Some former inmates are forced to foot a big bill
Critics and prison ministries say fines and fees hinder rehabilitation
When Brad Farr was released from prison in Amarillo, Texas, between fines, court costs, and traffic violations, he owed thousands. He didn’t have a driver’s license and needed to pay off 17 traffic violations totaling $4,893. “When I got released from prison, I had nothing. And I certainly didn’t have family members that were willing to help me because I burned all those bridges,” he said.
It was Sept. 13, 2011, and his father was dying of cancer. Farr was paroled to his father’s house with a bulky black ankle monitor. If he didn’t make his curfew within 10 minutes, the box beeped loudly and alerted the police. Farr borrowed his dad’s pants that clearly didn’t fit, some old business shoes, and a T-shirt, and showed up at any odd job he could find. Some days he power-washed a driveway or cleaned carpets.
But $150 here and there barely made a dent in the nearly $4,500 he owed in court fines, in addition to his tickets. If he didn’t pay, the county could arrest him and hold him until he had served enough time to wipe his debt. “I was really trying to straighten out my life … and put one foot in front of the other,” he said. “You finally get out of prison and you figure out very quickly that this is hopeless … I’m never going to make it. I’m never going to pay these penalties.’”
For Teresa Beatty, it’s $83,762. Beatty, 58, completed her 30-month sentence for a drug crime but soon realized the punishment wasn’t over. The state of Connecticut charged her $249 a day for her prison stay. Now, she’s about to be homeless. If she doesn’t pay her debts, the state could repossess the Stamford home she and her siblings inherited.
Critics say pay-to-stay laws shoulder inmates with an unfair burden, and prison ministries argue that it’s only one of the many crushing costs that hinder rehabilitation.
“I just don’t think it’s right, because I feel I’ve already paid my debt to society,” Beatty said. “I don’t think it’s fair for me to be paying twice.” She is seeking class-action status for her lawsuit, which argues Connecticut is violating the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. That amendment prohibits excessive fines.
Connecticut isn’t the only state with so-called “pay-to-stay” laws on the books. All but two states—Illinois and New Hampshire—have similar laws in place, but not every state enforces them. States spend millions of taxpayer dollars on prisons and jails, and proponents argue they need some way to recoup that money. The laws target former inmates’ assets, inheritances, pension funds, disability benefits, or insurance settlements. Then–Connecticut Gov. John Rowland pushed for the pay-to-stay law adopted in 1995. The law followed Michigan’s example and allowed the state to charge prisoners for the daily costs of their incarceration and sue them in civil court to get the money, . Other states followed suit.
In Michigan, jails can charge inmates between $20-$60 per day. A stint in a Jackson County jail for 120 days at $32 dollars a day leaves an inmate with a tab of $3,840. About two-thirds of Ohio counties charge similar fees for time in the county jail. Athens County, Ohio, prosecutor Keller Blackburn says overburdening an inmate is the wrong message. “If they can never pay the money back, they never have incentive to even try,” he said.
Prisons can also charge inmates for their stay in less obvious ways. In Texas, inmates have a co-pay for medical costs up to a maximum of $100. Prisoners also pay for items like stamps, toothpaste, and tennis shoes from the prison commissary. “Historically prison phone calls have experienced quite a markup as compared with the cost of making a phone call in virtually any other environment,” said Kate Trammell, the vice president of advocacy for Prison Fellowship. Prisons often also mark up the cost of personal hygiene products. With no access to necessary items from the outside, the commissary is usually bustling.
Brittney Friedman studies pay-to-stay laws at the University of Southern California. During the tough-on-crime decades of the ’80s and ’90s, states searched for ways to pay for their enlarged prison populations. “So, instead of raising taxes, the solution was to shift the cost burden from the state and the taxpayers onto the incarcerated,” she said.
Trammell with Prison Fellowship says administrative fees should be included in government budgets, not passed on to those facing punishment. “Too often, people face a lot of extensive debt when they leave prison just due to administrative fees, excessive court fees and costs, and excessive fines and things that are expenses to operate the criminal justice system,” she said. Paying off thousands of dollars of debt can take decades, “especially if you are coming out of prison and need to start totally over economically.”
Since 2019, Illinois and New Hampshire have repealed their laws. Connecticut revamped its law this year. Now, only prisoners convicted of the most serious crimes like murder are forced to cover their prison stay. The laws exempt all prisoners from paying the first $50,000. Ninety-eight percent of inmates won’t be charged anything, but the state can still collect some past debts. Connecticut changed the law after Beatty sued. The court will decide whether the change will allow her to keep her home of 51 years.
“It just drags you back to despair,” Beatty said. “That’s where I feel like I’m at. I feel like no hope. Where do I go? All of this work, and it feels like I’ve done it in vain.”
At one halfway house in North Austin, Texas, William Payne and his wife, Rosa, sit on a saggy, but comfortable, brown cloth couch. Six men live in the Matthew House, one of eight of Texas Reach Out Ministries’ (TROM) homes for men and women transitioning out of prison. In the corner is the tell-tale bulky black box of a parolee. A time chart of Biblical history sits on the coffee table. Payne is the chief maintenance officer for TROM. The Paynes pick up former inmates from the bus station, often at 2 a.m. or 3 a.m., and take them to one of five homes for men or three for women. Rules are strict. TROM wants men and women to stand on their own two feet. But Payne remembers what it’s like to be fresh out of prison and overwhelmed by fines. Inmates need to be held accountable with love, not set up for failure, he said.
He pointed to recidivism statistics. Two out of three inmates, more than 50 percent, are rearrested following release. “If they don’t have a safe haven to go to and people that are going to be there to help them … you’re going to have a problem,” Payne said. “I came to this exact house [as an ex-inmate],” he said as he gestured around the room.
Brad Farr is grateful for the challenging compassion he received after he finished his sentence for multiple felonies. He got baptized in 2013. Now, he’s on the board of directors for TROM and owns two construction companies. He says a place like TROM is a must for newly released men and women buried under fines and fees: “It just points out the necessity of someplace like TROM if we’re truly trying to set them up for successes versus the inevitable failure.”
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