Welcome to Prison. Will You Be Paying Cash or Credit?

Belt-tightening municipalities like Tennessee's Anderson County are asking prisoners to help pay their own way — but experts say it probably won't work out for convicts or taxpayers

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Jason Redmond / REUTERS

An inmate in his cell at Men's Central Jail in Los Angeles in 2012.

Southern hospitality is famous, but the accommodations at Anderson County Jail will no longer be gratis. Inmates at this correctional institution northwest of Knoxville, Tenn., will soon have to pay fed-up taxpayers $9.15 for each pair of pants issued during their stay, $6.26 for each blanket and $1.15 for each towel. They’ll even have to shell out 29¢ for toilet paper.

A county of about 75,000 people, Anderson, like many municipalities across the country, has seen the cost of housing inmates rise in the past few years. And like many states, cities and counties facing tight budget constraints, Anderson has turned to the inmates themselves to defray some of those costs.

“Our taxpayers pay $62 a day to house one inmate,” says Jay Yeager, the Anderson County law director who proposed the program. “Our inmate care, medical care, housing care, all those budgetary codes have escalated over the past several years, and it’s an unreasonable burden on our taxpayers. What we’re trying to do is shift the burden off the taxpayers’ back, to the inmates.”

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Anderson County is only the latest in a long line of cash-strapped municipalities to levy fees to help fund their criminal-justice systems. The practice is common in California, Texas, New York and Illinois. Since 1996, Florida has added 20 fees. And in 2010, the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School surveyed the 15 states with the highest prison populations, which accounted for nearly 70% of all state prisoners in the country, and found myriad fees assessed both during and after prison stays: administrative fees, supervision and transportation fees, even a $60 fee in Pennsylvania just to enter the parole program.

Policies charging inmates are popular with taxpayers, but legal experts are skeptical about whether they close budget gaps. “It may be more symbolic than anything else,” Dwight Aarons, a professor at the University of Tennessee College of Law, says of Anderson County’s new policy. “I really don’t know how people in jail are supposed to make enough money to be able pay for those items.”

Yeager said he isn’t sure how much money the new fees will bring to the county. In May, when county officials began discussing a budget for the new fiscal year, spending requests exceeded expected revenue by $4 million. Over three months in the following quarter, Yeager is requesting that the jail do an analysis of how much money the county can recoup with the new fees. “We’re hoping to recover some money, but honestly, the likelihood of getting a high-percentage reimbursement is small,” he says.

Legal experts point out that prison fees don’t yield much revenue because the majority of prisoners in the U.S. are poor. Bureau of Justice Statistics data shows nearly two-thirds of state-prison inmates don’t have a high school diploma. According to some studies, nearly a quarter of convicts expect to go to homeless shelters after prison, and more than half are still unemployed a year after their release.

Prison fees can also create another obstacle for inmates after they’re released: intractable debt. In Florida, the state relied on private collection agencies that added surcharges as high as 40%; in California, failure to pay a fee resulted in an extra $300 charge. And in some cases these fees can land convicts back in prison, costing taxpayers even more.

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Judges in several states have sent former inmates back to prison for failure to appear at court hearings related to their debt, a practice critics say is akin to modern-day debtor’s prison. A 2012 report by the Brennan Center found that in 2009, Mecklenburg County, N.C., sent 246 people back to prison because they fell behind on their debts. The county was able to collect $33,476, but the incarcerations cost nearly $40,000, leaving taxpayers in the red. Missouri allows people to voluntarily go back behind bars to “pay off” debts. Circuit judges have the power, at the defendant’s request, to commute fines and fees in return for more jail time, where the inmate is credited $10 per day.

“This is an unfair burden on the poor, and what happens in these situations oftentimes is that the relatives of the inmates end up shouldering the financial burden,” says Lauren-Brooke Eisen, a lawyer at the Brennan Center.

According to Yeager, that won’t happen in Anderson County. “It’s not a situation where their parole or probation can be revoked. Only the people that are able to pay or are gainfully employed will be able to pay these fees,” he says. “We don’t want to run our operation like a pauper’s prison and keep them in jail simply on court costs. That doesn’t work.”

States and municipalities across the country are finding out a lot about what doesn’t work in the prison system. America’s prison population — the U.S. has about 2.2 million prisoners, more than any other country in the world — has re-entered the national conversation on both sides of the political spectrum. Last week, Attorney General Eric Holder ordered the Justice Department to take steps aimed at reducing the prison population by no longer charging nonviolent offenders with serious crimes leading to long prison sentences.

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A few days later, Virginia attorney general and Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli told the Washington Post, “There is an expectation that the generic Republican position is tough on crime. But even that has budget limits, particularly on the prison side.”

Data on debt-related sentences are scarce, but experts point out that debt hearings clog up an already stretched legal system. In one survey of a New Orleans court, more than 6% of cases involved debt-collection issues; of those, nearly a quarter had an arrest warrant issued because of a failure to appear.

“There’s been a left-right consensus that nonviolent offenders don’t really need to be in prison; we can find less costly ways of dealing with that,” says Rebekah Diller, a professor at Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, who co-authored the Brennan Center study. “This should be part of that discussion if we have people filling jail beds because they couldn’t pay some sort of fee.”

As Anderson County studies the impact of jail fees on the county’s finances, Yeager is planning to propose a way to reduce recidivism. Next month, the county commission will vote on a plan to convert part of the jail into a workhouse. Inmates serving time for misdemeanors who have jobs will be able to leave to work their shifts, then return to the prison each day.

“One of the major contributors to a high recidivism rate is loss of a job, so if an inmate is serving time on a misdemeanor sentence and they have a job, we want them to keep their job,” Yeager says. But nothing comes free for the prisoners of Anderson County. If the proposal passes, they’ll be charged the daily fee, plus extra for being escorted to and from their jobs.

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48 comments
Florida555
Florida555

I served 30 days. I ended up with a bill of $1,500.. $50 a day flat rate. That's in the ball park of court costs, probation fees, etc. That amount for me was manageable. During my stay it was widely known that the bill would be waiting for us, and I felt bad for the people in there doing 9 months for repeated driving on a suspended license (for example). They faced a bill of $13,500. Having lived with these people for 30 days I'm guessing they will find it extremely difficult to pay the fee. I know jail isn't meant to be hospitable, but if I'm personally paying $50 a day for something I don't want to be doing (as opposed to probation) shouldn't I get a better mattress and better food than bologna sandwiches and cereal? I don't want steak for free or anything, but if I'm paying $50 a day than it's not free now is it?


GeorgeC
GeorgeC

My ex-wife served 2 years in prison for possession of marijuana and prescription medicine not in its original container (xanax).  I noticed when she got out of prison, she had to pay a huge probation fee:  a $130 fine, $1365 court costs, and $600 administrative fees, and probation is now run by a company.  When she was in prison, she had to pay her own medical and dental bills, as well.  There were so many people that there was a huge shortage of beds.

So, how much good did that 2 years in jail, at a cost of about $75,000 of taxpayer money, actually do?  The first thing she said after spending 2 years in jail was "I want a joint".  Life in prison wouldn't stop her from smoking pot, either.  She got in trouble while she was in there because she got caught popping a light socket to light a joint. 

How much good does the mandatory testing do?  Most of the friends she made in prison have switched from marijuana to meth, because it only stays in their systems for 3 days, so they can pass the mandatory drug tests given by probation every week. Unfortunately, most of them also become addicted to meth. So, the net result is that the system turns tens of thousands of mostly harmless pot smokers into somewhat dangerous speed freaks, who go back to jail because meth is both expensive and highly addictive, and sends the rest of them back to jail when they fail their drug tests for marijuana.

Then there are the mandatory court ordered AA meetings, where a bunch of people are ordered by the court to attend 2-hour long meetings telling them about the evils of alcohol and drugs, which also serve as a great place for drug dealers to meet new clients and all the potheads to ask each other who's currently selling the best stuff at the lowest prices.

I've come to the conclusion that the whole drug war is a massively expensive total failure, but it's highly profitable for the companies who run the prisons and the probation system, and it makes sure that massive numbers of law enforcement, lawyers, etc. have plenty of job security.

Yoshi
Yoshi

Aren't many of these inmates in "for-profit" institutions that pay them for their labor? Places run by  "Corrections corp. of America" in 20 states, so far with over 90,000 beds. They are giving a new meaning to "made in America" from some of the articles I've read. Prisoners can be paid over $10 per hour for some of the jobs they do. Google up "US prison labor" for much more on this.

romano70
romano70

Wait a minute...so you clearly design draconian drug laws mostly related to non-violent drug offenses targeting minorities so that your buddies in the correctional industry continue to subsidize your election campaigns and to TOP IT OFF you are going to force the people you lock up to pay for their stay??? Are you SERIOUS???!!!????

RyanLondon
RyanLondon

I say attach factories to prisons or run call centers out of them and let them earn some money.  If an inmate were to earn $300 a week for 50 hours of work - they could pay the taxpayers $200 a week and have $100 a week in savings.  If that were to be saved in an IRA type account that prisoner after 10 years would have over $50,000 able to access when they get out.  This would help that prisoner become a citizen again....having nothing when getting out and finding it hard to find a job usually leads the person back to prison.  Give them a skill for when they get out and some starting money and I can promise you that a lot more prisoners wouldn't be back.  

oncefallenbook
oncefallenbook

Who says crime doesn't pay. May as well join the fray and invest in GEO Group stock options. 

Duffman
Duffman

The southern hicks have never given up on slavery. They hope it makes a comeback someday & for-profit prisons are a great start!

ninjy
ninjy

Before making posts on something you have no clue about you should take the time to study the situation before making yourself look bad for the world. The news media along with uninformed magazines should do the same before writing articles. This JAIL located in Anderson county, Tenn. is in fact a jail, not a prison, which makes a huge difference. Most of the offenders in jail are misdemeanor offenders who serve sentences of 11 months 29 days or less (typically less). This means that for the majority of these inmates the cost will not be astronomical. Why should we continually pay for these people to stay in jail when they can share the burden? They have money on their accounts to buy candy, snacks, chips, etc. so why shouldn't they help pay for the cost of the necessity items. According to the proposal passed by county commissioners the inmates will only be charged for the item at cost. Meaning the county will not make any money off the items, they will only save the money which can be redirected into programs to try and help stop the repeat offenders from coming back.

nl626c
nl626c

Rehabilitate them, get them ready for reentry into society, then saddle them with debt so they end up just like our college grads, but without an education. Sounds brilliant...?

realreform
realreform

Such BS, redneck Tennessee people want everyone locked up, but they don't want to pay for it. They expect those in jail (who don't have a job) to pay for it. What a load of BS.

Most of these people are in there for victimless crimes. They shouldn't even be in prison in the first place. But let's not place the blame where it is deserved (the taxpayers and the legislature); let's blame the inmates because they are easy targets. No one cares about them (until it is your son or brother in there).

ThomBurke
ThomBurke

Well, we could also stop locking up such a huge percentage of our population over petty BS charges like drug possession. But now that prison are becoming a private industry, complete with lobbyists and contracts with municipalities guaranteeing a certain minimum occupancy, you won't see that happen until Citizens United is overturned (most likely by an amendment).

az-pete
az-pete

Bring back the death penalty.  A fair speedy trial, then a trip out back and hung.

SharonElamSmith
SharonElamSmith

I think this is great! Many prisons also charge for salt, pepper, ketchup and any other condiments. They have to feed them but nobody says it has to taste good. Don't do the crime if you can't pay and do the time. Amen!

US1776
US1776

In Florida, the governors wife, ran the prison concession.

Everything was 10x as expensive as on the outside.

It was just a scheme to rip off prisoner's families.


.

mrmajestyk
mrmajestyk

Just WHAT AIN'T BROKEN in this country???

tonydockery
tonydockery

Why don't they get their friend Bernanke from the fed to conjure up some free money out of thin air like he does for his banker friends and loan it to these jails for free with no interest ..Isn't that how the government gets around things and just pass the buck to those of us who are lucky enough to have jobs to pay the taxes...Thats the American way eh.

JLO1965
JLO1965

How is this even legal ? Numerous court cases have proven that when the state takes on the responsibility of housing a prisoner, they take on the responsibility of providing for their basic human needs -- food, clothing, shelter, and health care. It's set up that way because the very point of incarceration is to take away an inmate's ability to go out and provide for himself for the sake of the general public. We, as taxpayers, pay for these sickos not for their sakes but for our own, because keeping them in prison is better for us than allowing them out to work, to earn, and to pay for their own food, clothing and health care.

scotta777
scotta777

Our prison system is a wreck.  We make worse criminals of the people than they were before they went it.  Charging them for being in prison and then sending them back to prison for not paying that debt is immoral, stupid and self-defeating.    Our solution to crime is going to create a prison nation that one day just might successfully revolt. I wish I had a humane solution that would work, but as long as we continue to coddle violent offenders, prison seems to be little deterrence.  

G.Gecko
G.Gecko

I think each and everyone of you missed the real issue here , the government has for a long time imprisoned people for relatively minor offenses usually minor drug offenses in the name of the war on drugs which was and still is a train wreck of a policy and now the cost to house all these people has gotten expensive but instead of admitting it was a failed policy and should be abolished theyre coming up with even worse ideas to cover the cost . We need a voice of reason because its certainly not coming from politicians or law enforcers.

debg
debg

Make everyone, rich and poor, work. The more they do, the more perks they have. If they opt to do nothing, they can look at 4 walls all day. Nobody should have a TV in their cell or gym equipment in the yard, but they should have access to books to read. What a novelty reducing the taxpayer burden. Really if they wanted weights, fill gallon milk jugs with water. Eliminate college education for inmates, because people who do the right thing are the ones being saddled with student debt.

StillGridlocked
StillGridlocked

Unfortunately what will happen is that inmates will stop having money sent in.  Now rather than profit from sales of items the prison or jail will have to provide things such as soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes, razors etc free to every single prisoner each week. 

MinotaurDC
MinotaurDC

Since the prisons are gender separated, the prisoners should have the option of being clothes free if they make the fees optional. Toilet paper is completely unnecessary in a facility that has convenient showers. Nude people are more humble and less likely to engage in violence. May of these convicts like to show off their tattoos anyway. Nudity can be a way of teaching them respect for their bodies and re-civilizing offenders before they re-enter society. It might even promote better fitness/health for many. Same rules apply for sex offenses whether one is clothed or unclothed.

YohananEliYah
YohananEliYah

@GeorgeC  We invite you to call in to the show New Abolitionists Radio, and speak with the hosts. Our studio call-In # is 704-951-5030. Every week we highlight the prison for profit/modern day slavery complex, and you have a clear and powerful testimony that more people need to hear. Please, come in and share your perspective, either on the facebook page any day, or on the live show every Wednesday at 8pm est.

Peace

https://www.facebook.com/newabolitionistsradio

YohananEliYah
YohananEliYah

@Yoshi  $10 an hour is far from the average. The prison average pay is closer to $1.00 per hour. Plus, at a cost to tax payers of typically $25,000- $30,000 per year, per inmate, as well as the contracts being locked in at 80% , 90% and 100% guaranteed capacity- this is a major problem. So the crime rates go down, but the beds have to stay full... So Wall Street rides high, as corporations have lower overhead due to laws in 37 states which allows for prison slave labor, there will never be a "trickle down" in this economics.

romano70
romano70

@RyanLondon How about saving ourselves all that effort and de-criminalize weed?

YohananEliYah
YohananEliYah

@oncefallenbook  private prison stock is one of the stupidest investments you can make. The industry appears to operate a fundamentally flawed business model and is routinely shown to be thoroughly corrupt from top to bottom. They only have a few options for increasing profitability:

  1. Incarcerate the maximum number of people for as long as possible
  2. Build and maintain prisons as cheaply as possible
  3. Staff prisons as leanly as possible
  4. Compensate staff as little as possible
  5. Minimize the amount of medical care utilized by prisoners

Every dollar saved from staffing costs and prisoner care results in another dollar added to the company's bottom line. Unfortunately, it seems that this pursuit of profit has led to unsafe conditions and systemic abuse of inmates at private for-profit prisons.

ninjy
ninjy

@Duffman So California, New York, Illinois are included in your southern hicks statement or did you too not read the article to its entirety.

romano70
romano70

@ninjy Why do you want to jail non-violent drug users to begin with? Most of the prison population are also people with mental illnesses, who should be in HOSPITALS, not prisons...so who is doing wrong?

romano70
romano70

@nl626c And to top it off, make sure that they can't vote, get elected for office or receive assistance and make them pay ALL THEIR LIVES for that ONE mistake they may have made 5 years ago when they were 18....

ninjy
ninjy

@realreform  

Did you bother reading the entire article? Tennessee is only the LATEST IN A LONG LINE of states already doing this. Several other states have implemented plans of this sort as well. 

romano70
romano70

@az-pete Sure, let's just bypass that thing conservatives hate: The US constitution!

perisoft
perisoft

@az-pete For everybody? Seems a tad harsh, don't you think?

I also like how in your version the outcome of the trial is irrelevant... ;)

ccisneros6448
ccisneros6448

That's what I'm saying!!!!  Omg, really!!!  I was just discussing this article with an attorney and he said this is unconstitutuional!!!! 

HenkVandenbergh
HenkVandenbergh

@mrmajestyk What ain't broken? The faith that putting the same bums in charge every election will make everything better.

perisoft
perisoft

@scotta777 "Our solution to crime is going to create a prison nation that one day just might successfully revolt."

Or worse, be full of people who say stuff like "strewth" and "g'day mate" and start brewing Foster's.

SharonElamSmith
SharonElamSmith

@scotta777 They didn't think about the comfort of their victims. I resent having to pay to house a bunch of idiots in prison.

tonydockery
tonydockery

They charge exorbitant amount of fees to call an inmate and they have a rigged system for members of a family to give prisoners money they have to actually pay so much on a dollar to even bring money for the inmate so the state rips you off again.._Prisons are a joke anymore...its all about money nothing else.

XanderLegere
XanderLegere

@MinotaurDCYou want the option of turning the US prison system into some sort of rapey barred off nudist colony?

cjh2nd
cjh2nd

@MinotaurDC 

sounds like you've spent quite a bit of time thinking about this. does someone have a prison orgy fantasy?

romano70
romano70

@ninjy @Duffman You are aware that most of those states have inflated prison populations because there are mandatory FEDERAL requirements for offenses that should not even in the books? You are ALSO aware that those laws were brought to a vote by conservatives, right (which now happen to live in the SOUTH)? You also know that the South has very limited options for jobs and industry, besides penitentiaries whereas blue states can afford to shed those jobs and put people to work on something else, right?

realreform
realreform

@SharonElamSmith @scotta777 Most inmates have absolutely no victims. They did not victimize anyone. Only a very small percentage of inmates victimized an actual person. The vast majority are in there for mere drug possession or other victimless crimes.

atavales
atavales

In a prison, and for that matter anywhere, you don't need to be nude to be raped.

rwconserv101
rwconserv101

@romano70 @ninjy @Duffman Obviously you have never been to the South. I drive around my Texas town and see all the Yankee license plates on cars of all the people that move here for jobs at the "limited industry we have here. You sir are a Moron.

XanderLegere
XanderLegere

@atavales While that's true no doubt, clothing tends to add a few seconds of protection from rape, which is prison is probably not enough time... 

 Taking away their clothing sounds like a bad solution though, I won't hassel about giving them the option. It seems kind of cruel and unusual punishment.


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