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Profiting from Prisoners: How Prisons are Exploiting the Poor

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commisaryImagine you have a family member who has been in prison for a month. You decide to send them some money to buy a tube of toothpaste from the prison store. How much would you need to send them?

At some prisons you’d need to send $130.

Jails often deduct intake fees, medical co-pays, and the cost of basic toiletries first, leaving the prisoner’s account with a negative balance. To provide enough money for them to buy that initial tube of toothpaste would often require, at a minimum:

  • $25 for booking fee
  • $90 for subsistence and medical co-pays ($3 a day for 30 days)
  • $8.95 for payment transfer fees
  • $5.64 for Senodyne toothpaste

This is one of the findings from an investigation by the Center for Public Integrity that reveals how prison bankers, private vendors in prisons, and corrections profit off the innocent by shifting costs onto inmates’ families.

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A prime example is Pat Taylor, a Christian woman who sends money to her son Eddie, a convict serving a 20-year prison sentence in Virginia for armed robbery.

To get cash to her son, Pat used to purchase a money order at the post office for $1.25 and mail it to the prison, for a total cost of less than $2. But in March of last year, the Virginia Department of Corrections informed her that JPay Inc., a private company in Florida, would begin handling all deposits into inmates’ accounts.

Sending a money order through JPay takes too long, so Taylor started using her debit card to get him funds instead. To send Eddie $50, Taylor must pay $6.95 to JPay. Depending on how much she can afford to send, the fee can be as high as 35 percent. In other states, JPay’s fees approach 45 percent.

The negative balances that accrue on a prisoner’s account can often discourage families from sending money at all.

Last year, when [Linda Dolan’s] son was sentenced to 20 days in jail in St. Lucie County, Florida, for reckless driving, Linda wanted to buy him a second pair of underwear and socks. But the county’s intake fee and daily “rent” already had put the account about $70 in the red. Linda and her husband both were out of work and couldn’t afford to pay $100 for a pair of underwear.

“If relatives are putting money on somebody’s books while they’re an inmate, it’s to help them buy necessities,” Linda says. “I didn’t think it was right that the county was stealing the money.”

Contact with families can help inmates when they return to life outside of prison. But the high cost of fees with the corrections system can sever those connections:

Funding prisons out of the pockets of families and inmates has non-financial costs too, says Brian Nelson, who spent 28 years in an Illinois state prison for murder. Nelson says he has “become an asset to society” since he was released four years ago because he stayed in touch with family and priests even when he was in solitary confinement. When inmates can’t afford to maintain contact with the outside world, he says, they are less equipped to transition smoothly to civilian life.

The effect on poor families is especially harsh, Nelson says: “It’s a wife that has three children at home, and her husband is in jail, so now she has a choice: Do I send money to him so he can afford to stay in touch with the kids, or do I feed the kids?”

Prison vendors and banks have a right to make a profit from the work. But because they have a monopoly over a vulnerable client base there must be oversight and regulations to ensure their fees are not predatory. We can’t expect prisoners to learn about justice when they face economic injustice behind prison walls.

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Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).

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