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Prisoner Accounts Add Up to Millions

The U.S. prison population has tripled in the last fifteen years and now stands at well over a million. But the number of bodies is not the only statistic that has grown. According to the Newhouse News Service, 1995 saw record sums of money move through prisoner accounts: In California, $64 million; in Florida, $50 million; in Ohio, $33 million.

Most of the money is spent on staples such as cigarettes, coffee, snacks, and toiletries. But even after these deductions, according to calculations by Newhouse, prisoner accounts added up to a staggering $100 million balance.

Collectively prisoners are big business. Communications giant AT&T Corp, for instance, estimates that prisoners placed about $1 billion in long-distance calls last year.

States are scrambling to upgrade or streamline their prisoner accounting systems. In Texas, for instance, prisoners use debit cards, similar to ATM cards, to make purchases at the commissary. These purchases are automatically deducted from their accounts by an electronic system that links the state's 100-plus prisons.

New York has a more antiquated accounting system. The state closes an account and opens another for each prisoner at a local bank every time the prisoner is transferred from one prison to another. Last year, according to a DOCS spokesperson, the department opened and closed more than 200,000 separate accounts - nearly 800 a day.

New York now has plans to allow one private bank to handle the entire prisoner account system. This would trim 50 to 60 jobs at the DOCS, said Jim Flateau, a department spokesperson, and save about $2 million a year.

Most states, and the federal government, don't pay interest on the money in prisoners' accounts. The BOP, for example, keeps more than $12 million of federal prisoners' money at the U.S. Treasury, which pays no interest on it.

Not that interest would amount to much for most prisoners. Nearly 70 percent of Texas prisoners have less than $5 in their accounts, said one TDCJ official. In prison, just as in the free world, a few prisoners control a disproportionate share of the wealth. In Texas, 30 percent of the prisoners control 94 percent of the money on deposit. One former Texas prisoner, according to a TDCJ spokesperson, kept his balance at the maximum permitted: $99,999.

In Illinois, according to one prison official, there is no limit on the amount of money prisoners can keep on their accounts. "But once it hits a magical number - and I'm not at liberty to give you that - we start looking at it as a means of giving something back to the taxpayer."

Nationwide, according to an estimate by Newhouse News Service, the average balance for a prisoner's account in 1995 was $86.

Source: The Oregonian

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