Jan. 4, 2020

The Hidden Cost of Incarceration

by Charles Douglas Owens, II (author's profile)



FILED 5:00 a.m.
The Hidden Cost of Incarceration
Prison costs taxpayers $80 billion a year. It costs some families everything they have.

Telita Hayes has spent thousands of dollars keeping in touch with her ex-husband, William Reese, who is incarcerated at Louisiana State Penitentiary. OLIVIA PERILLO FOR THE MARSHALL PROJECT AND THE NEW YORK TIMES

The Marshall Project is partnering with The New York Times Race/Related newsletter to present a weeklong series on families of the incarcerated. This is the first of five parts.

Every month, Telita Hayes adds nearly $200 to the commissary account for her ex-husband, William Reese, who has been in the Louisiana State Penitentiary for 28 years.

Each prisoner there is given three meals a day and some personal hygiene items, like soap and toothpaste. But when Reese gets hungry between meals, or when his state-issued supplies run out, the commissary money buys him extra food and other necessities.

That is not the only way his imprisonment drains her wallet. On top of the $2,161 she has put in his commissary account so far this year, Hayes has paid $3,586 in charges for talking to him on the phone when she cannot make the hourlong drive to the prison, and even $419 for emails sent through the prison’s email system.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics reckons that the United States spends more than $80 billion each year to keep roughly 2.3 million people behind bars. Many experts say that figure is a gross underestimate, though, because it leaves out myriad hidden costs that are often borne by prisoners and their loved ones, with women overwhelmingly shouldering the financial burden. These costs rise during the holiday season, relatives of people in prison say, as they make more visits, call more often and send more care packages.

National data is rarely gathered on how much prisoners’ families pay into the corrections system. So to better understand the hidden costs of incarceration, The Marshall Project asked people to document their spending. Nearly 200 people responded. Many families said they shell out hundreds of dollars each month to feed, clothe and stay connected to someone behind bars, paying for health care, personal hygiene items and phone calls and other forms of communication.

Hayes pulled out a t-shirt with her ex-husband's photo on it that she made to attend a rodeo. OLIVIA PERILLO FOR THE MARSHALL PROJECT AND THE NEW YORK TIMES

Hayes said she spends an additional $200 on visits and phone calls around Christmastime. Prison is tough enough; surviving it alone is even harder—especially during the holidays.

“I think the biggest misconception that people have about prison is that ‘the state’ pays for everything,” wrote Connie Martin, 50, from Hazel Park, Michigan. “No one realizes that it’s the friends and families of loved ones that pay.”

The Prison Policy Initiative, an organization working to reduce mass incarceration, estimates that families spend $2.9 billion a year on commissary accounts and phone calls. Families are also often responsible for paying court fees, restitution and fines when a member goes to prison. According to a 2015 report by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Forward Together, and Research Action Design, the average family paid roughly $13,000 in fines and fees.

Kae Boone, 52, says she spends $100 a month on her boyfriend, Charles Lee Isaac, 52, who is incarcerated at the Graceville Work Camp in Graceville, Florida, for failing a drug test, a violation of his parole for an earlier offense. Boone says the money mostly goes toward toiletries and food. The one hotel-sized bar of soap Isaac gets each week from the prison won’t last through a full week of showers.

Keeping him clean and fed has forced Boone to make trade-offs in her own life. Sometimes she struggles to pay her own bills. “I had one of my cars repossessed because I would prefer to send him money and make sure he’s taken care of,” she said.

In many facilities, basic items are sold by private vendors, often with substantial markups or added service fees. Over the years, the cost to families has increased as prisons and jails across the country increasingly outsource many of the basic functions of running a correctional facility to private companies.

Hayes puts on her ex-husband's favorite shoes at her home as she prepares to go visit him at The Louisiana State Penitentiary. OLIVIA PERILLO FOR THE MARSHALL PROJECT AND THE NEW YORK TIMES

It is a trend that has accelerated since the 2008 recession, as state legislatures have looked for ways to bring down the rising cost of incarceration, according to Hadar Aviram, a professor at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law. “Public prisons are public only by name,” she said. “These days, you pay for everything in prison.”

Prison officials often say the switch to private vendors makes the prisons more secure and prevents contraband from being smuggled in with outside food or gifts. Many families say they’re now paying more for the same goods they used to be able to purchase on their own.

“Back in the day, we could buy underwear and tennis shoes and jeans and have it shipped directly to the inmate,” said Hayes, who is 50. Now, she said, she has to go through approved vendors.

“The price is jacked up on everything,” she said. Over the two years since the couple reconnected after a 12-year separation, Hayes estimates that she has spent upward of $10,000 supporting him in prison. Her ex-husband is serving a life sentence for aggravated rape, so the costs of staying in touch could extend for many years.

When Dawn Hodges, 47, moved back to her hometown, she learned that her childhood friend T.J. Davis, also 47, was serving a two-year sentence for driving on a suspended license. Davis had been in and out of prison over the years as he struggled to overcome a drug addiction. Although he had been sober and out of trouble for nearly a decade, the driving charge violated the terms of his parole.

At first, Hodges wrote Davis letters. But when their exchanges rekindled old feelings, they wanted to stay in touch more often, so Hodges bought Davis a tablet device. The tablets, which cost $80, offer Florida prisoners more ways to connect with people back home, including email and video calls—but at a price.

Each email requires a digital “stamp,” which costs $12 for a set of 30. Pictures and attachments require an additional stamp. Hodges says she emails Davis at least once a day, blowing through 30 to 40 stamps a month.

Jennifer Erschabek, executive director of the Texas Inmate Families Association, considers the money that people like Hodges spend an additional tax. The high prices are the result of contracts that are written with profits in mind, she said. Texas recently reduced the cost of telephone calls with prisoners to 6 cents a minute, from 23 cents, by negotiating a better deal with the provider.

In states where the rates are still exorbitant, it is perilously easy to binge on expensive services to stay in touch. As a result, people trade tips for saving money through numerous Facebook groups and chat rooms for families of the incarcerated.

The Louisiana State Penitentiary, known as Angola Prison, in December. OLIVIA PERILLO FOR THE MARSHALL PROJECT AND THE NEW YORK TIMES

Whatever their workarounds, family members said the strain of finding the money to stay in touch and ease the burdens of incarceration exacts a continual emotional toll.

“At times I can’t afford stamps, and my loved one feels forgotten about, but life is expensive out here,” wrote Jestine Pudlo, 24, of Crystal River, Florida. “I can’t afford to put money on the phone, either, so I have to decline calls, and it hurts my heart to do that.”

In November and December, people incarcerated in federal prisons are allowed to receive an extra 100 minutes of phone calls. Family members say the extra time can feel like a lifeline because of restrictions on receiving gifts from outside prison.

Those limitations make calls and visits around the holidays extremely important, wrote Sheena Perron, 34, from St. Paul, Minnesota. “I find myself willing to put myself in a financial crunch just to make that communication happen!”


Nicole Lewis is a staff writer reporting on voting rights, technology and the privatization of services in prisons and jails. She previously wrote for The Fact Checker at The Washington Post. In 2016, she won an Education Writers Association award as part of a series on school desegregation in Mississippi.

Beatrix Lockwood has reported on criminal justice issues including families of the incarcerated, prison food, and electronic monitoring. She uses social media and engagement reporting to include more community voices in stories.


Replies (5) Replies feed

SocialJusticeisBiblicallybased Posted 2 months, 3 weeks ago. ✓ Mailed 2 months, 2 weeks ago   Favorite
From the out I think all understand the sadness of such an article. But I think from a MBA/MDIV, you might look at the numbers differently than myself.

You see, the units rented are not where the money flows freely. Unlike private institutions, costs cannot be reduced beyond the low levels of now. States have already lowered the costs so much so as to mark a linear reduction in calories provided and the variety of food. Overcrowding does not matter...let them sleep on the floor. Associations tax prisoners. Commissary and prepackaged venders have markups sometimes two hundred percent than the same goods purchased on the open market. The state and the venders benefit and the more they can sell, the higher the return.

Email correspondence is often a greater cost to the out, compared to the cost of snail mail. Why? Because the inordinate profit provided for a luxury must be split between the state and the provider. Phone calls, besides paying by the minute, often have a connection fee that remains the same whether the call is two minutes or ten minutes, some institutions this is $4.

The long and the short of it is that the state basically has a cash cow in the subsidiary services and even in the essentials such as hygiene. It is an urban myth that prisoners are given all they need to survive. WRONG! The blessed captives have people on the out to help, while the abandoned are forced into a hustle and there are dozens of them.

Prisoners with jobs are rarely paid more than $1 hour and I mostly hear about 20 cents an hour. Often the conditions are awful but many guys have to have that dollar or some will push thru just to get out of the cell (or when they are lucky enough) the day room or the gym.

Don't even get me started on medical copays or the quarterly dentists that would rather yank a whole mouth of teeth verses giving a root canal.

Legal copies are needed to file a case from inside and the cost is double what one would pay for a copy on the out. If you can't pay it is added to your negative balance.

Some states put the entire amount of restitution as a negative commissary amount so that particular man can never receive anything, food, drink, or communication until the balance is collected. So, they get things thru other guys who also tax them, so they are taxed by the state, provider, association, associate, friends....This is injustice.

For States converting to tablets, the costs of the tablet, the cost of music, the costs of video visitation...are all (at least) double the price on the out.

Most state have GED but California and a few others have college, although some states will allow it only if fullly funded by the inmate (family).

Who benefits from the system...the State...the providers...and believe it or not, the sheriff, the wardens, (often the staff in special funding of staff development (fun) days (picnics and games and what not).

Yes, it is a sad article...but not as sad as the reality.

Charles Douglas Owens, II Posted 1 month, 3 weeks ago.   Favorite
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SocialJusticeisBiblicallybased Posted 1 month, 3 weeks ago. ✓ Mailed 1 month ago   Favorite
It slays me on TV all the time...when they can't find out the bad guy...they always say the same thing. The same thing...over and over and over!

As if this were the answer to some great riddle.

They always say...'follow the money.' Hummmmmm...follow the money....hummmmmmmm....

what is injustice worth? what's a word worth? To be a custodian implies a measure of responsibility unmatched in the secular world whereby the institution becomes the stewards of those held by society under penal code. And what is the basic right, God has ordained in each person, by virtue of being made in His Image? It is the dignity, value, and worth due to every human person.

We all know this in our hearts...but then for those with no one on the in, the system model is not a model of stewardship, but the model of capitalism. Now what if nursing homes, and hospitals, and rehabs used that same model of capitalism. But wait, they do. And anyone acquainted with these services, understand the suffering that might result from a focus on staying in the black.

So then why John is a prison different? A prison is not a for profit institution. Lining the pockets from top to bottom...misery becomes the byproduct of a healthy bottom line. When management is fat and happy...everyone is fat and happy. Unlike other institutions constantly inspected by the state, businesses, banks, industries, utilities...No one cries foul against a warden who takes a physical plant that has depreciated to salvage value years ago, who sells phone time and commissary...and electronic services out the wazoo. That warden knows not castigation...only pats on the back and at-a-boy's. And where does the extra money go? Follow the money.

For a non-profit like a Church, it is redistributed to those with the greater need. A Church, even though not for profit, treats workers pretty good compared to the average job. And the pastor...if he lives according to Christ...will give more than the average person to keep the boat afloat.

If the writers of prime time bad detective shows know the secret...why can't the governor? What about rehab dollars? What about transitional housing? What about real education? What about faith, hope, and love?

What about honesty and transparency...equity...fairness? Penalizing the felon is a hardship on families and spawns it's own ways to solve problems. Wish I could say love but nah....prostitution...drugs...hooch...gambling....and so on.

Sorry Chuck...I seem to have questions...and no answers. FJP

Charles Douglas Owens, II Posted 1 week ago.   Favorite
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Dear Charles Douglas,

The Bible would tell me to pray for those who oppose that which is good, and right and TRUE. So to some degree I am indebted to the COMPLEX or CONGLOMERATE or whatever name you give to for profit companies and officials of the Justice System. From the in I mostly hear it called the belly of the beast (for real) That is, I mean to say bt me being indebted to them, I owe them many prayers, prayers for a new heart of flesh and to abandon their heart of stone.

You comment on profiteering on "needs..." But other people in need of prayer profit on the rights of individuals, for instance switching to Video visitation is touted as the cheapest alternative to off site visitation. But what man can hold his baby through the video screen or kiss his daughter or hug his mom and dad. Wherever "video visitation" is announced...not to far later no more in person visitation, and the model is moved to a for profit internet based service...very expensive and there is no gas station food to share either (even though the gas station food is only fifty percent higher than a gas station.) This is just one example. Contractors that provide food, clothing, and entertainment bundles have an uncharge that makes Niemen Marcus look cheap. Who pays the penalty? Whoever loves you and that is the lucky ones.

Found a podcast you would love Chuck called "Justice in America..." It details many of our conversations. Maybe your mother would enjoy it if you can't hear it. Many institutions are going into for profit tablets for pay tv, pay email, pay video visitation, pay commissoorry ordering and form completing, and music (pf course) again for pay, even books for pay. Golden tablets. Golden.

This is what makes BTB so very special. You see there is no uncharge for me to communicate with you Chuck. I know it costs you a stamp and a envelope and paper and some time, but the cost is reasonable for two way communication. And I thank God for the BTB service who brings the light to shine in very dark places. I owe you a snail mail brother with personal updates. I'll try to get it out on the weekend. I remain an advocate for Social Justice, FJP

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