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Articles by Peter Wagner

Jails and Prisons Have Reduced Their Populations in the Face of the Pandemic, but Not Enough To Save Lives

Our updated analysis finds that the initial efforts to reduce jail populations have slowed, while the small drops in state prison populations are still too little to save lives.

by Emily Widra and Peter Wagner, Prison Policy Initiative, originally published August 5, 2020

Source Material

At a time when more new cases of the coronavirus are being reported each day, state and local governments should be redoubling their efforts to reduce the number of people in prisons and jails, where social distancing is impossible and the cycle of people in and out of the facility is constant. But our most recent analysis of data from hundreds of counties across the country shows that efforts to reduce jail populations have actually slowed — and even reversed in some places.

Even as the pandemic has spiked in many parts of the country, 71% of the 668 jails we’ve been tracking saw population increases from May 1st to July 22nd, and 84 jails had more people incarcerated on July 22nd than they did in March. This trend is particularly alarming since we know it’s possible to further reduce these populations: in our previous analysis, we found that local governments initially took swift action ...

Large Scale Releases and Public Safety

Can governments safely release hundreds or thousands of people from prison?

We offer 14 historical examples to show that, in fact, they already have.

To protect the American public from COVID-19, schools have closed, non-essential stores have been shuttered, people with desk jobs ...

How Prepared Are State Prison Systems for a Viral Pandemic?

by Emily Widra and Peter Wagner, originally published April 10, 2020 at the Prison Policy Initiative website

Since the Prison Policy Initiative’s first coronavirus briefing at the beginning of March, the organization has been tracking how federal, state, and local officials have responded to the threat of COVID-19 in the criminal justice ...

Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie

A Prison Policy Initiative briefing

by Peter Wagner and Leah Sakala

Wait, does the United States have 1.4 million or more than 2 million people in prison? And do the 688,000 people released every year include those getting out of local jails? Frustrating questions like these abound because our systems ...

In Memory of Jon E. Yount (1938-2012)

Sometime in the early morning of April 26, 2012, in his cell in a remote Pennsylvania prison, a 74-year-old jailhouse lawyer serving a life sentence hung himself. He was a quiet man who avoided taking credit for his work, so many people in and outside of prison don’t know about ...

Momentum Builds to End Prison-Based Gerrymandering

Four states and hundreds of local governments are standing up to reject one of the most repugnant aspects of the prison industrial complex: Legislators with prisons located in their districts who claim the people incarcerated there – who cannot vote – as their “constituents,” then use their newfound political clout ...

Prison Town Legislators Represent Prisoners' Interests? Not Quite

On June 7, 2004, talks between the New York State Senate and the Assembly on how to best reform the draconian Rockefeller Drug Laws broke down. Publicly, the dispute is over ideological disagreements, but an obscure Census quirk that counts prisoners as residents of the prison's legislative district may be ...

Local Officials Tell Prisoners: "You don't live here"

Many prison town officials are quick to claim prisoners as residents when the Census Bureau comes to town, but prisoners report that this is the only time these officials are so welcoming.


The Census Bureau counts the nation's mostly urban prisoners as if they were residents of the prison town. ...

Thirty Three Years after Attica: Many more Blacks in prison, but not as guards

by Peter Wagner and Rose Heyer

In September 1971, thousands of prisoners at Attica prison in rural New York State rebelled, taking control of D-yard. Sixty-three percent of the prisoners were Black or Latino, but at that time there were no Blacks and only one Latino as guards. Seventy percent ...

California's Budget Secret: Prisoners Form Core of Forest Fire Fighting Army

California's Budget Secret: Prisoners Form Core
of Forest Fire Fighting Army

by Peter Wagner


In California, up to three quarters of
the crew members fighting California fires are prisoners. In exchange for a reduction in sentence length, 4,100 minimum security prisoners work fighting fires and on public works projects for ...