Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Impossible Debts of Inmates

I noticed that Visitors' Services Center on 1422 Massachusetts Ave SE provides information about how to deposit money in inmates' accounts at the DC Jail. In her book The New Jim Crow, Ohio State University law professor Michelle Alexander talks about the significant debt prisoners accumulate in the criminal justice system, which follows them for the rest of their lives. If they do not repay this debt, then they are in violation of their probation and re-imprisoned. I wondered whether Ward 6 residents had accumulated this kind of debt.

Why do inmates have these accounts? According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, such accounts began in 1930 to collect inmate monies and to allow inmates to procure articles not issued regularly as part of the institution administration. From prison commissaries, inmates can purchase such items as postage stamps, tokens for laundry or copy services, snacks, beverages, Kosher/Halal items, writing supplies, radios, watches, mp3 players, clothing, shoes, personal hygiene products, over-the-counter medicines, and smoking cessation patches (FBP Trust Fund Manual, pp. 29-36). They also use funds in their accounts to make phone calls.

Inmates probably can't spend too much at the commissary. At least in federal prisons, all inmates are required to work if they are medically able. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, inmates make between 12 cents and 40 cents per hour (1). Inmates receive their earnings in their accounts. Family and friends may also contribute to inmates' accounts. Most of this money flows through Western Union, which charges fees. I successfully requested prices for two transactions, which had the following fees: $100 to a county jail required a $10.95 fee; $200 to the federal prison system required a $8.95 fee.

I was amazed by the low pay and by the many fees charged to prison inmates. In addition to paying for laundry and various items at the commissary, inmates must pay the cost of their incarceration. Unless exempt, those entering prison starting in and after 1995 are required to pay the Cost of Incarceration Fee (COIF), which, as I understand it, can be the full cost of their incarceration, $24,440 annually on average in 2006 (see pp. 14-15 of this FBP report).

Since 1987, the Inmate Financial Responsibility Program (IFRP) requires that inmates make payments from their earnings to pay off their financial obligations. Inmates may pay a wide variety of fines and fees through their accounts:
  • Cost of Incarceration Fee (COIF)
  • court-ordered restitution (to compensate for significant bodily injury to the victim or for loss/destruction of victim's property; obligation ceases 20 years after the inmate's release from incarceration)
  • court-ordered fines (obligation ceases 20 years after the inmate's release from incarceration)
  • child support
  • alimony
  • student loans
  • Veterans Administration claims
  • tax liabilities, tax liens
  • Freedom of Information/Privacy Act fees (inmates may be assessed fees for making a FOIA request to see their records; all US citizens are entitled to access to their records)
  • legal fees
  • PLRA filing fees (inmates may be assessed fees for filing lawsuits)
  • medical insurance co-payments (FBP Trust Fund Manual, pp. 86-94)
Alexander lists other potential fees:
  • preconviction service fees (jail book-in fees, jail per diems for pretrial detention, public defender application fee, bail investigation fee)
  • postconviction fees (pre-sentence report fees, public defender recoupment fees, fees for residential or work-release programs, monthly parole or probation service fees) (p. 155)
Former inmates must repay their financial obligations, including paying for their own incarceration, long after they have served their time, or else they return to prison. Alexander argues that this system of indebtedness locks people into permanent marginalization:
This harsh reality harks back to the days after the Civil War, when former slaves and their descendents were arrested for minor violations, slapped with heavy fines, and then imprisoned until they could pay their debts. The only means to pay off their debts was through labor on plantations and farms...or in prisons that had been converted to work farms. Paid next to nothing, convicts were effectively enslaved in perpetuity (pp. 156-157).
Politicians from both parties can easily be "tough on crime," while creating an impossible situation for millions of US citizens and residents. Last year, the Post reported that 46% of formerly incarcerated DC residents surveyed were unemployed and about 60,000 DC residents have criminal records. Each year, many return to prison or jail. How many Ward 6 residents are in this debtors' prison? 

P.S. Let me know if there are other fees or fines that might be withdrawn from inmate's accounts, etc. 
P.P.S. See my previous post "Solitary Confinement, Video Visiting, and Ward 6."


(1) 16% of work-eligible inmates work in a Federal Prison Industries factory, where they can make up to $1.15 per hour.

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