Prison Policy Initiative General Counsel Explains the Cycle of Exploitation that Incarcerated People and their Loved Ones are Subjected to
We worked with the National Consumer Law Center to explain how, at every state of incarceration, governments and private corporations are draining money from those who can least afford it.
by Mike Wessler, March 23, 2022
In a new piece in Inquest, our general counsel Stephen Raher and Ariel Nelson of the National Consumer Law Center expose the cycle of exploitation that saps money from incarcerated people and their loved ones. The piece provides a big-picture overview of how government agencies and private corporations are profiting off of this system. It explains there are three stages in the cycle:
- First, companies and governments take a cut of money coming into prisons. Even in prison, a person needs money to survive, and because prison wages are so low, many incarcerated people rely on money transfers from loved ones to survive. At a time when people in the free world can instantly send money through their smartphones for free, prison money transfers still come with a whopping 20% average fee.
- Next, while in prison, incarcerated people are subjected to outlandish rates and prices for essentials — like communications services, food, and hygiene products — and burdened with mandatory fees for things like medical care and the general cost of confinement.
- Finally, when a person is released, they often receive a release card, a prepaid debit card that contains money they had when entering prison, money they earned while locked up, and money they had in their trust account. These cards are rife with fees — many of them unavoidable — that quickly drain the money on the card and line the pockets of the companies that administer these programs.
People increasingly recognize this cycle of exploitation is morally problematic and makes poverty — one of the main drivers of criminalized behavior — worse. That’s why some government agencies are increasingly cracking down on this behavior, and through our research and advocacy, we’re pressuring more states to join them.
We encourage you to check out the piece to understand better how the cycle of exploitation works. If you’re looking for more details and state-specific data, check out our work exposing exploitation in the criminal legal system.