Inmates Struggle to Pay for Prison Stay After Release

Suit battles Connecticut law that bills prisoners $249 per day
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Aug 29, 2022 5:55 PM CDT
Inmates Struggle to Pay $249 Per Day for Prison Stay
Fred Hodges, left, and Da'ee McKnight pose this month at their workplace, Family ReEntry, a reentry support group aiming to break cycles of violence, crime, and incarceration in Bridgeport, Conn. Hodges and McKnight are former state inmates who have been paying for cost of their incarceration.   (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

Two decades after her release from prison, Teresa Beatty feels she is still being punished. When her mother died two years ago, the state of Connecticut put a lien on the Stamford home she and her siblings inherited. It said she owed $83,762 for her 2½-year imprisonment for drug crimes, the AP reports. Now, she's afraid she'll have to sell her home of 51 years, where she lives with two adult children, a grandchild, and her disabled brother. "I'm about to be homeless," said Beatty, 58, who in March became the lead plaintiff in a suit challenging the state law that charges prisoners $249 a day for the cost of their incarceration. "I just don't think it's right, because I feel I already paid my debt to society. I just don't think it's fair for me to be paying twice."

All but two states have "pay-to-stay" laws, though not every state pursues people for the money. Supporters say the collections are a legitimate way for states to recoup millions of taxpayer dollars spent on prisons and jails. Others say it's an unfair second penalty that hinders rehabilitation by putting former inmates in debt for life. Efforts have been underway in some places to scale back or eliminate such policies. Two states—Illinois and New Hampshire—have repealed their laws since 2019. Connecticut overhauled its statute this year, keeping it in place only for the most serious crimes, such as murder, and exempting prisoners from having to pay the first $50,000 of their incarceration costs. That clears 98% of inmates after they get out, a lawmaker said. It's unclear whether the change in the law, made after Beatty sued, will keep her in her home.

As prison populations ballooned in the 1980s and '90s, policymakers questioned how to pay for incarceration costs, said Brittany Friedman of the University of Southern California, who is leading a study of the practice. "So, instead of raising taxes, the solution was to shift the cost burden from the state and the taxpayers onto the incarcerated." Republican Sen. John Kissel said: "The policy is to make one appreciate that your incarceration costs money. The taxpayers footed the bill. They didn't do anything wrong." Beatty acknowledges she was guilty of selling and possessing drugs but says nobody told her when she went to jail that every day behind bars would cost her more than a night at a fine hotel. "It just drags you back to despair," she said.

(More prisons stories.)

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