After the passage of SB 1070 (the toughest immigration legislation in United States history), the Minute Men, and Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s Tent City, many of us thought that Arizona could sink no lower in terms of devaluing the rights of its residents, but yet another gross offense against human decency has evolved in the Grand Canyon State. Anyone who wants to visit a prisoner in the Arizona Department of Corrections must pay a $25 fee.
Essentially the Arizona prisons have responded to the state budget cuts by taxing prisoners’ families who are already among the most vulnerable populations in the state, and the added cost for visitation will certainly deter family members from visiting.
Popular discourse surrounding the financial cost of incarceration tends to focus on what the state pays to lock someone up and court costs, but we seldom examine the monetary losses suffered by prisoners’ families. When a person enters a prison system, s/he loses the ability to be fiscally responsible. The incarcerated can neither pay their outstanding debts–legal or otherwise–nor provide financial support to their families. Prisoners have only two ways of accessing funds. Either someone in the outside world deposits money into an inmate trust account run by the prison system, or in some states prisoners can earn money for jobs performed in the prison or on work release.
Some state prison systems have found ways to take a cut of the money families send to their incarcerated loved ones. In California, prison sentences often include a fee to be paid in restitution to the state, which in practical terms means that both prisoner wages and deposits made by family members to prisoner accounts are taxed with a certain percentage of the funds going to pay the restitution costs. Every time a family member deposits money for a prisoner to use, the state of California takes 55% until the prisoner’s restitution costs have been paid.
Prison wages vary from state to state, but the Prison Policy Initiative cites the average of the maximum wages paid to prisoners by states as $4.73 a day. In Texas and Georgia prisoners are not paid at all for their labor.
You might be wondering why folks in prison need money at all. Prisoners can only spend funds in their trust accounts at the commissary within the prison or send their money home to their families or others on their visiting lists. In Texas, indigent prisoners are not given toothpaste, just tooth powder which one scrubs onto the teeth with one’s fingers. Other hygiene products, like deodorant, can only be obtained if you have the money to buy them. Prisoners can also buy stamps and letter-writing supplies, which for families who cannot afford the expense of collect phone calls or travel for visits serve as the primary (or only) means of communication between a prisoner and her/his loved ones.
Prison commissaries also sell food products, which have proven invaluable for prisoners with dietary concerns. For instance, starting in 1995 the Texas Department of Corrections fed prisoners a meat substitute known as Vita Pro, until the Texas Supreme Court ruled that the prisons could no longer serve it. During the years that Vita Pro was being served, many prisoners, my father among them, could not attain adequate nutrition from the food provided in the prison chow hall and reported terrible digestive problems whenever they attempted to eat Vita Pro, which was served at almost every meal for four years. Therefore, money to show at the prison commissary was essential to their health. Those without funds had to make do with Vita Pro or find ways to trade for commissary food in the prison’s underground economy. Prisoners’ families, mine included, felt an urgency to provide our incarcerated loved ones with funds to pay for food. This cost, like so many others in the prison, gets displaced onto people who have not been convicted of crimes, who are helping to prevent recidivism by maintaining essential family ties with prisoners.
Now Texas families are being hit with a new and frightening fee: $100 a year to cover the cost of a prisoner’s health care. Since Texas prisoners earn absolutely no wages for their prison jobs, the only means by which such fees can be paid is by family members, and this $100 a year will only buy our loved ones access to health care so bad that the Texas Civil Rights Project’s latest report on the subject calls it a “Secret Death Penalty.”
Get Tough on Crime advocates say that prisoners deserve to pay for every conceivable thing, but even if one buys into that extreme ideology, one cannot force a largely indigent population to cover the costs of its own incarceration. Instead families take on the myriad financial burdens of incarceration. Most of these families are already among the working poor, and incarceration cost them a breadwinner in the household. Many incarcerated people, especially women, fulfilled caregiver roles in their families prior to their incarceration, so their displacement from the home means that families must find alternative means to care for the children, elderly, and incapacitated people in their households. We family members also cover the costs of travel for visitation, collect phone calls, and the legal debts that court battles leave in their wake. Now we must pay for the basic rights to see those we love and to provide them with ineffective health care.