wage workers over $200.
  • Video calls: Oliver scrutinizes the high cost of video calls and the harmful trend of jails replacing in-person visits with video chats. Oliver states that a video call system is really a “machine that makes money by stopping people from visiting their families,” which is surely “an item at the top of Satan’s Amazon wish list.”

Oliver also shared his skepticism of correctional officials’ claims that banning in-person visits is justified because it reduces contraband. Oliver pointed out that contraband often enters correctional facilities through other channels, such as through staff.

“Part of the way mass incarceration persists in this country is by keeping the true costs of it off the books,” Oliver concludes. We couldn’t agree more. Thank you, Last Week Tonight, for helping us expose these harmful practices!


Three states have taken action in 2019 to change one of the most harmful policies in prison healthcare.

by Wanda Bertram, August 8, 2019

Prison healthcare is almost always a depressing topic, but not today, when we can report an important victory: Illinois recently became the third state in 2019 to reform the practice of charging medical co-pays to incarcerated people.

Previously, we published a state-by-state analysis showing that most prisons charge medical copays to people inside – despite the fact that their patients are impoverished and earn little to no money for their work in prisons. Using prison and free-world wage data, we calculated what each state’s co-pay would cost if it was charged to free-world patients making the minimum wage. Our analysis revealed that fourteen states charge co-pay amounts equivalent to charging minimum wage workers over $200.

Graph showing how much minimum wage earners in each state would pay if a single co-pay took as many hours to earn as a co-pay charged to an incarcerated person does. The average equivalent co-pay is about $200 and in West Virginia, it's over $1,000. Policy details and sourcing information can be found in the Appendix of our original analysis.

Charging co-pays to incarcerated people to shore up a state’s correctional budget is simply wrong. In our analysis, we explained that not only does this policy squeeze poor people and their families; it hurts public health by making the choice to seek medical attention a costly one.

We’re glad to see that states are now paying attention and taking action:

  • Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker signed a bill in July eliminating the state’s $5 co-pay. Previously, people working in an Illinois state prison (where the minimum wage is 9 cents per hour) would have had to work for over 55 hours to afford the $5 fee. That’s like charging a non-incarcerated minimum-wage earner in Illinois over $460. In some cases, incarcerated people paid even more before getting adequate care, because paying the fee didn’t guarantee a doctor visit – only that a nurse would review one’s medical request.
  • Earlier this year, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation announced that it would stop charging a $5 medical co-pay to incarcerated people. CDCR’s press release acknowledged what advocates have long known: Charging co-pays is bad for public health. “Copayments,” it said, “may hinder patients from seeking care for issues which, without early detection and intervention, may become exacerbated.” The department’s decision came as the California legislature was considering AB 45, a bill to eliminate medical co-pays in both state prisons and county jails. AB 45 (for which we wrote a letter of support) continues to move through the state legislature.
  • The Texas legislature stopped short of eliminating medical co-pays in prisons entirely, but made progress by replacing the notorious $100 fee Texas had charged incarcerated people with a $13.55 per-visit fee. While this change marks a substantial improvement, incarcerated people in Texas – who earn nothing for their labor – will continue to be charged the highest medical co-pay in state prisons nationwide.

State reforms like these can’t come soon enough. As we noted in our 2017 analysis, out-of-reach co-pays in prisons and jails have two inevitable and dangerous consequences. First, when sick people avoid the doctor, disease is more likely to spread to others in the facility – and into the community, when people are released before being treated. Second, illnesses are likely to worsen as long as people avoid the doctor, which means more aggressive (and expensive) treatment when they can no longer go without it.

It’s welcome news that states are finally taking action to change this risky and regressive policy. Will your state be next?


Women make up a growing share of incarcerated populations, and they have different needs than justice-involved men. Accordingly, some prison systems have begun to implement gender-responsive policies and programs. But what happens after release?

by Wendy Sawyer, July 19, 2019

Given the dramatic growth of women’s incarceration in recent years, it’s concerning how little attention and how few resources have been directed to meeting the reentry needs of justice-involved women. After all, we know that women have different pathways to incarceration than men, and distinct needs, including the treatment of past trauma and substance use disorders, and more broadly, escaping poverty and meeting the needs of their children and families. In recognition of these differences, and in an effort to reduce the harms of incarceration and the likelihood of re-incarceration, many prison systems have begun to implement gender-responsive policies and programs. But what’s being done to help women get the support they need to rebuild their lives after release?

A handful of programs have sprung up in communities around the country to meet the needs of women returning home: some founded by formerly incarcerated women themselves, some running on shoestring budgets for years, and all underscoring the need for greater capacity to meet the demand of over 81,000 releases from prison and 1.8 million releases from jail each year.

Map of US states showing the number of women released from state prisons each year. Nationally, over 81,000 women are released from state prisons annually. Women make up 1 in 8 individuals released from state prisons each year, but the numbers vary widely between states. The additional 1.8 million women released from local jails annually are not shown on this map, because not all states have data available for jail releases, and in most states, a significant portion of reported releases are missing data on sex. See the table below for the available jail data.

Sources and data notes: Bureau of Justice Statistics National Corrections Reporting Program: 1991-2016, Selected Variables, Prison Releases and, for Vermont, CSAT-Prisoners Custom tables, Count of total releases. Data for all states are from 2016 except for New Mexico (2015), North Dakota (2015), and Oregon (2013).

Annual releases of women from state prisons and local jails

Prisons Jails Prisons & Jails combined
State Women released Percentage of all prison releases Women released* Percentage of all jail releases* Women released* Percentage of all releases*
Alabama 2,013 14% 39,740 18% 41,753 18%
Alaska 2,181 22% 510 14% 2,691 20%
Arizona 2,707 14% 46,162 23% 48,869 22%
Arkansas 4,456 15% 27,322 14% 31,778 15%
California 2,495 7% 186,571 20% 189,066 20%
Colorado 1,178 13% 44,204 24% 45,382 23%


Connecticut 1,281 13% n/a n/a n/a n/a
Delaware 1,749 19% n/a n/a n/a n/a
Florida 3,670 12% 121,336 19% 125,006 18%
Georgia 1,931 11% 84,398 18% 86,329 18%
Hawaii 141 14% n/a n/a n/a n/a
Idaho 931 21% 11,323 22% 12,254 22%
Illinois 2,190 8% 33,875 12% 36,065 11%
Indiana 2,087 14% 27,520 11% 29,607 11%
Iowa 865 16% 25,998 22% 26,863 22%
Kansas 1,012 16% 24,640 17% 25,652 17%
Kentucky 3,563 21% 104,403 23% 107,966 23%
Louisiana 1,853 11% 45,935 16% 47,788 16%
Maine 159 13% 5,422 27% 5,581 26%
Maryland 756 8% 27,711 17% 28,467 17%
Massachusetts 738 26% 4,323 6% 5,061 7%
Michigan 959 9% 51,240 17% 52,199 17%
Minnesota 898 11% 36,230 20% 37,128 20%
Mississippi 965 12% 17,207 17% 18,172 17%
Missouri 3,454 18% 36,395 16% 39,849 16%
Montana 154 13% 7,755 20% 7,909 20%
Nebraska 321 14% 16,902 24% 17,223 24%
Nevada 816 14% 34,374 23% 35,190 23%
New Hampshire 240 15% 5,732 26% 5,972 25%
New Jersey 563 6% 18,037 13% 18,600 13%
New Mexico 502 14% 20,171 21% 20,673 20%
New York 1,551 7% 28,241 15% 29,792 14%
North Carolina 2,411 12% 65,085 16% 67,496 15%
North Dakota 306 20% 3,857 13% 4,163 13%
Ohio 3,521 14% 79,848 20% 83,369 20%
Oklahoma 1,724 16% 23,453 14% 25,177 14%
Oregon 639 12% 38,292 22% 38,931 22%
Pennsylvania 2,374 9% 34,698 18% 37,072 17%
Rhode Island 326 10% n/a n/a n/a n/a
South Carolina 1,065 12% 45,045 14% 46,110 14%
South Dakota 447 18% 14,011 25% 14,458 24%
Tennessee 2,478 17% 94,544 24% 97,022 24%
Texas 12,453 16% 145,430 14% 157,883 14%
Utah 540 15% 14,165 16% 14,705 16%
Vermont 280 16% n/a n/a n/a n/a
Virginia 1,771 14% 51,266 18% 53,037 18%
Washington 948 12% 62,503 23% 63,451 23%
West Virginia 583 17% 11,201 24% 11,784 24%
Wisconsin 835 9% 34,906 18% 35,741 17%
Wyoming 149 14% 2,580 8% 2,729 9%
National 81,229 13% 1,854,561 18% 1,935,790 18%
*Note: The numbers in this table represent the minimum number and percentages of jail releases that are women. The actual numbers are probably greater, because a significant number of releases reported in the Census of Jails, 2013 are missing data on sex. (Nationally, 15% of all release records were missing this data.) The percentages of releases that are women, as reported in this table, were calculated based on the total number of jail releases, including those with no data on sex.

Sources and data notes: For prison releases, data are from the Bureau of Justice Statistics National Corrections Reporting Program, except for Vermont, which did not report release data by sex to NCRP. Vermont’s prison release data comes from BJS’ CSAT-Prisoners tool, and only includes releases of individuals sentenced to more than 1 year. Prison release data are from 2016 for all states except New Mexico (2015), North Dakota (2015), and Oregon (2013). Jail data are from the BJS Census of Jails, 2013, and are not available for 5 states (Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Rhode Island, and Vermont) where the jail system is entirely integrated into the state prison system. In Alaska, there are a small number of locally operated jails not part of the state system, so available data reflect only the locally operated jails and not the entire jail population.

In 2016, about 81,000 women were released from state prisons nationwide, and women and girls accounted for at least 1.8 million releases from local jails in 2013 (the last year all jails were surveyed). While many people are released from jail within a day or so and may not need reentry support, jail releases can’t be overlooked, especially for women, who are more likely than men to be incarcerated in jails as opposed to prisons. (Moreover, jails typically provide fewer programs and services than prisons, so individuals released from jails are even less likely to have received necessary treatment or services while incarcerated than those in prison.)

Those figures mean that nationally, about 1 in 8 (13%) of all individuals released from state prisons – and more than 1 in 6 (18%) jail releases – are women. In 20 states, at least 1 in 5 (20%) individuals released from any incarceration (either prison or jail) is female. Fully half of all states release at least 1,000 women from prison annually; in Texas, it’s over 12,000 women per year.

As in other stages of the criminal justice system, most post-release policies and programs were created with the much larger male population in mind. But research makes clear that women returning home have “a significantly higher need for services than men,” and that reentry supports should be responsive to the particular needs of justice-involved women:

  • Economic marginalization and poverty: As we’ve previously shown, formerly incarcerated women (especially women of color) have much higher rates of unemployment and homelessness, and are less likely to have a high school education, compared to formerly incarcerated men. These findings help explain why, in a 2012 National Institute of Justice (NIJ) study, 79% of women interviewed 30 days pre-release cited “employment, education, and life skills services” as their greatest area of need (followed closely by transition services). An earlier study (Holtfreder et al., 2004), found that poverty is the strongest predictor of recidivism among women, and “providing state‐sponsored support to address short‐term needs (e.g., housing) reduces the odds of recidivism by 83%” for poor women on probation and parole.
  • Housing: A 2017 Prisoner Reentry Institute (PRI) report identified homelessness and the lack of stable housing as the biggest problem facing women in the New York City justice system, noting that 80% of women at Rikers said they needed assistance finding housing upon discharge. A 2006 California study found that 75% of formerly incarcerated women surveyed had experienced homelessness as some point, and 41% were currently homeless. Women who can’t secure safe housing may return to abusive partners or family situations for housing and financial reasons – a point echoed in interviews with paroled women in a study by Brown and Bloom.
  • Trauma and gendered pathways to incarceration: The PRI report emphasizes the importance of gender-responsive and trauma-informed interventions for reducing recidivism among women. According to that report, such interventions should: provide a safe, respectful environment; promote healthy relationships; address substance use, trauma, and mental health issues; provide women with opportunities to improve their socioeconomic conditions; establish “comprehensive and collaborative” community services; and prioritize women’s empowerment.
  • Family reunification: Most incarcerated women are mothers, and are frequently the primary caretakers of their children. The importance of family reunification – noted throughout the literature, by Carter et al. (2006), Brown and Bloom (2009), Wright, et al. (2012), the NIJ (2012), among others – cannot be overstated, especially given the trauma experienced by children when separated from a parent.

While the complexity of women’s reentry needs can be daunting, there are successful models in operation demonstrating how states, counties, and communities can best serve them. Notably, A New Way of Life Reentry Project operates eight houses in Los Angeles and is working toward expanding its model nationally. The program offers wraparound services including transitional housing, case management, and legal services to support women as they navigate reentry. Staff support women from initial reentry tasks like obtaining ID cards and applying for public assistance all the way through the process of regaining custody of children and finding permanent housing. Similar programs offering wraparound services exist in other cities, such as the Ladies of Hope Ministry’s Hope House in New York City; the Center for Women in Transition in St. Louis; and Angela House in Houston, which also provides programming tailored “to the health and psychosocial needs of women recovering from sexual exploitation.”

Frustratingly, despite their success, these programs lack the funding and capacity to serve all of the women who desperately need them: Angela House notes on its website that it can only serve 12 to 14 women at a time, but receives more than 300 applications every year. Unless state governments and federal agencies take action to grow the capacity of these service providers, hundreds of thousands of women every year will leave prison or jail without the resources they need to succeed. As lawmakers increasingly call for policy changes to help women in prison, they must not ignore the massive gap between the need and availability of women’s reentry programs.

A detailed spreadsheet including release data for both men and women is available on our Data Toolbox page.


"Women’s experiences with the criminal justice system serve to highlight the faults of the whole system," our Legal Director explained to members of the House Judiciary Committee.

by Wanda Bertram, July 17, 2019

Yesterday, our Legal Director, Aleks Kajstura, spoke to members of the House Judiciary Committee at a hearing about the mass incarceration of women and girls. “Today’s hearing begins a discussion about women in the criminal justice system,” said subcommittee chair Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA). “After decades of policies that led to mass incarceration, we are finally at a point of examining the policies and the consequences.”

Testifying alongside Piper Kerman, Jesselyn McCurdy, Cynthia Shank and Patrice Onwuka, Kajstura spoke about the urgency of reducing women’s incarceration. She highlighted a few of the most alarming data points from our research on women and gender, including:

  • The U.S. is home to only 5% of the world’s female population, but accounts for nearly 30% of the world’s incarcerated women.
  • 1 in 4 incarcerated women have not even been convicted.
  • In a number of states, women’s prison populations are growing faster than men’s; in others, women’s prison populations are growing even as men’s are declining.
  • 3 out of 4 women under correctional control are on probation, a system that sets up women – and particularly mothers – to fail.

graph comparing the U.S. to other founding NATO countries on rates of women's incarceration.

Despite this unacceptable status quo, the hearing sent a hopeful message: Lawmakers across the aisle are finally paying attention to women’s mass incarceration. “It is critical that we understand how and why women become involved in the system, what happens to them when they are incarcerated, and what their trajectory is once released,” said Bass.

Watch the full hearing here – jump to 1:03:00 for Kajstura’s testimony: https://judiciary.house.gov/legislation/hearings/women-and-girls-criminal-justice-system


13 states in the hottest parts of the country lack universal A/C in their prisons. We explain the consequences.

by Alexi Jones, June 18, 2019

Air conditioning has become nearly universal across the South over the last 30 years, with one exception: in prisons. Although 95% of households in the South use air conditioning, including 90% of households that make below $20,000 per year,1 states around the South have refused to install air conditioning in their prisons, creating unbearable and dangerous conditions for incarcerated people.

13 famously hot states lack universal A/C in their prisons

While there are no national statistics on air conditioning in prison, we found that at least 13 states in the hottest regions of the country lack universal air conditioning in their prisons:

  • Alabama
  • Arizona
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • Kansas
  • Kentucky
  • Louisiana
  • Mississippi
  • Missouri
  • North Carolina
  • South Carolina
  • Texas
  • Virginia

For more information on these states, see the appendix.

The lack of air conditioning in Southern prisons creates unsafe—even lethal—conditions. Prolonged exposure to extreme heat can cause dehydration and heat stroke, both of which can be fatal. It can also affect people’s kidneys, liver, heart, brain, and lungs, which can lead to renal failure, heart attack, and stroke.

Many people in prison are especially susceptible to heat-related illness, as they have certain health conditions or medications that make them especially vulnerable to the heat. Conditions such as diabetes and obesity can limit people’s ability to regulate their body heat, as can high blood pressure medications and most psychotropic medications (including Zoloft, Lexapro, Prozac, Cymbalta, and more but excluding the benzodiazepines). Old age also increases risk of heat-related illness, and respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses, such as asthma, are exacerbated by heat.

In Texas, a state that has air conditioning in all inmate housing areas in only 30 of its 109 prisons, a high percentage of incarcerated people are particularly vulnerable to heat:

A chart showing the percentage of people incarcerated in Texas with taking high blood pressure medication, psychiatric medication, asthma, and diabetes

The structure of prisons and prison life can also make incarcerated people more vulnerable to heat. Prisons are mostly built from heat-retaining materials which can increase internal prison temperatures. Because of this, the temperatures inside prisons can often exceed outdoor temperatures. Moreover, people in prison do not have the same cooling options that people on the outside do. As Prison Legal News explains in a 2018 article on prison air conditioning litigation, “people outside of prison who experience extreme heat have options that prisoners often lack – they can take a cool shower, drink cold water, move into the shade or go to a place that is air conditioned. For prisoners, those options are generally unavailable.” Even fans can even be inaccessible. For example, despite the fact that incarcerated people in Texas are not paid for their labor, purchasing a fan from the Texas prison commissary costs an unaffordable $20.

The lack of air conditioning in prisons has already had fatal consequences. In 2011, an exceptionally hot summer in Texas, 10 incarcerated people died from heat-related illnesses during a month-long heat wave. (It’s just not incarcerated people who get sick from the heat in the state’s prisons. In August 2018, 19 prison staff and incarcerated people had to be treated for heat-related illnesses.) As David Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union National Prison Project, explained to The Intercept, “Everyone understands that if you leave a child in a car on a hot day, there’s a serious risk this child could be injured or die. And that’s exactly what we’re doing when we leave prisoners locked in cells when the heat and humidity climb beyond a certain level.”

Courts in Wisconsin, Arizona, and Mississippi have ruled that incarceration in extremely hot or cold temperatures violates the Eighth Amendment. But these court cases have not had a national impact on air conditioning in prisons. As Alice Speri of The Intercept explains, “There’s no national standard for temperatures in prisons and jails, and as jurisdiction over prisons is decentralized among states and the federal system, and jurisdiction over jails is even more fragmented among thousands of local authorities across the country, fights over excessive heat in detention can only be waged facility by facility.” As a result, incarcerated people in the South are subjected to unbearable conditions that violate their basic human and constitutional rights. Benny Hernandez, an incarcerated man in Texas, describes how torturous heat gets in prisons: “It routinely feels as if one’s sitting in a convection oven being slowly cooked alive. There is no respite from the agony that the heat in Texas prisons inflicts.”

Refusing to install air conditioning is a matter not just of short-term cost savings, but of appearing tough on crime. State and local governments go to astonishing lengths to avoid installing air conditioning in prisons. In 2016, Louisiana spent over $1 million in legal bills in an attempt to avoid installing air conditioning on death row, an amount four times higher than the actual cost of installing air conditioning, according to an expert witness. Similarly, in 2014, the people of Jefferson Parish, LA only voted to build a new jail after local leaders promised there would be no air conditioning.

With air conditioning nearly universal in the South, air conditioning should not be considered a privilege or amenity, but rather a human right. States and counties that deny air conditioning to incarcerated people should understand that, far from withholding a “luxury,” they are subjecting people to cruel and unusual punishments, and even handing out death sentences.

Footnotes

  1. The U.S. Energy Information Administration’s 2015 Residential Energy Consumption Survey has data on air conditioning use by income and geographical region. This Agency uses the Census Bureau’s definition of the South: Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas, and Oklahoma plus Washington D.C. Nationwide, air conditioning usage is slightly lower than in just the South, with 87% of households (and 80% of people making below $20,000 per year) using air conditioning nationwide. .  ↩

 

Appendix

Examining local and national news stories, we identified 12 states in the South and Midwest that lack universal air conditioning and identified only Arkansas as having universal air conditioning.

State Air Conditioning?
Alabama Prisons in Alabama do not have air conditioning. (Source)
Arizona Many prisons in Arizona lack air conditioning. (Source)
Arkansas Prisons have had air conditioning since the 1970s. (Source)
Florida State run prisons do not have air conditioning, but private prisons in the state do have air conditioning. (Source)
Georgia Most prisons have air conditioning, but some do not. (Source)
Kansas Most prisons do not have air conditioning. 70 percent of incarcerated people are in buildings without air conditioning. (Source)
Kentucky Most prisons do not have air conditioning. (Source)
Louisiana Most prisons do not have air conditioning. (Source)
Mississippi Most inmate housing in Mississippi has no air conditioning. (Source)
Missouri Some prisons lack universal air conditioning. (Source)
North Carolina Most prisons have air conditioning, but 10 facilities do not. (Source)
South Carolina Most prisons have air conditioning, but some facilities do not. (Source)
Texas 30 of the 109 state prisons in Texas have air conditioning in all housing areas. (This is despite the fact county jails in the state are statutorily required keep their temperatures between 65 and 85 degrees). (Source)
Virginia Half of prisons have no air conditioning. (Source)

 


As more jails ban face-to-face visits in favor of paid video chats, a growing number of people in jail are being cut off from their families when the technology breaks down.

by Sarah Watson, June 18, 2019

Jails are increasingly replacing in person visits with video calls. This high-tech fad goes against the recommendations of the American Correctional Association, the American Bar Association, and even the Department of Justice’s National Institute of Corrections. These jails ignore the many problems we’ve documented, such as high costs for families, poor quality of the systems and the loss of human contact. But there’s another liability that jails now have to consider: What happens when their shiny new technology fails?

Their vendors — who provide the systems for free in exchange for charging high rates to the families — will say that their technology is perfect. As every person who owns a computer knows, however, technology is not flawless, and these systems do fail — sometimes keeping people in jail from contacting their families for weeks at a time:

We surveyed recent news stories about video systems breaking in jails that had chosen to replace traditional in-person visits with the technology.
County State Time Down Year Details Source
Shelby County Jail (Memphis) Tennessee 2 weeks 2019 The vendor (GTL) cut a fiber optic cable Source
Virginia Beach Correctional Center Virginia 3 months 2018 Jail typically averages 4,000 visits a month Source1 Source2
Williams County Correctional Center North Dakota 2 months 2017 System updates originally brought the system down, then it was discovered the upgrade was incompatible with the old equipment Source
Milwaukee County Jail Wisconsin At least one month 2013-2014 Visual went down leaving only audio Source
Boone County Jail Arkansas “months” 2018 Either a lightning strike or a software glitch brought the system down, administrators were not sure which was the cause. Source
Volusia County Branch Jail Florida One month 2017 Lightning struck an integral part of the visitation system. It took multiple technicians to conclude the entire system needed to be replaced. Source
Pontotoc County Justice Center Oklahoma Three weeks 2017 Visitation went down due to a “computer issue.” Source
Madison County Detention Center (Huntsville) Alabama >2 weeks 2017 Planned system updates meant visits were suspended. Source
Montgomery County Detention Facility Alabama About a week 2018 “Technical Issues” disrupted visitation as the jail waited for a replacement machine. Source
Olmsted County Adult Detention Center (Rochester) Minnesota 1 day 2018 The visitation system crashed, leaving visitors unable to schedule a visit or see their loved ones. The sheriff also confirmed the system sometimes goes down due to weather conditions as well. Source
Ada County Jail Idaho 2019 Ada County Jail experiences consistent technical issues. One visitor to Ada County Jail recalled, “It didn’t work half the time. You’d have to call to see if [the system] was down.” Source
Mecklenburg County Jail (Charlotte) North Carolina 2017 Frequent problems and system outages caused prisoners to miss their visits. “The video chat would go in and out. Sometimes half the screen would be cut off, and sometimes they wouldn’t work at all,” a former prisoner remembered. “You wouldn’t even get your visitation; you would have to wait until the next week, because even though the system was down, they would not make up the visitation you missed.” Source

The good news is that counties are starting to take notice of the downsides to video calling. Most recently, the sheriff of Mecklenburg County, North Carolina (see table above) fulfilled a 2018 campaign promise to reinstate in-person visits, on the grounds that video should be used in addition to in person visits, not as a substitute.

“Allowing our residents to stay connected to family and loved ones through in-person visits improves public safety,” Sheriff McFadden explained. “This simple step alone has been shown to significantly lower the chances that a person will commit another crime after they get out. It also reduces the chance a person will commit an infraction inside the jail which could adversely impact their release. In addition, it improves mental health outcomes and strengthens family units and community ties.”

Mecklenburg County had the right idea. When this technology works, it should be considered a supplement to in-person visits, not a substitute; and when the technology fails, it’s useless. Instead of investing in flawed technology, jails should be looking for more ways to increase traditional methods of family contact.


The Democratic candidates are missing an opportunity to pitch sweeping criminal justice reform as an economic justice issue.

by Wanda Bertram, June 12, 2019

Multiple Democratic presidential candidates have staked their campaigns on promises to fight for economic justice and protect low-income people from ruin. So it’s mysterious and frustrating that none of these candidates have proposed to end our justice system’s criminalization of poverty – at least beyond the occasional nod to ending money bail.

These candidates are missing an opportunity. The incomes of people in U.S. prisons and local jails are overwhelmingly low, and one in two American adults has had a close relative incarcerated, meaning that a candidate who understands the criminalization of poverty could propose transformative reforms and speak to a huge number of voters. In particular, candidates are missing an opportunity to speak to Black voters, who are hit hardest by policies that punish poor people.

To be sure, many Democratic candidates have alluded to economic inequality in connection with criminal justice reform — and Bernie Sanders even uses the phrase “criminalizing poverty” on his campaign website — but I’ve seen no indication that any of the candidates can speak to either the specifics or the scale of this problem. Candidates must go beyond criticizing money bail, and promise to end the unequal treatment of poor people at every stage of the justice process:

 

1. End poverty-related arrests and jail bookings. Far too many Americans who can’t afford housing, drug treatment or mental health services are instead arrested on minor charges related to their homelessness or illness. Many others end up in jail because they can’t afford burdensome fines and fees. An unfortunate downstream effect is jail overcrowding, which leads counties – largely in rural areas – to spend public money on harmful jail expansion rather than social welfare.

Presidential candidates should commit to helping state and local governments shift their priorities, making it easier to support low-income people and harder to jail them:

 

2. Guarantee poor people equal justice before trial. Two major injustices — pretrial detention and lack of access to counsel — ensure that low-income people are disproportionately convicted. Pretrial detention doesn’t just make defendants more likely to plead guilty; it also puts them at risk of losing their jobs and homes, and imposes huge costs on their families, before they’re ever convicted.

Candidates should promise to:

  • Ensure that local public defender systems are fully funded, that they no longer charge co-pays to defendants, and that counsel is guaranteed at any hearing that could result in detention.
  • Incentivize counties to drastically reduce pretrial detention by ending commercial money bail, and replacing it with release on recognizance, unsecured bonds, and other alternatives.
  • Use the power of the Federal Communications Commission to regulate the cost of phone calls from jail, which can strain public defenders’ resources, not to mention those of family members.
  • Subsidize county-level pretrial services to help low-income people make their court dates, such as text reminders and free childcare at court.

 

3. Stop forcing low-income families to subsidize the prison system. When someone goes to prison, their loved ones become their source of financial support. The financial pressure on these families grows when prisons fail to provide basic services, often driving families into debt. It shouldn’t be on relatives — disproportionately women — to pay for phone calls, medical care, nutritious food and educational resources for those behind bars, often when they’ve just lost a breadwinner.

Presidential candidates should commit to paying for incarcerated people’s needs to lift this burden on families:

 

4. Protect people from going back to prison just because they’re poor. Incarcerated people who come from under-resourced neighborhoods tend to return to those same neighborhoods after prison, now saddled with criminal records and far poorer than before.

Presidential candidates should avoid old narratives about how more surveillance, monitoring and job training are needed to “reduce recidivism” among people leaving prison. Instead, they should call the reentry process what it is: a period of extreme vulnerability that mostly affects impoverished people, and that can’t be improved without serious investments in formerly incarcerated people’s welfare. They should commit to:

  • Identify the communities to which most formerly incarcerated people return, and subsidize additional low-income housing, drug treatment and mental health services in those communities.
  • Help states create Departments of Reentry that connect people nearing release to permanent housing, medical care, and other resources.
  • Incentivize states to pass laws expanding criminal record expungement, including automatic expungement for people convicted of minor offenses.
  • End the harmful restrictions on association that prohibit formerly incarcerated people from helping each other rebuild their lives.
  • Restore welfare benefits, including housing assistance, to people with criminal records.
  • Urge states to abolish probation and parole fees, including fees for ankle monitors. End so-called “pay-only” probation schemes, which extract fees without providing any “services” at all.
  • Incentivize states to “ban the box” on job applications, and to end restrictions on occupational licenses that lock people with criminal records out of good jobs.
  • Expand federal tax benefits for businesses that hire people with criminal records.
  • Incentivize states to end laws suspending driver’s licenses for non-driving offenses.

To be sure, there are many other policy changes that could help end the criminalization of poverty; this list is only a starting point. But it should be alarming that most of these policy options have gone unmentioned by any presidential candidate. Until the candidates commit to ending our criminal justice system’s abuse of poor people from arrest to release (and afterwards), their visions for economic justice won’t be complete.









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