After more than a decade of research and advocacy to end the harmful effects of mass incarceration, the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) continues to reach new heights. Throughout its history, PPI has relied on volunteers and interns to gather research information and to analyze and produce reports that raise awareness for policy makers and the public. Now the organization is branching out, according to its 2014-2015 annual report.
“This year, we’ve finally grown to the point where we can create a new network that allows less frequent but more focused contributions from working people throughout the country,” writes PPI Executive Director Peter Wagner in the report.
In a study on the racial geography of mass incarceration PPI exposes how gerrymandering gives undue voting representation to those living near prisons. That’s because the Census Bureau counts prisoners based on where they are confined instead of their home county.
“We hope these campaigns will encourage other states to address the problem of prison gerrymandering and compel the Census Bureau to implement a standard, national solution,” said Alison Walsh, PPI’s Policy and Communications Associate.
In its study, Prisons of Poverty, PPI unveiled the pre-incarceration incomes of prisoners to show how they are “shut out of the economy even before they are incarcerated,” writes Wagner, adding that this data was made accessible by data scientist Daniel Kopf.
In recent years PPI has worked to bring fairness to the phone rates that family and friends must pay to stay in touch with prisoners while they are confined.
“Recognizing yet another way that mass incarceration punishes entire communities, we’ve made it a priority to help the FCC understand and regulate this previously hidden market,” PPI reported.
“Since we published our annual report, the Federal Communications Commission has approved new fee limits and a rate cap” on interstate calls, said Walsh. New protections are expected to extend to intra-state calls.
“We are also working with criminal justice and immigration advocates in California to encourage the use of video technology to supplement, not replace, in-person visits,” said Walsh.
In the report Screening Out Family Time by Policy and Communications Associate Bernadette Rabuy and Wagner, PPI revealed how video visitation is used to discontinue human contact with those who are incarcerated.
PPI research provided a comprehensive national survey of the video visitation industry and held the industry’s alleged benefits up to the scrutiny of families of the incarcerated. The first year of its campaign to protect in-person visits produced many victories.
“Bernadette’s January report has transformed this industry, empowering families and facilities to fight back against bad contracts,” said Wagner.
PPI has also joined forces with attorney Stephen Raher, said Wagner, “to take on another expanding predatory industry.” According to Wagner, prepaid release cards are being issued when someone leaves jail or prison. If they are due money, instead of receiving a check or cash they are given prepaid MasterCards that come with “exorbitant fees.”
|“Bernadette’s January report has transformed this industry,
empowering families and facilities to fight back against bad contracts”|
“These cards charge some of the poorest people in this country,” said Wagner. “That’s just unconscionable.” He said Raher’s research caught the attention of the media and was “the core of our letter to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau calling for regulation.”
Other issues covered in the report include sentencing enhancement zones that restrict where the formerly incarcerated may reside, as well as driver’s license suspension for those convicted of drug crimes having nothing to do with driving. The report also addresses the practice of some jails halting letters to inmates.
“Controversial Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio began a misguided trend in 2007 when he banned families from sending letters to loved ones in jail, requiring personal correspondence to take place on postcards,” PPI reported.
“Most recently, we analyzed Bureau of Justice Statistics data finding there is a national crisis of suicide in local jails, a problem far more prevalent in jails than in state prisons or the US,” PPI reported.
PPI is expanding its reach to reveal how mass incarceration at local, state and national levels continues to erode sociological conditions in the US. In this era of Black Lives Matter, it analyzed Gallup’s public opinion surveys that reveal how people feel about law enforcement.
“American confidence in police has reached a 22-year low,” PPI reported. “Black Americans consistently report having less confidence than whites in the police.”
According to PPI’s annual report, it produces original research and edits multiple databases “to empower activists, journalists and policy makers to shape effective criminal justice policy.”
The idea to start PPI came from a group of students (which included attorney Peter Wagner) in 2001. “We are also enormously grateful to the small network of generous individuals who sustain our work,” the report said. Its website can be accessed at www.prisonpolicy.org.