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PLN editor quoted in article re WA DOC's seizure of 35% of funds sent to prisoners

Post-Intelligencer, Jan. 1, 1997.
PLN editor quoted in article re WA DOC's seizure of 35% of funds sent to prisoners - Post-Intelligencer 1997




Josephine Wigginton periodically sends $50 to $100 to her son in prison, money she earns demonstrating products in a grocery store.

When her dollars get to him, corrections officials automatically seize 35 percent to comply with a two-year-old state law.

"I really believe it's a crime," said Wigginton, who earns $18,000 a year from her job and some rental income. "This is taking money from my pocket. I pay taxes on this money."

It's a complaint that seemingly would generate little sympathy at a time when the public is demanding get-tough measures for criminals.

But the outcry from inmates and their families has been so loud that state legislators decided to take a second look at the seizure requirement, weighing their original goal of demanding fiscal accountability from prisoners against questions about the fairness of the practice.

"I had a couple of families of inmates that came in," said state Rep. John Koster, R-Monroe, who introduced a bill to sharply reduce the deductions after meeting with those relatives in his office. "It's kind of an issue of fairness."

Koster said the original idea behind the requirement was to make life on the inside of prison more like that on the outside. But it actually punishes families and raises issues of double taxation, he said.

His fellow House members passed the measure, but it died last week when it reached the Senate Human Services and Prison Committee.

"The consensus of the committee was that we don't want to alter this," said state Sen. Jeanine Long, R-Mill Creek, the committee chairwoman.

Long said that she shared some of Koster's concerns, but that she and other committee members ultimately concluded that the seizure statute ensures that prisoners who don't work but receive gift money contribute something to the costs of housing them.

"What was the goal of the original bill? It was to be an incentive to work. It was to make prison life reflective of the real world," she said.

Long said she was contacted by the mother of one prisoner who complained that she was on Social Security income and resented having the state seize part of the money she sent to her son.

"I told her he needs to be a big boy, you need your money," Long said. "She said 'thank you.' "

Inmates and their relatives now are hoping through a federal lawsuit brought by more than 300 prisoners to overturn the seizure statute, which was included in a sweeping 1995 law that required inmates who work or receive outside money to pay part of the operating expenses of state prisons.

It also required inmates to begin paying for a portion of benefits such health care and exercise time and personal items such as soap and toothpaste.

Most of the changes have been grudgingly accepted by inmates, but the seizure of 35 percent of all the money sent to them by family members or other outsiders has been met with growing resentment.

"I find it very unjust, very unconstitutional," said Roxy Minear, a 43-year-old inmate at the women's prison at Purdy whose mother sends her $10 or $20 when she can.

"I come from a very poor family. My mother, she can't afford to do this," said Minear, who is serving time for cocaine dealing. "To have these guys take the money she sends to me, that's like a double tax."

Inmates use their money at prison stores, buying items such as soap for 30 cents to a $1.34, depending on the brand, and toothbrushes ranging in cost from 4 cents to 77 cents. Snacks and a few pharmacy products also are available, along with higher cost luxury items such as color TVs for $229 and cassette-radio players for about $64.

Weightlifting and music programs, once free, now cost $5 per quarter, and each visit to the doctor carries a $3 co-pay fee.

The money inmates receive as gifts helps them pay for those goods and benefits, but the state keeps 20 percent for prison operating costs, 5 percent for the state's crime victims compensation fund and 10 percent that goes into savings accounts that inmates get back when they are released.

Money also plays a role in the prison's social strata.

"Just like you have in society, you have a lower end, a middle class and a higher class," said Lori Fitzpatrick, spokeswoman for the Washington State Penitentiary at Walla Walla.

Between last May, when the deductions began, and February, the state collected $627,506 for operating costs, $313,753 for the savings accounts and $156,398 for the victims fund.

The deduction represents a tiny fraction of the $750 million annual operating budget of the Department of Corrections, most of which goes to running the prison systems. The average per-day cost of housing an inmate is about $64.

Some other states collect fees from prisoners, but the methods vary, said Tom Rolfs, director of the state's division of prisons.

Most inmates who were interviewed said they don't object to the savings-fund deductions, even though no interest is earned, because they will eventually get the money and it will help them start over when they are released.

But they denounced the other seizures, calling them overly punitive and excessive. Some said they think it's particularly unfair to have their money placed in the victims fund, when they will have to pay restitution when they get out.

"It's salt in the wound," said Brian Esler, one of the attorneys representing the inmates in the class-action suit.

Koster's bill would have eliminated the 20 percent deduction for operating costs for any gifts of less than $100 a month. The deductions for the savings and victim funds would have remained.

Gifts of more than $100 a month still would have been reduced by 35 percent.

Koster initially said he expected his proposal to be approved by the Legislature, but a spokeswoman said Friday that he was disappointed that it had failed.

Even state Rep. Ida Ballasiotes, a tough anti-crime legislator who sponsored the 1995 legislation, said she supported the modification.

Ballasiotes, R-Mercer Island, said corrections officials told legislators that most of the gifts to inmates amount to less than $100 a month and often come from low-income families.

But Long said keeping the statute intact won't result in any prisoner being deprived of necessities such as toiletries if they are indigent or unable to work because of mental or physical problems. Those inmates are allowed to run up debts and pay them later if they can, she said.

"It's not being hard-hearted," she said.

Long said only one of the six members of her committee wanted to vote on Koster's proposal, so she let it die without a vote.

She said state attorneys told her committee that the federal lawsuit is unlikely to succeed.

A federal magistrate in Tacoma already has recommended dismissal of almost all the claims in the class-action suit. U.S. District Judge Franklin Burgess is reviewing the recommendation.

Paul Wright, 31, one of the inmates who filed suit, said he believes Burgess or a federal appeals court will overturn the statute.

Citing his own experience, Wright said it is unjust for the state to seize part of the $600 to $2,000 a year he earns selling articles about prison issues to various publications.

"I think the most important issue here is whether the government, basically, can unfairly tax a designated segment of the population," said Wright, who is serving time at the Washington State Reformatory at Monroe for murder.

Although many people might not be sympathetic to prisoner rights, he said, "I think most Americans value the right to due process, which is simply the right to be heard."

Anthony Tait, 39, who is serving a sentence at the Washington State Penitentiary for dealing cocaine, said it is unfair that some prisoners who receive monetary gifts have money deducted, while other inmates who either don't work or don't receive gifts contribute nothing.

"I am not saying we shouldn't be punished for things that we did," Tait said. "What I am saying is that if it is going to be done, make it fair across the board."

Tait said his wife, who works for a janitorial service, sends him about $200 a month.

Inmate Mark Larue, apparently oblivious to public perceptions, said the seizures have kept him from buying back copies of a men's magazine he needs for a lawsuit challenging the state's ban on sexually explicit materials in prisons. Larue, 42, is serving time for assault at the Washington State Penitentiary at Walla Walla.

State attorneys say the lawsuits have no merit and that the courts shouldn't overturn legislation that was, as they contend, carefully tailored to respond to important governmental and public interests.

The case, which includes claims involving due process, equal protection, excessive fines and double jeopardy, almost surely will wind up in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Court papers filed by attorneys for the inmates contend that the "seizure statute is merely part of politically charged legislation that imposed additional punishment on prisoners."

The statute, the attorneys say, is unfair because it takes money from inmates without considering their individual crime or their burden to the state.

An inmate convicted of a minor crime, confined for short time, would be forced to pay 35 percent of a $100,000 inheritance received in prison, while a prisoner serving consecutive life terms for several murders may pay little, if anything, they argue.

In addition, inmates who owe no restitution to any victim could pay substantial sums to the victims fund, while inmates who actually owe money to victims may pay little, according to the attorneys.

The fund is used to compensate crime victims who apply to the state and for educational purposes.

The statute also violates the U.S. Constitution's ex post facto clause, they say, because the deductions represent a retroactive penalty.

State attorneys contend that the statute treats all inmates the same.

"The decision to receive the money is the inmate's decision. The amount deducted has no, and should have no, relationship to the severity of the crime," they say in court papers.

The statute isn't a retroactive penalty, they add, because the 9th Circuit has previously ruled that states have the power to impose new requirements on prisoners if the measures don't have a punitive intent.

The Legislature's intent was to make prisoners fiscally responsible, not to punish them, the attorneys say.

Until the case is resolved, the state is holding all gift money deducted under the 35-percent rule in reserve. It will be returned to prisoners if their suits are successful.



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