By Marcus Henderson
When it comes to jail and prison procedures, the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI), an advocacy organization in Northampton, MA, has led the way in fighting for real changes in policies that affect the well-being of inmates.
In its 2015-16 annual report, PPI celebrated successes. The organization led a campaign for legislation that would protect in-person visits in California jails and juvenile facilities (SB 1157).
The bill passed both chambers after Bernadette Rabuy, senior policy analyst, traveled to California to testify before the Senate Public Safety Committee. However, Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed the bill.
“We are working with our allies on other strategies to protect visitation in California,” Peter Wagner, PPI Executive Director, wrote in the report.
Regarding inmate telephone calls, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approved a series of historic regulations to reduce costs after PPI exposed big corporate phone companies’ attempts to exploit loopholes.
The phone companies went to the courts to fight the regulations and won a temporary stay on part of the order, but some rate-reduction parts went in to effect on schedule.
“We’re continuing to support the FCC by supplying much-needed research on this billion-dollar industry,” the report stated.
PPI also challenged the way electronic communications, electronic messaging and emails are handled in prisons. Prisons can charge up to $1.25 for a one-way and limited-length single message. That’s three times more costly than a first class letter.
“We hope the FCC will take on this industry after they fully address the prison telephone industry,” the report expressed.
PPI challenged states around the nation that have or try to introduce postcard-only policies for its jails in an attempt to eliminate letters in regular envelopes.
PPI released two reports Return to Sender: Postcard-Only Mail Policies in Jails and Protecting Written Family Communication in Jails: A 50-State Survey.
The reports played a role in a successful campaign against a letter ban in the Santa Barbara County jail. In September 2014 the jail announced that incarcerated people would once again be allowed to receive letters from family and friends.
These reports “serve as a tool against future letter bans by identifying the agencies that oversee jail mail standards in each state and spelling out their policies on written communication,” the report stated.
Sheriffs in Macomb County, Mich., and Flagler County, Fla., agreed to lift postcard-only policies. Lawsuits are underway challenging postcard-only policies in Knox County, Tenn., and Wilson County, Kansas.
PPI made major steps toward convincing the U.S. Census Bureau to count incarcerated people as residents of their home addresses in the 2020 Census to fight prison gerrymandering.
“The way the Census Bureau counts incarcerated people labels many prison-hosting counties as diverse when they are, in reality, anything but,” the report stated.
“We organized 100,000 people to call on the Census Bureau to end prison gerrymandering. The Census Bureau published two Federal Register notices about prison gerrymandering. Ninety-six percent of the comments submitted in the summer of 2015 were supportive of reform.” The summer of 2016 comments have yet to be published by the bureau, PPI noted.
PPI challenged a federal policy that requires states to automatically suspend the driver’s licenses of people convicted of drug offenses. The District of Columbia and 12 other states still suspend driver’s licenses for any type of drug offense — even if the offense has nothing to do with operating a vehicle or road safety.
“We’re making sure the remaining states have the information they need to repeal this costly and counterintuitive law,” PPI said.
The Prison Policy Initiative was formed with two goals in mind: first, to achieve real change on specific criminal justice reform issues, Wagner wrote. And second, to make the larger point that the harm of mass criminalization extends far beyond the people who are locked up.