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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