Correctional Insights

Incarceration’s Affect on Inmates’ Children

Last year, childcare costs per family averaged $8,772 nationwide. Parents across all tax brackets will feel this increase, and many will rely on dual income sources to finance their childcare expenses. The children of inmates are especially vulnerable to these kinds of rising costs, because in most cases, there is no second income to support them.

In fact, the children of inmates are more likely than their peers to experience a whole range of disparities related to education, wealth outcomes, and family contact. These disparities may seem like insurmountable challenges, but jail administrators and prison officials can make a real difference in the lives of the children of inmates.

Pursuing an Education

For kids with parents behind bars, it’s harder to pursue a post-secondary education. Researcher Joseph Murray found that the unintended consequences of parental imprisonment included the “diversion of funds away from schools and universities.” In part, this means that family earnings and wages aren’t invested in the next generation. Instead, those funds are redirected to provide for the incarcerated parent.

If jail administrators can find ways to reduce the costs incurred incarcerated parents, that money could instead be used to fund the child’s education. For officials looking to go the extra mile, setting up a scholarship fund for inmate children could also be an effective way to support their educational aspirations.

Short-Term Family Wealth

When a parent is first incarcerated, their children are almost immediately financially disadvantaged. According to Professors Amanda Geller, Carey Cooper, Irwin Garfinkel, Ofira Schwartz-Soicher, and Ronald Mincy: “The incarceration of a father, even when parents are no longer romantically involved, often leads to decreases in household resources.” Because children with incarcerated parents are more at risk for economic and residential instability than their peers, it may be harder for them to build assets of their own as they mature.

To combat this reality in Ghana, researchers Kwadwo Ofori-Dua, Kofi Osei Akuoko & Vincent de Paul Kanwetuu made the following recommendation: “Economic problems are major challenges facing families of incarcerated persons. Prison authorities should enhance the ability of inmates to work while in prison so that they [can] remain economically active and remit their families at home.” While this recommendation pertains specifically to the prisons of Ghana, making similar adjustments here in the US could provide more funds for the children of inmates.

Maintaining Family Contact

In addition to the educational insights presented in his work, Murray also found that “Ninety-five percent of women reported that family contact was extremely important to them, but only 67 percent of imprisoned mothers were visited by their children. The absence of visits appeared to relate to practical difficulties of travelling, distance between prison and home, the cost of travel, and visiting times.” It is important to note that these practical difficulties have nothing to do with the intent of the child.

Often, it is not the child who decides whether or not to visit their incarcerated parent, but the child’s caregiver. Researchers Julie Poehlmann, Danielle Dallaire, Ann Booker Loper, and Leslie Shear write that “[Caregivers] need support for dealing with their stress and concerns about visitation. The financial and logistical difficulties of arranging visitation, as well as the increased burden presented by the demands of child rearing can affect the caregiver, who often serves as gatekeeper in terms of his or her willingness to facilitate contact.” For caregivers, arranging transportation, shelter, and all the other considerations that go into a physical visit can be overwhelming. However, jail and prison officials can take direct actions to reduce these logistical and financial burdens.

How Officials can Help the Children of Inmates

Simply by modifying their facility’s community-facing messaging, jail administrators can entice caregivers to schedule visits, instead of rebuffing them. Prominent, easy-to-read visitation rules and availabilities are key to inspiring confidence in caregivers, and a confident caregiver is that much more likely to schedule a visitation for their child. An incarceration facility’s website is also critically important. Jail administrators should hound their webmasters into making their sites as user-friendly as possible.

Finally, if increasing parent-child contact in your facility is important to you, consider partnering with a socially conscious video visitation provider. Make it a priority to find one that offers a secure, standalone solution to enable frequent teleconferencing between children and their incarcerated parents. No child should ever be denied the opportunity to visit their parent because the hotels, gasoline, or time off of work is too expensive. With a video visitation solution, jail administrators can keep families close, and in frequent contact.



Correctional Insights

Scandinavian Jails: Why is Their Recidivism Rate so Much Better?

Imagine a picturesque summer landscape in southern Norway with the scent of blueberry bushes, birch trees and the North Sea wafting through the air. None of the 300 inmates at the Halden maximum-security prison have to imagine anything; that seaside breeze is part of their daily routines. Unlike the majority of prisons on Earth, Halden allows its inmates to freely roam the facility for 12 hours per day. Now, visualize electric fences with razor wire, guard towers with snipers and 400 other inmates crammed in all around you. That’s what the one-to-two-hour yard time at ADX Florence Supermax feels like. Based on these accounts, it’s easy to see that Scandinavian jails and prisons are very different from their American counterparts. But why are the recidivism rates of Norway and Denmark so much lower than America’s?

Well, for one thing, American correctional institutions are some of the most heavily populated institutions in the world. While American sheriffs and jail administrators can’t make immediate changes to federal law enforcement policy, they can mine the Scandinavian incarceration model for strategic wisdom. To that end, here are some of the key differences between Scandinavian and American facilities:

Scandinavian Jails Offer More Freedoms and Amenities

Scandinavian jails, including Halden, get a bad rap from American media. They’re portrayed as cushy, naïve and soft on crime. Halden is one of Norway’s newest maximum-security prisons near the border between Norway and Sweden. According to an NPR article by Jeffrey Kofman, each inmate’s cell is a private room equipped with a fridge, a television, and a desk. Inmates also have access to a fully equipped kitchen, and a metal and woodworking shop. In short, while it’s true that Halden was not designed like an American maximum-security facility, it’s hardly a caviar and bonbons experience.

According to an article in the New York Times written by Jessica Benko, Halden had no security fence or warnings about picking up hitchhikers because no inmate had ever tried to escape the facility. “There were no coils of razor wire in sight, no lethal electric fences, no towers manned by snipers—nothing violent, threatening or dangerous,” Benko wrote.

At ADX Supermax prison in Florence, Colorado, it is a completely different world. Each cell gets a four-inch window; a concrete bed, a stool and a desk. Showers at ADX are set on timers, and the toilets and sinks are combined units. It also houses nearly twice as many inmates as Halden normally does.

Norway Focuses on Life After Incarceration

There are significant differences between US and Scandinavian punitive systems. Norway’s incarceration rate is 72 jailed offenders per every 100,000 people compared to America’s 693 per 100,000 people. Norway also has the world’s lowest recidivism rate at 20 percent, while America sees 75 percent of its prisoners re-offend within five years of release.

According to Benko’s article, Halden Prison takes a different approach to rehabilitating its prisoners. There, the facility staff focus on preparing inmates for life after incarceration. Amazingly, guards are also encouraged to cultivate friendships with the inmates. In Norway, there is no death penalty, nor is there a life sentence. Instead, the maximum sentence is 21 years. However, five-year increments can be added onto a sentence if the Norwegian justice system finds that a prisoner hasn’t been rehabilitated.

In Colorado, where ADX Florence is located, capital punishment is legal and each criminal sentence depends upon the severity of the crime. While America has its own process for rehabilitating inmates, the Scandinavian model is extremely successful at keeping its citizens out of prison. Since there is a staggering difference between the recidivism rates of each country, American jail administrators should take notice. By creating facility policy that focuses on life after incarceration, jail administrators could reduce American recidivism on their own.

North Dakota Prisons Test the Norwegian Philosophy

Don Specter of the Prison Law Office funded the US-European Criminal Justice Innovation Program in partnership with Dr. Brie Williams and Cyrus Ahalt of the UC Criminal Justice and Health Consortium at UC San Francisco. This program allows criminal justice professionals of all levels to tour Norway’s correctional system and learn from European reform leaders.

In 2015, North Dakota Prisons Chief Leann Bertsch and her deputy Karianne Jackson enrolled in the program. They toured Halden and came away with the knowledge to enact a similar system in North Dakota. According to Dashka Slater’s article in Mother Jones, Bertsch found some modular units to house inmates at the Missouri River Correctional Center (a minimum-security facility) and urged the staff to adopt the Norwegian philosophy. Inmates had the opportunity to snag one of 36 private rooms in exchange for good behavior. Some of these rooms even included showers and toilets. Bertsch and her deputies also reevaluated the list of minor infractions and searched for candidates in solitary confinement that could be transitioned into general population.

Since the new system was established, North Dakota prison officials have noticed large declines in violence, threats against the staff, and the use of force by staff. It should be noted that North Dakota already had a lower-than-average incarceration rate compared to other states, and that not every prison can move inmates around on a whim. Larger facilities in many states may have different problems and needs.

Slater went on to say that some states with larger prison populations have enacted rules encouraging staff to interact with inmates without relying on command terminology. Maybe that’s a step in the right direction. It’s a relatively small change to make compared to building 36 special housing units. Instead of showing force in a tense situation, staff could employ empathy to resolve an issue without feeding resentment within inmates. The best incarceration facilities have staff that can treat those in their charge like human beings, while maintaining an air of impartiality. However, only jail administrators can craft facility policies that encourage this type of conflict resolution.

For more information about Norway’s prison system from an inmate’s perspective, check out this translated video.

Correctional Insights

The Real Constituency Impact: Inmate Family Finances Post-Release

Shopping for a new inmate telecom service provider can feel like walking through the shampoo aisle of your local supermarket; way too many options, and not nearly enough time to try them all out. As a jail administrator, you’ve got a whole community relying on you to make a reasonable choice when it comes inmate phones and video visitation platforms. That can feel like a lot of pressure. However, many of the best incarceration officials see it as a challenge. “How can I make the absolute best choice for my county?” they ask themselves, surrounded by desks stacked with RFPs and proposals. Choosing a new provider is tough, especially when so many vendors only differentiate themselves based on commission rates. Perhaps the best approach to selecting an ICSP involves stepping back and considering the end-user—and especially the family finances of that end-user.

In a previous article, we discussed the pressures inmate families face while their loved ones are incarcerated. The piece explained that in most cases, law-abiding inmate family members are responsible for covering the healthcare, economic, and communication costs related to incarceration. One factor that article failed to adequately address was the post-release impact inmates have on family finances. This may come as no surprise, but returning inmates face a number of economic challenges in the free world. Consequently, their families face those struggles as well.


Employment opportunities for former convicts are underwhelming. Not only is the inmate’s relevant job history depreciated, their individual skills and competencies may have decayed during their time spent in prison. Social networks dwindle without attention, and contacts who could have provided career references or job search assistance are likely gone by the time the inmate gets out. All of this is compounded by the fact that a criminal record on a job application is a serious limiting factor.

Regrettably, these limitations are exacerbated by other problems, as detailed by researchers David J. Harding, Jessica J.B. Wyse, Cheyney Dobson, and Jeffrey D. Morenoff: “Low levels of human capital, poor health, and lack of work experience also pose barriers to former offenders’ economic stability and mobility. Forty-one percent of those released from prison lack a high school education, and 73% have a history of drug and alcohol abuse.”

This economic insecurity isn’t limited to the released inmate. Any income hardships inmates face after release will trickle down to impinge family finances. To put it bluntly, when former inmates can’t afford to put bread on the table, their families will have to pick up the bill.

Public Aid

Since ex-inmate earning power is so underwhelming, you could be forgiven for thinking that there is ample government assistance for former inmates and their families. The truth is another matter. Researchers Harding, Wyse, Dobson and Morenoff go on to state that “former prisoners face considerable barriers to attaining economic stability and integration. One important set of barriers includes legal and policy restrictions on former offenders. Many states have banned those with felony convictions from benefits such as food stamps, TANF, SSI and residence in public housing, either permanently or temporarily.” This means that the people with the worst long term economic prospects also receive little public assistance for their basic survival. With no help from the state, inmates can only turn to their family, and as a result family finances take another hit.

Debts and Fees

Sitting in jail can be very expensive, but not just in terms of opportunity cost. While on the inside, inmates can rack up debts and fees related to all sorts of things, and those obligations don’t just disappear after release.

According to a report published by The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, “the costs of calls, visitation, commissary, health care, and other costs are borne by individuals with convictions and their families. This study found that it is family members, predominantly women in the family, who primarily bear responsibility for the financial costs of maintaining contact. For a number of these women, including many who were mothers, these costs put them into debt.”

It’s obvious that taking on debt with the prospect of decreased future earnings is a recipe for disaster as far as family finances are concerned. Yet inmate families do it anyway—which in some ways is a testament to how important contact with loved ones is. Despite that, it is in this area that jail administrators can provide the most immediate relief.

Ella Baker Infographic.
Image Courtesy of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights

Relief for Inmate Family Finances

When inmates are released back into society, they’ve done their time in the eyes of the law. At this point, it’s no longer necessary to extend their punishment through reduced employment opportunities, inaccessible public aid, or excessive debt. In light of these factors and others, the Ella Baker report reached the following conclusion: “We need to shift our sentences to focus more on accountability, safety, and healing of all individuals involved rather than punishing those convicted of crimes.” They couldn’t be more correct, especially about accountability. The reality is that law enforcement groups, citizens, politicians and businesses all need to hold each other to a higher standard if criminal justice reform is going to stick. We’ve all got skin in this game, and we can all contribute in our own ways. For jail administrators, consciously considering inmate family finances is the best way to make a real, positive impact.

Correctional Insights

The Real Constituency Impact: Families Share the Burden

When a jail administrator sits down at the bargaining table to pick a new inmate phone service provider, it’s a daunting task. Hundreds of variables between dozens of companies must be considered, and after all is said and done, there’s virtually no recognition. But on the whole, jail administrators do a pretty good job at evaluating what companies present to them. Like any good public servant, they meticulously weigh the pros and cons of each provider to secure the most efficient solution for their county. Unfortunately, one critical factor is often lost in the noise surrounding inmate phone contracts and RFPs (requests for proposals): The costs passed on to inmate families.

These families have a hard lot in life. They are often already under significant pressure even before their loved one is incarcerated. Worse yet, the costs related to their inmate’s health lost wages, and communication falls squarely upon their shoulders. These are law-abiding citizens who cover these costs, paying capital out of their communities and into the corrections industry. At some point you’ve got to ask yourself: Does a higher commission rate justify that?

Who Pays for an Inmate’s Healthcare?

Healthcare is already a vast piece of the average family’s budget, but a single instance of illness can break bank accounts quickly. With that in mind, consider that incarceration facilities concentrate people with infectious and chronic diseases. While in jail or prison, inmates are covered by the state. But when a person is reintroduced to society after living in the superbug incubator that is an incarceration facility, they bring with them any number of health problems. According to researchers Nicholas Freudenberg, Jessie Daniels, Martha Crum, Tiffany Perkins, and Beth E. Richie, “people leaving jail may contribute to health inequities in the low-income communities to which they return.” After release, the most immediate point of contact for inmates is usually their family.

Just because inmate healthcare is covered by the state, that doesn’t mean families aren’t sending money to buy Tylenol or other incidental over-the-counter drugs from commissaries. These comfort/quality of life products can be an inmate’s only option when it comes to relieving their immediate pains. Meager prison wages can’t always cover the costs of such products, especially if an inmate uses them regularly. Thus, inmate families are again left footing the bill, in addition to the healthcare costs when their inmate returns home.

Who Pays for Depressed Economic Development?

It’s obvious that families lose income when a mother or father is incarcerated. However, the broad macroeconomics of the situation is less obvious. When a community supplies a large number of inmates to the corrections industry, “human capital in the community is generally depleted or in the case of the ex-offenders, developed in undesirable ways,” according to researchers Harold Watts and Demetra Smith Nightingale.

Significant reductions in a community’s labor force can lead to problems for area businesses, as well as decreased revenue for inmate families. None of that is right for economic development. When local companies struggle, it can strain the community as a whole. So in addition to spending more to support their loved ones in jail, the families of inmates are losing money in the form of lost productivity and a potentially worsened economic environment.

Who Really Pays for Inmate Phone Services

In the corrections industry, contact between inmates and their families is frequently touted as a recidivism-reducing force. But there’s a flip side to that: according to Cheryl Leanza, “[t]he costs of telephone calls to incarcerated people in the United States are often extraordinarily high—well beyond what most people in our country pay for telephone service. It is often cheaper to call Singapore at 12 cents a minute from a cell phone than it is to speak to someone in prison or jail.” These high rates are usually the result of inmate phone contracts with oversized commission percentages, not to mention the outrageous fees charged by some inmate phone providers.

“The high rates are a terrible burden on the friends and family members of incarcerated people—who often have to choose between basic needs and communication with someone they love. And the high telephone rates undermine social networks that can help inmates reintegrate into society,” as Leanza goes on to state. All of this is counterproductive to the goal of reducing recidivism, and unfortunately is standard practice for most inmate phone providers. Once again, the families of inmates pay for these inflated service costs.


There has to be a better way for jails and prisons to provide inmate calling services to constituents. Make no mistake, inmate families are the end consumers here. They are the tax-paying community members who just want the ability to speak with their incarcerated loved ones. Families already bear additional health and labor costs, not to mention the psychological stress involved with missing a family member—after all this, they shouldn’t be left to the mercy of inmate phone companies.

However, in this area jail administrators can make a huge difference, because they’re the ones sitting at the bargaining table. Jail administrators can ensure that exorbitant costs aren’t passed on to their constituents. They hold all the power in the phone contract relationship. If a jail administrator says “Jump” inmate phone companies ask “How high?” Enormous economic relief for hundreds of the most vulnerable inmate families across a constituency could be as simple as switching providers.

Ultimately, it all comes down to this: The highest commission rate shouldn’t be the determining factor when selecting a new inmate phone company. When it is, inmate families pay the price.

Correctional Insights

What Manufacturing Sensors can Teach U.S. Corrections

From birth through adolescence, American citizens ride a metaphorical conveyor belt designed to calibrate behavior and prepare them for modern life. That conveyor belt is better-known as acculturation, and while it might seem outrageous to think of people as being constructed in the same way that cars and cell phones are produced, it really isn’t too much of a logical stretch. Recently, however, the manufacturing industry has progressed much faster than the social institutions building America’s future citizens. Companies have recognized the extraordinary potential that sensors can have in improving management, efficiency, and safety, and yet the average American jail currently ignores these sensors. JMS systems have helped bring jails into the present, no question, but if jail administrators want to reap the same benefits as modern factories, they should start by learning from the manufacturing sensors they employ:

What Manufacturing Sensors can Teach Smart Jails About Management

Whether it’s in a GM factory in Arlington, TX or a county jail in Springfield, MO, good management requires the most-relevant, up-to-date information. To this end, some manufacturing facilities have installed sensors with the ability to automatically notify facility managers of production anomalies that threaten process and quality standards. This means that anytime a sensor detects an anomaly in the assembly line like a malfunctioning robot or suboptimal atmospheric condition, managers are immediately informed on their smart phone.

This kind of immediate response technology is critical for companies like GM, who use sensors to monitor humidity conditions during vehicle painting. However, sensors that respond immediately could also be highly effective in jails, since negative behavioral events can happen in the blink of an eye, and proper planning and reaction time is critical.

What Manufacturing Sensors can Teach Smart Jails About Efficiency

Sensors improve manufacturing efficiency in a number of different ways. For instance, the pharmaceutical manufacturer Merck relies on smart sensing technology to conduct 15 billion environmental and process calculations to improve the vaccines they produce. There is simply no way all that work could be done by hand in a timely manner.

Additionally, food and beverage processors apply smart labels to incoming shipments when they are received, or even before they leave their point of origin. Because of this, metrics such as temperature, freshness, and expiration timelines can be tracked by the processors, ensuring spoiled food never makes it to a grocer.

Regional jails with inmates from multiple counties could make use of similar sensors and labels, since they have large inmate influxes from varying origin points. Ideally, a smart jail should strive to make the transition of prisoners between facilities as seamless as possible, with the least number of human inputs. And at the very least, these sensors and labels could be utilized by commissaries and kitchens looking to improve their food safety.

What Manufacturing Sensors can Teach Smart Jails About Safety

Jails are not thought of as safe places, it’s the nature of the institution. But neither were factories at the turn of the industrial revolution. The manufacturing industry has come a long way since then, and most current facilities employ sensors to increase occupational safety. According to Automotive Design & Production editor Lawrence Gould:

“Industrial safety sensors are a requirement from both a regulatory and liability standpoint. It also makes sense (no pun intended) economically: Sensors protect the investments companies make in people and machines on the manufacturing floor.”

If sensors can protect the investments companies make in their people and machines, those sensors should also be able to protect investments made in the correctional space. For example, motion sensors or accelerometers could trigger alarms and inform jail administrators when facility equipment is being tampered with. Noise sensors could also be used to keep track of vandalism, by recording and time-stamping exact instances of property destruction.


To sum all this up, the same sensor technologies and strategies already in place in the manufacturing sector could be a massive boon to U.S. correctional facilities. Smart IOT sensors have the potential to enhance jail management, efficiency, and safety through accurate real-time monitoring and data collection, as described in the examples above. However, the real reason incarceration officials should be striving for smart jails is the fact that improvement in any of these areas will ultimately be felt in the daily lives of their prisoners and inmates. Making life on the inside less volatile should be a principle goal of every warden. And while smart sensors may make for a powerful corrections tool, without the vision and dedication of the incarceration official, the whole facility will grind to a halt. Just like a broken conveyor belt.