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The Heavy Price Families And Communities Pay For Incarceration

A new report details how families pay a high price for the incarceration of a relative—a price “felt most deeply by women, low-income families and communities of color.”  It examines the various ways families and former prisoners “pay” for their incarceration, even after they are released.

The report, “Who Pays? The True Cost Of Incarceration On Families,” [PDF] was published by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Forward Together, Research Action Design, and twenty other community based organizations from across the country.

In March 2014, researchers embarked on a year-long study in fourteen states, interviewing 712 former prisoners, and 368 family members. They also spoke with twenty-seven employers and conducted thirty-four focus groups with families and individuals about their experiences dealing with the negative consequences of incarceration.

“Our research demonstrates that incarceration reinforces economic stress on impoverished families,” the authors write, “and limits the economic mobility of both formerly incarcerated people and their families.”

Newly released prisoners often require “mental health support, care for untreated physical ailments,” and endure “the loss of children sent to foster care or extended family, permanent declines in income, and loss of opportunities like education and employment.” They are also “saddled with copious fees, fines and debt” while dealing with these issues upon release, “resulting in a lack of economic stability and mobility.”

Families most often paid for a prisoner’s legal bills, court fees and fines, as well as expenses associated with phone calls and visitations, because of this instability.

Among the families surveyed making less than $15,000 per year, 58% said they could not afford to pay for these expenses. The average “criminal justice debt” incurred for all respondents for court-related fees and fines was $13,607.

Meanwhile, 65% of all families in the survey reported they were “unable to meet their family’s basic needs” while supporting someone who had been incarcerated. Roughly half said they struggled to meet basic food and housing needs.

Women Shoulder Burden of Incarcerated Person’s Expenses

The study found 83% of family members paying for an incarcerated individual’s expenses were women. Nearly half of paying relatives were mothers, and 10% were grandmothers. Of the 82% of respondents who said a family member was primarily responsible for phone and visitation costs, 87% were women.

More than a third of families went into debt paying just for phone calls and visits to keep in touch with loved ones behind bars.  Those who were unable to keep up and maintain contact “were much more likely to report experiencing negative health impacts related to a family member’s incarceration.”

Infographic from "Who Pays," a report on the collateral costs of incarceration by the Ella Baker Center and other criminal justice reform groups.

Infographic from “Who Pays,” a report on the collateral costs of incarceration by the Ella Baker Center and other criminal justice reform groups.

Aside from paying for their expenses, two thirds of families helped former prisoners find housing.

Many families faced eviction, lost housing, or did not qualify for public housing after a loved one returned home from prison. At the same time, families were found to have provided better support to former prisoners than re-entry programs and community groups.

Incarceration prohibits an individual from working, and many people lose their job after being locked up. Upon release, the stigma of conviction makes it difficult for them to find new employment.

Including part-time and temporary work, 67% of former prisoners in the study said they were unemployed or underemployed five years after being released. 76% rated their difficulty in finding employment as either very difficult or nearly impossible.

Searching for Steady Employment

Poverty conditions and discrimination conspire to make finding steady employment very difficult. This was found to be especially true for women and people of color.

“Black survey participants were far more likely to identify a lack of jobs in the community and restrictions on travel when compared to other survey participants,” the authors write. “Latino survey participants were more likely to identify documentation status as a critical barrier to finding work.”

Employers interviewed for the study said they did not think an individual’s incarceration would predict their ability to do a job well, yet most stated they considered criminal history a required part of the application process.

Nonetheless, employers who hired formerly incarcerated people shared positive work experiences, and thought their formerly incarcerated employees were “really involved, passionate, and excited to learn.”

Prisoners’ desire to achieve more was apparent in the study. Half of formerly incarcerated people surveyed said a GED was the highest level of education they had, and 67% said they wanted to return to school upon their release. However, only 27% were able to receive any training or education after leaving prison, often due to their poverty and inability to travel for opportunities.

Impact Often Leads to Divorce or Family Separation

Stress is often too much for families to hold together. 47% of respondents to the survey said members of their family separated, divorced or dissolved partnerships as a result of incarceration. The average child support payment among participants was $427 per month, and 73% of respondents said former prisoners struggled to make consistent payments.

Child-parent relationships can be destroyed by incarceration as well. Nearly one third of incarcerated people surveyed were responsible for children when they were locked up. Many prisoners lose custody of their children under the 1997 Adoption and Safe Families Act, which terminates parental rights if a child has been placed in foster care for over fifteen months and if housing options with relatives fail to meet certain criteria.

More than half of children in the study stayed with the free parent, and 36% lived with another family member. One in ten reported young people in the family were unable to complete their education because of a relative’s incarceration.

Being away from a parent introduces its own problems into the lives of their children, with one respondent telling researchers, “Not being able to talk to my dad took a toll on all the family. I was depressed and gained weight. My sister started to do poorly in school and got kicked out a lot. We were lonely, not being able to see my dad.”

Half of prisoners and their family members reported suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), nightmares, hopelessness, depression and anxiety as a result of incarceration.

Ending Cycles Of Poverty And Incarceration

“It is not enough to reform the criminal justice system without considering its purpose and impact on communities,” the report states. “Institutions with power must acknowledge the disproportionate impacts the current system has on women, low-income communities, and communities of color, and address and redress the policies that got us here.”

The report calls for removing barriers that “prevent formerly incarcerated individuals and their families from getting another chance at life.” The authors recommend that sentencing focus on “accountability, safety, and healing the people involved,” rather than simply punishment.

It recommends states restructure policies to reduce the number of people behind bars and the lengths of the sentences they are ordered to serve, reinvesting those funds in “services that work, such as substance abuse programs and stable housing, which have proven to reduce recidivism rates.”

Funds not spent on incarceration can be used to create opportunities for newly released individuals, through programs such as job training, education and subsidized employment services.

All of this money spent by families and former prisoners goes somewhere. “As of 2011,” the report notes, “the total amount of criminal justice debt in the U.S. owed by individuals topped $50 billion.” Ferguson, Missouri, for example, takes in $2.6 million each year in court fees and fines, and it is that city’s second largest source of income.

This enormous pool of “criminal justice debt” is a serious source of revenue for states, municipalities and private companies alike, whether its fees collected for phone calls and video visitations or its payments ordered to be made by former prisoners for electronic monitoring devices and treatment programs. Rather than investing that money in incarceration and law enforcement, money should be spent on communities and the families that so clearly need it.

U.S. Marines assigned to the female engagement team (FET) of I Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward) conduct a patrol alongside a poppy field while visiting Afghan settlements in Boldak, Afghanistan, April 5, 2010.  (DoD / Cpl. Lindsay L. Sayres, U.S. Marine Corps)
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Brian Sonenstein

Brian Sonenstein

Publishing Editor at Shadowproof and columnist at Prison Protest.