Justice Department: It’s Time To End For-Profit Prisons

The Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, of the Justice Department, has stated that for-profit prisons will be completely phased out or greatly reduced within the next five years. The damage done to the inmates of for-profit prisons, and the detriment to the system as a whole, has been well documented for quite some time, so this is a welcome change when it comes to prison reform. However, it is just one small step of many that need to be taken in order to correct the system. Pay-to-stay jails are equally harmful to inmates, most of whom are desperate to get their life back on track.

Many inmates across the country are being charged exorbitant amounts of money for their stay in jail. Jeremy Barrett found this out the hard way when he received a $55,000 bill for his incarceration. He was charged $50 per day for his 1,095 day sentence, and had no idea he would be receiving such a notice.

Those battling drug addiction are often hit hardest. Feeding the addiction is what leads to crime, as most of these people have to steal in order to be able to afford it. Consider for example David Mahoney, who has battled addiction for years but since his release is 15 months sober. He owes $21,000 to the jail in Ohio in which he was housed. This happens all over the country, and is a prime example of pay-to-stay prisons.

Pay-to-stay means that inmates have to pay for everything from medical services to phone calls during their incarceration, and are slapped with the bill upon their leave. In California, there are some cases where an inmate can actually choose this option, but for the most part, criminals are put into these prisons or jails and then have to pay the fee against their will.

In 1984, Michigan became the first state to enact such a law. This came as the next step in a series of prior moves aimed at pinning more of the costs on prisoners. In 1965, California implemented a fee system for criminals to pay back the victim or their family. It wasn’t long until other states started billing criminals to reimburse taxpayers, and Texas reported that, in the 90s, fees from offenders made up more than half the budget of their probation agencies.

More People Going to Jail

In 1980, the total incarcerated population hovered right around 500,000 people. In the 35 years to follow, that number ballooned to a total of approximately 2.2 million people. Close to 5 million more are on probation or parole, and it’s likely that many of them are paying down debt earned in prison. This exponential increase meant there was a large rise in the cost to house all these inmates. So the “pay-to-stay” program was put in place to combat the price tag being applied to taxpayers. However, all it has succeeded in doing is adding to budget constraints and giving those in power the opportunity to exploit others for profit.

But why has there been such a huge rise in prison population? That answer is two-fold, and it comes from the same provision: the War on Drugs, and the mandatory minimum sentencing associated with it.

War on Drugs

In 1980, 41,000 people were incarcerated on drug related charges. By 2014, that number had swelled to half a million. The War on Drugs – a term which first sprang up from President Nixon in 1971 – was intended to combat the influx of cocaine and heroin into the United States, but recently, given the benefit of hindsight, has been viewed as a complete and utter failure in doing so. More than $51 billion is spent annually to fund the War on Drugs, much of it on marijuana regulation. In fact, since 2006 more than 100,000 people have been killed in Mexico’s drug war. The criminalization of marijuana is having the exact same effect as Prohibition did on alcohol in the 20s, but with far more deadly and costly consequences. Another consequence, albeit an unintended and unforeseen one, of such provisions instituted in the 80s is the high cost of housing all of these prisoners.

In California, it costs about $64,000 per year to house just one inmate. Two-thirds of these costs are for security and health care of the prisoner, but health care is not always properly administered. Nationwide, 15 percent of the population in state jails consists of non-violent drug offenders. In federal prison, this number climbs to 50 percent. In California, there has been a recent effort to combat overcrowding, which had gotten so out-of-hand that it actually violated the Eighth Amendment (cruel and unusual punishment). However, population is still well over capacity, and in order to accommodate all of these prisoners, more jails have to be built, at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars each. It’s clear that something more has to be done to relieve overcrowding.

Mandatory Minimums

Traditionally, judges have the ability to weigh all the facts of a case before handing down a sentence. Mandatory minimums removes that ability, and forces the judge to give a harsh sentence which, more often than not, is much longer than it would be otherwise. The provision was intended to deter drug use and capture those at the top of the trade. Instead, many low-level users are given harsh penalties for simple possession. This contributes to overcrowding and the rising prices of housing all of these prisoners. In reality, most shouldn’t even be sent to jail, but even when incarceration is logical, they are spending far more time behind bars than is necessary. Many view mandatory minimums as a racist policy too, with 1 in 3 black men going to jail compared to 1 in 17 white men.

There are a multitude of drug penalties that, while mandatory minimum should be discontinued, should carry harsh sentences. But the general consensus among many experts is that marijuana is comparatively harmless to the other drugs listed as a Schedule 1 narcotic, such as cocaine or meth. Even if a judge wanted to give a short sentence for possession, he can’t. He is bound by law to give first time offenders a minimum of 10 years, even if no harm was caused to others. Granted, a person has to have a very large amount of marijuana in their possession to receive this sentence, but extenuating circumstances should always factor into a legal decision.

So inmates are going to jail for way too long and many of them come out with a huge monetary debt to pay. But that is only the beginning of their troubles. And the public’s.

Three Kinds of Pay-to-Stay Jails

The costs of each type of pay-to-stay varies based on what kind of food is being served, the quality of health care or if there is any sort of rehabilitation program for drugs or alcohol. Other factors determine the cost as well, many of which depend upon the county in which the jail resides. There are three types of pay-to-stay, and each one comes with a different cost structure.

  1. Room-and-board per diem: This is the most common, as one-third of the approximately 3,000 county jails nationwide have this. It charges a per-day fee to inmates, and some are more than most of us would spend on a hotel. For example, Riverside County jail in California charges $142.42 per day. Add that up over a couple of months or even just a couple of weeks, and the total can get rather hefty.
  2. Charging for individual items: The à la carte option that some jails institute charges for everything from clothing to dental services, and even toilet paper. The price for these items varies, but 35 states authorize a co-payment for medical services be levied on the prisoner. Even phone calls used to cost upwards of $14 a minute, but a cap has recently been instituted to significantly lower that cost.
  3. The last one is actually an option that is very popular in California due to the overcrowding of the state’s prisons. Those whose stay will be short, have enough money to do so or some combination of the two, can opt to stay in a jail that is smaller and nicer than the county jails. There are 15 of these types of jails in Southern California alone with a price range of $85-$255 per day. These jails offer better amenities, health care and treatment than other jails. Some are related to worker’s programs, however, an inmate doesn’t earn a “salary.” It’s just paying for not having to stay with the normal prison population.

There are many problems with each of these systems, especially the second one. On numerous occasions, medical services or perhaps even drug rehabilitation are necessary. But in some cases, inmates are refusing treatment because they can’t afford it. This is especially dangerous because, with the overcrowding and tight spaces of most jails, it would be very easy for a sickness to become widespread. The overcrowding also hinders the prison’s budget, and sometimes these cuts invoke care providers to intentionally withhold treatment to those in need. Other conundrums such as doctor-patient confidentiality and end-of-life care are seriously inhibited by these budget cuts (some are cutting health care services by as much as 50 percent), along with other mindsets about the treatment of incarcerated criminals.

Collection Agencies and Debt

Many states, including California, rely on a collection agency to get released inmates to pay their debt. But for the majority of them, this is far from easy. Studies show that as many as 75 percent of convicts remain jobless for up to a year after their release. A lot of these inmates have to provide for their families, and even if that’s not the case they still have to provide for themselves. However, research suggests that only 40 percent of employers would even consider hiring an ex-convict. In this case, ex-prisoners need to turn to welfare or food stamp programs just to be able to survive. But in some states, this is not even an option. Former inmates are literally being starved to the point of returning to jail.

When it comes to collection agencies, however, sympathy runs thin. Take the case of Nora Gonzalez; on top of the court costs, she also was charged for the few days she spent in jail. The $3,000 she owed went to collections, and now can’t work in her previous job as a caregiver until five years after she pays that debt. Without a job, she can’t get money. Without money, she can’t pay the debt. Without the ability to pay the debt, she can’t get a job. This chicken and the egg scenario is a vicious cycle that only seeks to keep those who are already struggling in poverty and in debt. All of this from passing off a bad check.

Public Defenders and Other Costs

Clearly spending time in prison is expensive enough, but more and more often, criminals are finding themselves on the hook for what comes before and after. The Sixth Amendment guarantees every person the right to a fair trial and an attorney. In the continuing effort of the states to recoup the costs of of this, however, many are now subject to having to pay for what used to be considered an inalienable right. This is nothing more than a temporary fix that fails to accept the real problem.

On top of this, attorneys working in the public defender’s office in many cities have found themselves so overworked that they are outright refusing to accept cases, leaving many without representation. On its face, this appears to violate the Constitution, but many say that it doesn’t because “counsel would be ineffective,” which is also a guaranteed right. It’s estimated that 75 percent of criminal cases nationwide use public defenders. Demand is absolutely greater than supply, but forcing criminals to pay for this when almost all of them cannot afford it is not going to make anything better.

Once in prison, families of the inmate can be forced to pay for things too. Video visitation is a technology that has been implemented in 43 states, and proponents of it say that it reduces staffing costs. But families are charged 20 cents to a dollar per minute for video chats, which sometimes runs on flimsy technology. Some also fear that it may soon replace in-person visits, which are free.

Other fees are included on top of the cost of pay-to-stay prison as well. In California, a $300 fine is levied for inability to pay. When a released inmate can’t get a job to pay down their debt from being housed in pay-to-stay prison, it’s not just a burden on them, but everybody else. Welfare and food stamps are government programs funded by the taxpayer. If an ex-convict were given opportunities for a job that provides enough for their family and gives them the ability to pay down debt accrued, the burden on the taxpayer would be far less significant.

Sometimes this inability to pay also results in a warrant being issued for their arrest. Recidivism rates are already staggering enough, especially for those age 24 or younger. Approximately 84 percent of inmates in this age group are arrested again within five years of their initial release. Being thrown right back in jail for an inability to pay the debt accrued from being there the first time only exacerbates the problem. The system is severely stacked against them.

Scenarios such as these are exactly why this collection process does not work. It’s estimated that 10 million people owe $50 billion for their involvement in the criminal justice system. But here’s the problem: collection agencies cost more to run than the amount of money they’re able to recoup from former inmates. In Ohio, they are only able to collect 3 percent of what the department costs to run. Two of them were shut down because the debt collected was so minuscule compared to the cost of running it.

Arguments in Favor of Pay-to-Stay

Despite all of this, many people still say that these methods are the only viable option. However, most of that argument comes from convicts with enough money selecting the option of a pay-to-stay prison. Otherwise, most claims in favor of this program revolve around the idea of alleviating the burden of the taxpayer.

“Our taxpayers pay $62 a day to house one inmate,” says Jay Yeager, the Anderson County (Tennessee) 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.”

Another reason for this system being implemented was that a lot of corrections officers were complaining about prisoners making frivolous requests. The hope for many facilities is that this will reduce the amount of sick calls by prisoners who may not be in need of actual medical treatment.

It’s a fine theory to many citizens, and one that, if effective, seems very fair. After all, why should they have to foot the bill for someone else’s crime? But, as we have seen from all of the evidence accumulated on the subject, it turns out that recently released inmates are far less capable of footing this bill than John Q. Taxpayer.

Back in the Real World

The circle of poverty, prison and unemployment is a whirlpool from which escape is nearly impossible. No one is saying a criminal shouldn’t do the time, but it would be much better for the ex-convict, taxpayer and the economy as a whole if that former prisoner had the chance to repay society for lost time by finding work that sustains their family and keeps them out of poverty. Plus, some of the people running pay-to-stay prisons are borderline criminals themselves.

Occupancy guarantees are written in the contracts of many of these prisons, and it stipulates that a certain amount of beds in cells must be filled for them to make money. Because not all of the money collected from these fines goes to the county; most goes to the company that acts as the collections agent. In order for a prison to keep its funding, they must fill out this contract, which says that upwards of 100 percent of the beds must be occupied. This only acts as an incentive to keep those deserving of much shorter sentences in jail longer, or to put people in jail who shouldn’t be there in the first place.

This inability to pay leads to what some people may refer to as a “snowball effect.” The prison system’s overall ineptitude at preparing inmates for being inserted back into society is troubling. Very few education programs or job skills are taught, inmates are basically just biding their time and surviving. If they do survive and manage to be released, they find themselves trapped in another prison of debt and unemployment. A lot of them end up behind bars again. In fact, the system is so bad that the Justice Department announced it is willing to give $2.5 million in grants to cities and counties that so much as attempt to find alternatives to the exorbitant fees charged to inmates.

This is why Colorado Springs recently decided to stop sending those too poor to pay court fees to prison. They’ll give payouts to people incorrectly sent to jail as well, and it shows that jailing people unable to pay the fines for very minor crimes creates far more problems than it solves.

Pay-to-stay prisons end up costing more money in the long run than do state-run institutions. Education, job training and assistance are what will really help released convicts contribute to the society in which they have been re-inserted. Unjust punishment and unpayable fees hardly qualify as “corrections.” It’s clear that treatment and help are far better methods of reform than the harsh environments promoted in many jails and prisons across the country.

The near-unbreakable cycle of court fees, pay-to-stay prison fees, interest rates on top of that, fines for being unable to pay, more jail time for being unable to pay, and then more fees for that jail time is a debt that even a well-to-do person would have a tough time breaking, let alone someone who was living in poverty already. Mandatory minimums, occupancy guarantees and pay-to-stay prisons do more harm than good, for criminals and law-abiding citizens alike.

*Featured image from Adam Jones, Ph.D., via Wiki Commons

B. Clausen

A graduate of the University of Kansas, Brian Clausen is the U.S. news reporter for Dopplr. Before joining the team, he created digital content for large companies.

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