A mom finds out that her son hasn’t been brushing his teeth at camp because he can’t find the toothpaste he packed. The mom runs to the store, buys the toothpaste, and tosses it in the mail. Problem solved. The cost of making sure her son keeps his pearly-whites clean? About $8—around $3 for the toothpaste and maybe $5 for the postage.
Another mom finds her son in a similar situation, but this time he isn’t at camp. He’s in prison. To get her son a tube of toothpaste, this mother is going to take more than $100 out of her bank account.
Yes, really, over $100.
An appropriate question might arise in light of this information: Just how can a tube of toothpaste cost $100, or even $120 in prison?
Answer: When the price tag includes more than just the toothpaste.
Outrageously high prices for common goods in prison accumulate when prisoners and their families are stuck paying heavy fees for just about every part of the transaction process.
In order to get money to a loved one in prison, family members will probably be required to use a prison-approved third-party bank to transfer the funds. Such third-party banking companies charge hefty fees, and then they give a portion of the fees back to the corrections agencies. One of the largest companies is JPay, which services prisons in 32 states, handling money transfers for some 70% of the nation’s prisoners.
The Center for Public Integrity investigated JPay and other profit-sharing prison banking systems and found that families are the most burdened by these arrangements.
The math works out like this: “With a $120 deposit in Virginia, prisoners will only receive $44.44 after JPay gets $51.90 and the prison takes out its share of $23.66,” explains this Christian Post article.
And it’s worse in Florida. In the “Sunshine State,” after booking fees, subsistence fees, medical co-pays, and transfer fees, $130 might get whittled down to about six bucks. Depending on the facility, $6 is just enough for that tube of toothpaste, and maybe a deck of cards.
Another appropriate question may follow: Why are the fees so exorbitant?
Answer: Because they can be.
State prisons are funded by state taxpayers, but there have been recurring shortfalls in the prison budgets over the last ten years, leaving corrections agencies to find creative ways to cover costs. When third party banking systems like JPay offer to take over the prison’s financial transfers and put a sizable cut of their profits back into the budget, it is hard to turn them down.
It falls to us, then, to advocate for policies that cap these fees, knocking them back down to a more reasonable level.
Family involvement in an individual’s life, while he is incarcerated, is a huge factor in his journey away from a life of crime. Understanding this, we should incentivize loved ones to invest in those who are in prison. We should persuade our legislators and corrections officials that placing excessive burdens on families’ ability to communicate and connect with a relative who is incarcerated works against community safety and societal interests.
“This is an evolving issue that I think that many advocacy groups were unaware of,” Justice Fellowship Executive Director Craig DeRoche commented in the Post article. “At this time, the most of the legislatures have adjourned for the year. I believe this will be a larger topic going into 2015 as more and more interest gains around it.”