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Illinois Suing Prisoners for Cost of Incarceration

Illinois prisoner Kenneth Williams has spent much of the last 12 years working in the Stateville Correctional Center tailor shop sewing prison pants, coats, jumpsuits and shirts. As a result of the job, Williams has saved about $5,000. Money he says he'll need to start a new life when he is released from prison in six years.

But the state wants to take that money. Illinois Attorney General Jim Ryan is suing Williams for the entire cost of his incarceration -- $206,007. Illinois is pursuing court claims against Williams and 38 other state prisoners under a law passed 1997 that allows the state to recover from prisoners the annual cost of incarceration, now averaging about $16,700 in Illinois.

About half of the prisoners targeted in the lawsuits have less than $4,000 in assets, which makes it unclear how the state expects to collect much of the $4.6 million total it is seeking with the lawsuits.

A spokesman from the Attorney General's office said in addition to the 39 suits already filed in March, 1998, the state will file similar suits against prisoners with assets exceeding a certain threshold, which he declined to specify.

Williams says the lawsuit against him is not only going after his prison savings account, but robbing him of an incentive to stay legitimate once he is released.

"I was trying to do something so that I wouldn't come out a criminal," Williams said. "I don't want to have to come out and rob. I don't want to be on aid."

But supporters of the lawsuits say that prisoners' financial resources, no matter how paltry, should be seized to defray the cost of their imprisonment. Chicago's Cook County Sheriff Michael Sheahan recently proposed deducting a $55 daily room-and-board fee from the accounts of jail detainees, which on average hold a measly $33 balance.

A Sheriff's spokesman said they don't anticipate that collecting the fees will result in a financial windfall for the county. "We are doing things based more on principle than on economics," he said.

But opponents point out that most prisoners are already poor and confiscating their slim savings and garnishing future earnings once they are released will drive more ex-convicts -- not fewer back into crime.

Michael Mahoney, president of the John Howard Association, a prison watchdog group, criticized the lawsuits as "trying to get blood out of a turnip."

"If you sock them with big suits," said Mahoney, "they are not going to work, won't learn skills, won't have any money when they get out and will have more contempt for the system."

Corrections Digest

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