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Articles by Peter Wagner

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 have started working from home, and public gatherings have been prohibited. But the criminal justice system continues to hum along as though nothing has changed: Most prisons and many jails have done very little to reduce the population density that puts both incarcerated people and staff at grave risk.

To justify their lack of action, DOC directors, governors, sheriffs, and district attorneys imply that saving the lives of people behind bars is not worth the inevitable public safety cost of releasing them. This talking point is as old as time. It’s also out of step with history.

Large-scale releases have been common throughout U.S. and international history for a variety of legal, political and health reasons. Below is a partial and non-exhaustive summary of some notable examples in U.S. and international history. (These examples were originally collected for a different project with Leah Sakala in 2014.)

If the places where ...

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 system. A number of jurisdictions have taken quick and laudable actions to protect the most vulnerable justice-involved people, including reducing the number of arrests and bookings, releasing people held pretrial, reducing admissions to state prisons, and suspending medical copays in most states. This article assessing the state of preparation in the state prison systems for the pandemic was released on April 10. Some of the details in particular states will have changed by the time it appears in print, but the overall thrust that state prison systems wasted critical time will remain true–Editor.

Many local jails and pretrial systems are taking action to reduce their populations in advance of the COVID-19 pandemic, but state prison systems are not, raising the question: Are state prisons prepared to handle a pandemic within their walls? We set out to survey prison systems on the capacity of their health facilities, their plans for any ...

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 ...

Crime Control as Industry: Towards Gulags, Western Style

by Nils Christie, Routledge Press (2000 Rev. Ed.) 244 pages, Paperback

Review by Peter Wagner


The heavily revised third edition (2000) of Crime Control As Industry: Towards Gulags, Western Style is an essential guide to understanding the incarceration boom and considering how we can turn it around. The first book ...