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September 6, 2011

If the money will benefit prisoners, is there virtue in Arizona's new inmate visitation fee?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this fascinating recent story, headlined "Inmate Visits Now Carry Added Cost in Arizona," from the New York Times.  Here are the highlights:

For the Arizona Department of Corrections, crime has finally started to pay.  New legislation allows the department to impose a $25 fee on adults who wish to visit inmates at any of the 15 prison complexes that house state prisoners.  The one-time “background check fee” for visitors, believed to be the first of its kind in the nation, has angered prisoner advocacy groups and family members of inmates, who in many cases already shoulder the expense of traveling long distances to the remote areas where many prisons are located.

David C. Fathi, director of the National Prison Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, called the fee “mind-boggling” and said that while it was ostensibly intended to help the state — the money will be used to repair and maintain the prisons — it could ultimately have a negative effect on public safety.  “We know that one of the best things you can do if you want people to go straight and lead a law-abiding life when they get out of prison is to continue family contact while they’re in prison,” he said. “Talk about penny-wise and pound-foolish.”...

[S]everal dozen family members of inmates who complained to Middle Ground Prison Reform, a group based in Tempe, about the fee.  In a lawsuit filed last month against the Corrections Department, Middle Ground said the fee was simply a pretext for raising money “for general public purposes” and as such was unconstitutional because it amounted to a special tax on a single group.

Middle Ground has also filed suit over another provision of the law, which imposes a 1 percent charge on deposits made to a prisoner’s spending account.  Donna Leone Hamm, executive director of Middle Ground, said she thought that state legislators created the background check fee “out of sheer financial desperation” at a time when the state faces huge budget shortfalls. “This was a scheme — in my mind, a harebrained scheme — to try to come up with the money,” she said.

Wendy Baldo, chief of staff for the Arizona Senate, confirmed that the fees were intended to help make up the $1.6 billion deficit the state faced at the beginning of the year.  “We were trying to cut the budget and think of ways that could help get some services for the Department of Corrections,” Ms. Baldo said.

She added that the department “needed about $150 million in building renewal and maintenance and prior to this year, it just wasn’t getting done and it wasn’t a safe environment for the people who were in prison and certainly for the people who worked there.”   Ms. Baldo said the money would not actually pay for background checks but would go into a fund for maintenance and repairs to the prisons.

Barrett Marson, a spokesman for the Corrections Department, said in an e-mail that it was the department’s policy not to comment on pending litigation.  Although there have been some calls and letters from potential visitors inquiring about the fee and how to pay it, no complaints had been reported from inmates, Mr. Marson said.  The department has not determined whether the number of visitors to the prisons has changed since the charge went into effect, he added.  “Maintenance funds for our buildings are scarce in this difficult economic time,” he said. “A $25 visitation fee helps to ensure our prisons remain safe environments for staff, inmates and visitors.”

I think it is fitting to consider and call this Arizona visitation fee a tax on those who wish to visit Arizona prisoners.  But given that all state prisons need more operating revenues, and that severe cuts to corrections departments can often harm the inmates more than others, and that legislators are politically unlikely to raise taxes on the general population to allocate scarce dollars to "pro-prisoner" uses, perhaps this is the most politically viable and effective means to raise revenue to benefit prisoners.   

Of course, raising revenue off the back of inmate visitors may well be "penny-wise and pound-foolish," especially if the money is allocated toward stuffing more bodies into prisons rather than making the prisons better for the prisoners.  But bcause I suspect this Arizona innovation could end up real popular for struggling state and local governments desparate for politically-popular money-raising mechanisms, I think critics probably should start thinking about how to manage and focus this kind of tax to produce benefits rather than heavily invest in trying to have these kinds of schemes struck down in the courts.

September 6, 2011 at 09:09 AM | Permalink

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So are the background checks actually done at all (regardless of whether this fee is used to pay for it)? I could certainly see if they don't actually do checks that they are purportedly collecting money for that it would be an unconstitutionally targeted tax. However if the checks are in fact done just with other money I suspect that this fee would be seen as reasonably related to the activity involved. Has it ever been litigated whether prisoners have an actual right to visitation so long as they behave? If there is no right to visitation only a revokable privilege I could well see a $25 fee being within the range of permissible costs associated with exercising that privilege.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Sep 6, 2011 9:20:28 AM

Doug, why would you say the fee pays for "pro-prisoner" uses? Maintenance on the buildings is not a pro-prisoner use, just a baseline cost of incarceration.

As for the policy, it creates disincentives for visitation when inmates' connection to family is among the key factors determining recidivism and/or success once prisoners are released. It also needlessly punishes people who committed no crimes. As Soronel points, out, it can perhaps be legally justified (though charging a fee then using the money for something else feels pretty slimy), but installing financial barriers to visitation is just crappy corrections policy.

Texas recently began deducting money from inmate commissary accounts to raise money for prison healthcare - half of the account up to $100 per year - and it is generating significant unintended consequences, like fewer commissary sales (which is a revenue generator) and increased healthcare utilization by prisoners who feel they're owed something for the money taken from them. There's a limit to how much money can be mulcted from inmate families, and given the socioeconomic background of most prisoners, you don't need to raise costs too much to reach that threshold.

The way to save money on prisons is to reduce incarceration levels; inmate families will never be able to pay the sums required to sustain America's mass incarceration regime.

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Sep 6, 2011 9:59:22 AM

I do not disagree at all with your views, Grits, but it sounds that we share the view that it will be very hard to attack successfully this fee (or the one you mention in Texas) in federal court. So, my thought is that rather than spending lots of resources fighting a distracting battle trying to get these fees to go away, how about urging/forcing this fee to be earmarked only for EXTRA pro-prisoner uses.

One possibility would be to have, say, 60% of any visitor fee placed in a "reentry account" for the visited prisoner. So, while the state can get $10 for its coffers from any visit, the other $15 of the fee goes into an account that will give the prisoner some (meager) resources to supplement the usual bus ticket upon release. Now the state and the prisoner both have a financial incentive to encourage new people to visit. (The article indicates that this Arizona fee is only paid once and repeat visitors do not get any extra cost.) Give the visitors a chance to deduct the fee from their state taxes like other charitable deductions, and now we have a system that can/should help target needed resources a bit more effectively.

Again, I am not saying that such a scheme makes for good policy. But states desperate for resources are sure to employ schemes like this (as your Texas example highlights), and I am urging advocate to recognize this fiscal reality and to invest energies on trying to improve these (inevitable?) programs rather that just attack and lament them.

Posted by: Doug B. | Sep 6, 2011 10:42:11 AM

Doug, a scheme like you propose may have merit. I was reacting to the question in your headline, "is there virtue in Arizona's new inmate visitation fee?" On that score, I just don't see any "pro-prisoner" aspect to justify it. And charging a fee for background checks then using it for something else is just sleazebag politics.

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Sep 6, 2011 11:45:41 AM

well soronel i guess you missed this part of the article!

" Ms. Baldo said the money would not actually pay for background checks but would go into a fund for maintenance and repairs to the prisons."

so in plain english ANOTHER govt agency is lieing though it's damn teeth!

which makes this FRAUD and misuse of public funds! sounds like someone needs to be locked up in their own prison!

Posted by: rodsmith | Sep 6, 2011 12:20:54 PM

I think this is an excellent idea. Not only are you making sure another criminal is not coming to see the person in prison, but they make them pay for it. Perfect! You never can be too sure.

Posted by: Gary Bobton | Oct 17, 2011 8:48:28 PM

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