At Prison Fellowship, we often talk about the cost of incarceration to taxpayers. But what about those taxpayers who are paying even more than what shows up on their tax return?
Last September, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, in collaboration with two other organizations, released the report Who Pays? The True Cost of Incarceration on Families that lays out the financial burden carried by many families of those in prison. The researchers interviewed 712 former prisoners and 368 family members of the formerly incarcerated. Here are some of their findings:
- In 63 percent of cases, family members on the outside were primarily responsible for court-related costs associated with conviction. Of the family members primarily responsible for these costs, 83 percent were women.
- Nearly 2 in 3 families with an incarcerated member were unable to meet their family’s basic needs because of the financial costs of having an incarcerated loved one. Forty-nine percent struggled with meeting basic food needs and 48 percent had trouble meeting basic housing needs.
- The average debt incurred by families for court-related fines and fees alone was $13,607, almost one year’s entire annual income for respondents who earn less than $15,000 per year.
- Two-thirds (67 percent) of respondents’ families helped them find housing once they were released from prison. Nearly one in five families (18 percent) involved in our survey faced eviction, were denied housing, or did not qualify for public housing once their formerly incarcerated family member returned.
- The high cost of maintaining contact with incarcerated family members led more than one in three families (34 percent) into debt to pay for phone calls and visits alone.
These are big issues and ones that won’t be solved overnight, but Ella Baker has listed some beginning recommendations of ways that we as a country can begin lifting these weights off of some of our most vulnerable citizens. Meanwhile, by becoming sensitive to those in our community who might be facing these financial hardships as well as many non-quantifiable burdens (grief, depression, shame from the stigma of having a family member in prison, and the responsibility of raising children alone, etc.), we can look for ways to come alongside them as friends and neighbors.
If you are a family member impacted by incarceration, here are some resources that might be useful. If you would like to learn how you can provide practical support to families of the incarcerated, please consider providing year-round ministry to Angel Tree families in your area.