That trend was exacerbated by a Texas Supreme Court ruling last month allowing the state to deduct money from inmate commissary accounts to pay for court fees and victim restitution. According to the Austin Statesman ("Ruling gives courts access to inmate trust funds," June 30):
Texas state prison convicts could soon see their trust funds — more than $33 million overseen by the state — getting tapped to pay overdue court costs and related expenses.For inmates with large amounts from an inheritance or other sources of personal money, it's justifiable to seize a portion of inmate trust funds for court costs. But for the vast majority of inmates whose relatives supply what little money is in those accounts, seizing these funds harms families (since it's really their money) more than the prisoner. Perhaps by rule TDCJ should set a threshold of, say, a couple hundred dollars below which commissary funds won't be raided.
A recent Texas Supreme Court decision allows prison officials to withdraw funds from the inmate trust accounts without first notifying a convict.
Before that, officials said, convicts had to be alerted in advance so they could challenge the garnishment — and many did.
"This changes everything — and allows the counties to go in and collect back court fees and costs up front, and the inmate will have to challenge that after the fact," said Huntsville lawyer Bill Habern, who is familiar with the case. "That will be difficult."
In addition, he said, the debits will likely come as a surprise, because many convicts are not notified of their court costs until after they are in a prison cell, if then.
"Considering the economic situation, we expect the counties to start fleecing trust fund accounts," said Helga Dill, a Dallas-based prison rights activist. "Our concern is that the inmate is deprived of funds sent by family members who are in most cases poor. ... If an inmate can waive child support until he is released and has employment, then that should be possible with court costs as well."
Lest convicts worry that they could now wake up to find their trust funds emptied to pay old court costs, Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokeswoman Michelle Lyons said state law limits how much money in those accounts can be taken: only 20 percent of the initial deposit into a trust fund, and 10 percent of any subsequent deposit.
In all, prison officials said the inmate trust accounts contain more than $33.6 million — including about $17.6 million in cash and another $16 million that is invested in Treasury bills.
Although most of the accounts contain only a few hundred dollars, which convicts use to buy snacks, hygiene items and other commissary items, some funds contain much more — including inheritances and other payments they received after going to prison. As of last week. the largest account contained almost $234,000, and next-largest was more than $168,000, prison officials confirmed.
Lyons said that more than $13.5 million is being sought from the inmate accounts by court officials across Texas, though she did not know the total amount that inmates owe.
Prisoner families are similarly being squeezed by high costs for the new prison phone service, from which half of profits goes into the state crime victim compensation fund. The installation of new phone systems dramatic improved inmates' ability to stay in closer contact with families. But the state's focus on profiteering from the phone calls siphons off family resources and tangibly reduces families' interaction with their loved ones - both results that can worsen inmate recidivism.
So can inmate families afford these extra costs? Probably not, according to a recent survey of 427 relatives of returning inmates in Houston by the Urban Leauge (pdf):
As a group, the family members in this study were better educated than their returning relatives. More than seven in ten family members (71 percent) reported educational attainment at or above the high school level, and over a third (37 percent) reported at least some college education. Despite these credentials, only half (52 percent) were employed at the time of the interview. Among those who were not employed, the most common reasons provided were that they were retired or too old to work (39 percent), were permanently disabled (23 percent), or had other health problems that prevented them from working (16 percent). Among those who were employed, some were working long hours or multiple jobs. Two in five (40 percent) were working more than 40 hours per week, and one in eight (13 percent) was working more than one job. The median wage reported by employed family members was $12.00 per hour.Assuming these are the same folks who'd likely be calling inmates in prison or contributing to their commissary accounts, these are mostly very poor people, many of whom live on fixed incomes. By creating what amount to economic punishments where families serve as stand-ins for the offender, the state lessens precisely the type of support most likely to help offenders succeed when they get back to their home communities.
In both the Supreme Court ruling and the case of phone fees, the state behaves as though families bear the same responsibility for court costs and crime reparations as the person who actually did the deed. In reality, though, if that offender is going to turn his or her life around it will more likely be because of their family's help than any punishment or assistance the state gives out. If state policies valued public safety as much as revenue generation, we'd treat inmate families as partners instead of constantly looking for ways to bleed them of cash.