Who Pays? Impact of Incarceration on Families

The Ella Baker Center‘s recent report, titled Who Pays? The True Cost of Incarceration on Families employed trained community researchers who reached directly into communities in 14 states, probing into the financial costs faced when a family member goes to jail or prison, the resulting effects on physical and mental health, and the challenges and barriers encountered by all when an individual returns home. The research included surveys with 712 formerly incarcerated people, 368 family members of the formerly incarcerated, 27 employers, and 34 focus groups with family members and individuals impacted by incarceration.

The key findings of the report are as follows (to read the full report, click here):

People with convictions are saddled with copious fees, fines, and debt at the same time that their economic opportunities are diminished, resulting in a lack of economic stability and mobility. Forty-eight percent of families in our survey overall were unable to afford the costs associated with a conviction, while among poor families (making less than $15,000 per year), 58% were unable to afford these costs. Sixty-seven percent of formerly incarcerated individuals associated with our survey were still unemployed or underemployed five years after their release.

Many families lose income when a family member is removed from household wage earning and struggle to meet basic needs while paying fees, supporting their loved one financially, and bearing the costs of keeping in touch. Nearly 2 in 3 families (65%) with an incarcerated member were unable to meet their family’s basic needs. Fortynine percent struggled with meeting basic food needs and 48% had trouble meeting basic housing needs because of the financial costs of having an incarcerated loved one.

Women bear the brunt of the costs—both financial and emotional—of their loved one’s incarceration. In 63% of cases, family members on the outside were primarily responsible for court-related costs associated with conviction. Of the family members primarily responsible for these costs, 83% were women.

In addition, families incur large sums of debt due to their experience with incarceration. Across respondents of all income brackets, the average debt incurred for court-related fines and fees alone was $13,607, almost one year’s entire annual income for respondents who earn less than $15,000 per year.

Despite their often-limited resources, families are the primary resource for housing, employment, and health needs of their formerly incarcerated loved ones, filling the gaps left by diminishing budgets for reentry services. Two-thirds (67%) of respondents’ families helped them find housing. Nearly one in five families (18%) involved in our survey faced eviction, were denied housing, or did not qualify for public housing once their formerly incarcerated family member returned. Reentry programs, nonprofits, and faith-based organizations combined did not provide housing and other support at the levels that families did.

Incarceration damages familial relationships and stability by separating people from their support systems, disrupting continuity of families, and causing lifelong health impacts that impede families from thriving. The high cost of maintaining contact with incarcerated family members led more than one in three families (34%) into debt to pay for phone calls and visits alone. Family members who were not able to talk or visit with their loved ones regularly were much more likely to report experiencing negative health impacts related to a family member’s incarceration.

The stigma, isolation, and trauma associated with incarceration have direct impacts across families and communities. Of the people surveyed, about one in every two formerly incarcerated persons and one in every two family members experienced negative health impacts related to their own or a loved one’s incarceration. Families, including their incarcerated loved ones, frequently reported Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, nightmares, hopelessness, depression, and anxiety. Yet families have little institutional support for healing this trauma and becoming emotionally and financially stable during and post incarceration.

These impacts hit women of color and their families more substantially than others, deepening inequities and societal divides that have pushed many into the criminal justice system in the first place. Almost one in every four women and two of five Black women are related to someone who is incarcerated.4

Poverty, in particular, perpetuates the cycle of incarceration, while incarceration itself leads to greater poverty. Estimates report that nearly 40% of all crimes are directly attributable to poverty5 and the vast majority (80%) of incarcerated individuals are low-income.6 In fact about two-thirds of those in jail report incomes below the poverty line.7 The research in this report confirms that the financial costs of incarceration and the barriers to employment and economic mobility upon release further solidify the link between incarceration and poverty.

Most of all, this report’s collaborative research found that while supportive families and communities can help reduce recidivism rates, these bedrocks of support lack the necessary resources to help incarcerated individuals serve out their sentences and reenter society successfully. It is not enough to reform the criminal justice system without considering its purpose and impact on communities. Institutions with power must acknowledge the disproportionate impacts the current system has on women, low-income communities, and communities of color and address and redress the policies that got us here. Additionally, society as a whole must rethink our approach to accountability and rehabilitation, shift perceptions, and remove barriers that prevent formerly incarcerated individuals and their families from getting another chance at life.

Our Friends from the North: Canada’s Conservative Turn

As policymakers in the United States are rethinking the country’s reliance on mass incarceration, both from a fiscal and a humanistic perspective, disturbing trends in Canada merit some attention–both because they are interesting and disconcerting on their own, and because they provide an interesting comparison to the Nixon and Reagan years.

In The Harper Decade, our Canadian colleagues are examining the impact of the Harper administration on a variety of issues, ranging from public services to environmental protections. Their conclusion across all these areas: Canada has changed, and not for the better.

Of particular interest to us is Lisa Kerr and Anthony Doob’s excellent essay The Conservative Take on Crime Policy, which examines Canada’s punitive turn during the Harper years. Kerr and Doob write:

There is no question that Harper’s Conservatives have talked tough about criminal justice, departing from the more moderate tone that has characterized Canada’s history on this topic. Before Conservative rule, Canada had a long tradition of allowing criminal justice experts – like judges and prosecutors – to make decisions in ways that were largely insulated from politics.  One result is that Canada has been able to sustain a stable, moderate rate of imprisonment. Even during decades when violent crime was much higher across North America – when the US was busy generating the policies that would deliver its current situation of ‘mass imprisonment’ –  Canada relied on imprisonment comparatively sparingly. Since 1950, imprisonment rates have varied between about 81 and 116 adults per hundred thousand Canadian residents. In 2005 the rate was about 104. Currently it appears to be about 115.

This tone of moderation in crime policy has changed. With the Conservative politicization of the field of criminal justice we have seen an uptick in rates of imprisonment, an increase in the severity of the punishment experience, and a new reliance on crime as a salient topic with which to mobilize political support. Harper’s Conservatives have overseen decisions to close prison farms, fire prison chaplains, strip judges of sentencing discretion, and increase the use of solitary confinement. The overrepresentation of indigenous people in our jails and prisons – already a problem under past governments – has also become worse during Conservative rule.

Kerr and Doob identify three key areas of punitivism: rhetorical change, designed to sweep the public into a tough-on-crime ideology; consequential change, which targets especially people serving long sentences for violent crime by diminishing their hopes for parole; and unconstitutional change, which includes reforms that may be short-lived because of their unconstitutionality, but waste legislative time.

One important difference between the Nixon and Harper administrations is that Nixon’s election campaign at least relied on some objective grounds: the massive rise in violent crime. Even commentators who argue that Nixon exploited this development to introduce, top-down, a massive fear of crime and combat the civil rights movement, do not doubt these numbers. By contrast, Kerr and Doob note–

the peculiarity of a desire to reform the criminal justice system – or at least talk about reforming it – at a time when crime is in a longstanding state of decline.  Total crime in Canada peaked in the early 1990s and declined thereafter. Homicide rates peaked in 1977 at 3 per hundred thousand residents. In 2014, the rate was 1.46 homicide victims per hundred thousand residents. These patterns fit a larger story of peak and decline that has occurred in the United States and many other industrialized democracies. For well over a decade, Canada has been enjoying the same drop in crime as similarly situated nations. The causes of the drop in crime are not well understood.  What is known for certain, however, is that the drop in crime in Canada has little to do with criminal justice punishment policies. Indeed, Canada’s imprisonment rate was remarkably consistent in the decades before crime fell.

In that sense, Harper’s government may more easily be compared to the increased war on crime and drugs during the Reagan administration. In the 1980s, crime rates in the United States started falling, but punishment continued to increase. Most U.S. commentators do not find a significant causal relationship between mass incarceration and the drop in crime rates, attributing most of the decline to better policing, gun control, and a variety of unrelated factors such as age. But even this factor defies comparison: Even in the years in which crime peaked in Canada, incarceration rates did not change much.

I think that one key factor that has facilitated Harper’s rhetoric in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary is the fact that his conservative reforms, while senseless and damaging, are not–yet!–unsustainable. Canada was the only G-7 country that managed to avoid the financial crisis, and its recession was much milder than the U.S. recession. Here, the crisis acted as a catalyst of change, bringing together bipartisan allies to initiate cost-centered reforms. There will be many reasons for Canadians to regret Harper’s criminal justice policies for years to come, but they may not feel them for a long time because they won’t be hitting them in the wallets any time soon. But it’s also true that Canadian legislation in such matters is not as driven by financial and fiscal concerns as U.S. legislation, and it may be that, if enough Canadians are sick of Harper on October 19, much of this disturbing trend will go away.

What Does the Settlement in the Solitary Confinement Lawsuit Mean?

Almost a month ago we reported of a historic settlement ending Ashker v. Brown, the class action suit regarding conditions in solitary confinement. What remains is to figure out exactly what the settlement means. And who better to illuminate the matter than UC Irvine’s Keramet Reiter, an expert on solitary confinement and the editor of the recently published anthology Extreme Punishment?

In a recent blog post at Social Justice, Reiter argues that the settlement is a good first step, but there is plenty more to do:

The settlement attracted national attention and is still being celebrated by prisoners, their families, and legal advocates. Perhaps it will be a model for other states to reduce or eliminate prison conditions the United Nations has conclusively defined as torture. One settlement agreement, however, cannot sweep away decades of abusive prison policies. First, it is a settlement, not a legal opinion. At best, the settlement is a non-binding model of what other jurisdictions might attempt. Second, even though prison officials withdrew many of their claims about the dangerousness of SHU prisoners by agreeing to the provisions of the Ashker settlement, these beliefs have hardly been renounced. The genuine fear prison guards experience in coping with hunger strikes, managing mental illness, or dealing with prisoners like Hugo Pinell must be acknowledged and addressed, so that they are motivated to strategize to support, rather than resist, reform. Third, the data collection and monitoring associated with the settlement is scheduled to conclude in two years—and may never be made public in the first place. The practice of solitary confinement has historically been defined by discretion and invisibility, and is therefore hard to investigate, control, and reform. So the practice of solitary confinement could easily retreat back into the shadows in two years, absent longer-term requirements to institutionalize transparency. 

We plan to continue monitoring the post-Ashker developments.

Pope Francis to Visit Philadelphia Jail: From Domestic Triviality to Human Rights Crime

Pope Francis greets a refugee during mass at the Church of
the Gesu (Italy, 2013). Photo courtesy the Jesuit Refugee Service.

Among Pope Francis plans for his stay in Philadelphia is a visit to Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility.

Local activists are hoping that the visit will draw attention to the atrocious conditions in the jail, but that is not all. As Maurice Chammah writes in the Marshall Project:

Ironically, Curran-Fromhold was opened in 1995 in part to deal with overcrowding. But by 2001 the Philadelphia Inquirer was reporting the system could no longer “keep pace with arrests,” a problem, the newspaper noted, that had hit jails in Los Angeles, Indianapolis, and other large cities as police focused on making frequent arrests for low-level crimes. Many of the men and women arrested for these lesser crimes could not make bail, so they stayed. From 1999 to 2008, according to a study by the Pew Charitable Trusts, “the percentage of bed-days in the Philadelphia jails consumed by pretrial inmates on an annual basis rose from 44 percent of the total to 57 percent.” In 2009, the Philadelphia Prison System, designed to hold roughly 8,000 people, was holding more than 9,000. 

The numbers don’t capture how these jails feel, though. Lawsuits against the conditions at Curran-Fromhold have described how three prisoners are sometimes housed in cells designed for two. The odd man out sleeps in a plastic cot on the floor called a “blue boat.” One inmate, Everett Keith Thomas, scribbled on a handwritten federal complaint in October 2014, “I awakened to find mouse feces on my face and blanket in the blue boat.” Jail officials say they are careful never to keep an inmate in a triple-cell for more than 45 days.

Chammah hopes that the Pope will join the growing movement for prison reform:

You are probably aware that over the last few years there has been a major shift in the politics of criminal justice throughout the U.S. Philadelphia is no different, and city officials have begun to look at criminal justice reform for its own sake — not just to satisfy judges and civil rights lawyers.

Last year, the city received $750,000 from the U.S. Justice Dept. to improve services for former jail inmates as they reenter the community. In May, the city was one of twenty to receive a grant of $150,000 from the MacArthur Foundation as a part of their Safety and Justice Challenge, which the city is using to analyze its criminal justice data and try to find ways to reduce the jail population. (If MacArthur is impressed, the city may be selected to receive up to $4 million for this project). In July, the city’s likely next mayor, Jim Kenney, indicated that he might push for Philadelphia to eliminate cash bail for some pretrial defendants, allowing them to be supervised in the community rather than locked up, further easing the burden on the jail system.

He ends his letter to the Pope thus:

You happen to be catching our country at a particularly rich moment of reassessment, and many — both jailers and jailed — hope you will contribute to that moment.

Of course, I agree with Chammah; the Pope’s visit is happening as the humonetarian move is in full swing, and could only contribute to this welcome trend. But I think it will do something even more important: it will highlight what has been, for many years, perceived as a domestic problem to the level of a human rights crime deserving of international attention.

One of the things that always struck me as odd is the extent to which the international community is preoccupied with international, or foreign, conditions, to the exclusion of the domestic ones. I was raised, of course, on the distinctions the Israeli legal system makes between domestic, “ordinary” criminal behavior and “security crime”, which is often a false dichotomy. But I see the same meme in literature and film that highlight the misery of Westerners doing time in exotic, Eastern facilities, such as Brad Davis in Turkey in Midnight Express or Bridget Jones in Thailand in The Edge of Reason. There’s a certain degree of perverted Orientalism in these accounts. No doubt, the experience of being incarcerated far away from home in a foreign culture is pretty shocking. But the focus on these unusual situations has the effect of trivializing the “usual” horrors of being incarcerated at home.

Shane Bauer, who was incarcerated in Iran, visited California prisons upon his release and return home. Much to his horror, which he documents in this Mother Jones article, he found domestic incarceration conditions to be worse. The horrific medical neglect and unnecessary, iatrogenic death toll exposed in Brown v. Plata would yield international outrage if it was reported from a developing country. The fact that we incarcerate juveniles in adult institutions and put them in solitary confinement would raise a serious alarm and much tongue-clucking if it were reported to happen in a so-called primitive country.

Some of these conditions have received international attention. Our use of long-term solitary confinement has been reviewed and severely criticized by the U.N. expert on torture. Because torture is no less torture if it happens to domestic citizens on domestic soil. It is hoped that the Pope’s visit will lead to a reframing of U.S. prison conditions as a serious human rights crime deserving of international attention and corrective measures.

Juveniles in Adult Institutions

Yesterday we held a film screening and a panel on juveniles serving prison terms in adult institutions, which was cosponsored (and generously funded) by Rosen Bien Galvan and Grunfeld, LLP.


 Our guests included Caitlin McNally, the filmmaker, by Skype, and three speakers in person: Michael Bien of RBGG, Sue Burrell of the Youth Law Center, and Nate Williams of Westside Community Services, who spoke movingly about his own experiences behind bars as a teenager. You can watch the post-film panel below.

Elaine Brown Starts Farm Reentry Project in Oakland

For some optimistic news, look no farther than Oakland, where former Black Panther activist Elaine Brown has put together a beautiful reentry project. Civil Eats reports: 

Brown’s project, announced last October, is ambitious. The first step has been establishing a for-profit West Oakland Farms, whose 40 raised beds are already overflowing with tomatoes, peppers, kale, squash, corn, and other produce. Down the road, Brown wants to add a juice bar, fitness center, grocery store, and tech design space, along with affordable housing on the city-owned property under the umbrella of the nonprofit organization she founded last year, Oakland & the World Enterprises.

“I’m not in the farm business,” she told Civil Eats recently. “I’m in the business of creating opportunities for Black men and women who are poor and lack the education, skills, and resources to return to a community that is rapidly gentrifying without economic avenues for them in mind.”

Think of it as part prisoner re-entry program, part small business startup incubator, and part community hub. Brown chaired the Black Panthers from 1974 to 1977 and, after more than a 30-year absence, moved back to Oakland in 2010. The project marks her return to activism in the city. Since 2013, Brown has been working closely with Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson on youth and employment re-entry projects in West Oakland.

This strikes me as a very exciting program for so many reasons, not the least of which is connecting disenfranchised populations with fresh produce and high-quality food often unavailable in the “food deserts” of poor neighborhoods. I hope it succeeds and flourishes.

Richard Glossip Granted Stay of Execution

Remember Glossip v. Gross? The Supreme Court decided it just this summer, where five Justices were in a big rush–unsupported, it seems, by science–to approve the sedative midazolam in executions, because European countries do not import the other drugs anymore, because they know what we do with them.

Apparently there was a big rush to execute Richard Glossip, who is likely innocent.

Today, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals granted Glossip a two-week stay. News Channel Four report:

“The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals did today, what elected officials have refused to do. We stand with the many Oklahomans and individuals around the world in expressing our gratitude to the court. For today, at least, the state of Oklahoma has avoided the execution of a man not guilty of any capital offense,” said Ryan Kiesel, the executive director of the ACLU of Oklahoma.

Sister Helen Prejean, who is publicly campaigning on behalf of Glossip, firmly believes his innocence. On CNN she provided the following summary:

On January 7, 1997, Barry Van Treese, the owner of the Best Budget Inn in Oklahoma City, was bludgeoned to death by a man, Justin Sneed, who confessed to the killing. However, he claimed that Glossip, the manager of the motel, had offered him money to kill Van Treese. The jury apparently believed Sneed’s testimony, and despite the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals in 2001 describing the evidence in the first trial as “extremely weak,” the decision was affirmed by the U.S. Court of Appeals in 2013.

As a result of all this, the person who actually committed the murder is now serving a life sentence in a medium security prison, while Glossip, convicted of “murder-for-hire” — almost solely on Sneed’s word, and in the absence of physical evidence from the scene — now faces death by lethal injection.

Kudos to the Oklahoma appellate instance for doing the right thing, and fingers crossed that justice will come out.

In the SCOTUS decision regarding the drug, Justice Breyer expressed frustration with the fact that the bigger issue–should the United States execute people, or is it cruel and unusual punishment–was once more buried under the details. I deduce (and hope) that there’s some interest in reopening it for debate. This case should be a lesson to SCOTUS Justices that, before rushing to embrace new chemicals and execution paraphernalia, we should focus on the crux of the matter–in this case, the risk that an innocent man will be buried in the technicalities.

Almond “Feta”

This was a massive pantry day! We made three loaves of seitan–Italian, Berbere, and Cajun–and froze most of them. And I also made almond “feta”, which is now happily brining in the fridge.

The recipe comes from Miyoko Schinner’s The Homemade Vegan Pantry, which is turning out to be an extremely useful resource. Here’s the process:

Step 1

2 cups blanched almonds
1 cup liquid from sauerkraut
a bit of salt

I soaked the almonds for a few hours in water, then drained them and processed in the blender with the liquid and salt. I poured the remaining mixture into a container and put it on the counter to culture. With the warm weather we had, it cultured the following day! (how do you know? you taste it to figure if it’s tangy.)

Step 2

2/3 cup water
2 tbsp agar powder

I simmered these together on low heat until the agar dissolved and solidified. Then, I turned off the heat, added the almond mixture, and whisked. I then poured the mixture into a container lined with cheesecloth and placed it in the fridge for a few hours.

Step 3


The cheese is ready and solid! I cut it into four pieces and placed them in a different container, pouring salt water on top. I’m told it will be wonderful and improve as time goes by.

Oh, and just for fun – here’s what we had for dinner: fresh sourdough with hummus and mature ful, green ful lightly steamed with lemon juice and za’atar, caprese with vegan mozzarella from Miyoko’s Kitchen, and a cucumber-dill salad. It was atrociously hot and this is all we could manage. The only thing here that might not be obvious is the ful topping on the hummus, but all there was to it was opening a can and sauteeing it a bit with sliced onion and some baharat.

UPDATE: The cheese came out wonderful!

Step-By-Step Seitan

I’ve been wanting to make homemade seitan for a while, ever since I took Psalm Lewis’ wonderful cooking class. At that workshop, we made vegan pot pie with seitan made from scratch–it’s not difficult, and with all the ingredients on hand you can have a nice and reliable protein source for cheap. This morning I bought some vital wheat gluten and other essentials and followed Psalm’s recipe:


Step 1:
1 cup vital wheat gluten
1/4 cup nutritional yeast
 2 tsp baharat (I did that in lieu of poultry seasoning, but I imagine anything meatlike would do)
1 tsp mashed garlic (the original recipe calls for garlic powder)
1 tsp paprika
3/4 cup cooked and mashed beans (I used black-eyed peas, which is what I had around the house)
1 tbsp Bragg’s liquid aminos

Step 2:
broth or bouillion or dried vegetables

I measured and mixed the dry ingredients, then added the wet ingredients, and kneaded them into a ball–actually, more of a loaf shape–which I then left to rest for 15 minutes.

I then made some broth, placed the loaf in it wrapped in cheesecloth, and let that simmer for 30 minutes.

Then, I let the content of the pot cool somewhat before taking the seitan out of it.

I let the seitan cool completely before slicing it into 1/4-inch cubes, some of which I froze and some placed in the fridge for immediate use. Yum!

Update: Here are some of the seitan chunks in a nice tomato-based ragu. It came out absolutely delicious.

Juvenile Solitary Bill Fails

Amidst the joyous news following the settlement in Ashker v. Brown comes a less encouraging development: AB 124, which would severely limit the use of solitary confinement in juvenile facilities (to four hours at a time, and not as a form of punishment), failed in the Assembly Appropriations Committee and won’t be proceeding forward. The East Bay Express reports:

Proponents of SB 124 — co-sponsored by state Senator Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, and the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, an Oakland nonprofit — have argued that the bill could go a long way in protecting youth inmates in county and state facilities from the inhumane and unjustified practice of isolation. The documented psychological deterioration associated with solitary confinement — which was a key argument in the state class-action suit — can be especially damaging for vulnerable youth inmates who have often already experienced a wide range of trauma in their lives. With California now agreeing to dramatically curb the use of isolation for adults and with officials increasingly acknowledging the harms of solitary, the failure of SB 124 was particularly painful for advocates who have been pushing versions of the bill for several years. 

“We’re talking about the health and lives of young people who are endangered by this practice,” Jennifer Kim, Ella Baker Center’s director of programs, told me yesterday. Kim helped write the legislation and has repeatedly amended the bill in response to criticisms of correction officials, who have continued to argue that isolation of juveniles is an important tool to control “dangerous” kids. In reference to the state lawsuit and settlement, which will have no impact on juvenile facilities or inmates, Kim added, “Thousands of adults are going to be ordered out of solitary confinement … [because] the courts have had to intervene. … And yet the legislature has been largely not leading in the way they could be.” 

SB 124, which successfully passed the Senate in June, would ban the use of solitary confinement in juvenile facilities for longer than four hours at a time. The legislation would also prohibit correctional officers from using solitary as a form of punishment and would only allow isolation when youth pose an immediate, substantial risk to themselves or others. Facilities would also be barred from isolating inmates who pose a threat as a result of a mental disorder. Additionally, the legislation requires jails to document all instances of solitary through a statewide reporting system. Correction and probation officials across the state have consistently opposed the measure, arguing that facilities do not use the kind of inhumane solitary confinement tactics that advocates describe. The opponents have also contended that the restrictions of SB 124 would put staff and youth at risk by making it harder for officers to isolate violent youth. 

What with SB 261 passing only recently, the California legislature’s approach to juveniles can only be seen as puzzling. Are we treating them as children? as adults? for what purposes? are we willing to resentence but not to limit solitary confinement? and, under the circumstances, what is worse–adult prison or state juvenile facilities?

Join us on 9/17 to discuss these issues with juvenile justice advocates.