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Florida's $4 Administrative Processing Fee for Prisoner Banking Fees Challenged

by David M. Reutter

A class action suit filed in Florida's Leon County Circuit Court challenges a new law enacted by the Florida Legislature in its 2004 session. That Legislature amended § 944.516, Florida statutes, to add subpart (1)(h), effective July 1, 2004. The new law allows the Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC) to charge an "administrative processing fee" of up to $6 each month to prisoners for "banking services."

The FDOC decided in July 2004 that it would charge each prisoner $4, to be deducted from each prisoner's account on the last business day of the month. The new law requires FDOC to place a lien on the prisoner's account if no funds are available.

FDOC prisoners are prohibited from possessing cash. To allow prisoners to purchase items at the prison canteen, including writing materials, stamps, radios, food, personal hygiene items, and other items not provided by FDOC, each prisoner has an "inmate account." That account is controlled by the FDOC and is accessible to purchase canteen items by the prisoner using an identification card with a bar code to be scanned by the canteen operator to access the prisoner's account. Prisoners may also send out checks to purchase newspapers and magazines.

Of the approximately 81,000 FDOC prisoners, less than 5,000 have prison jobs that provide income. The remainder rely upon money provided by outside sources, such as family, friends, or prison ministries.

"It's ridiculous. I can't afford it," said prisoner David Green. "If I receive $50.00 all year long, with the $48 lien I only get $2.00."

"The men are upset. Some guys are on a shoestring budget, trying to make it with close to nothing. If you have $10 a month to get by on and the state takes four, your whole budget collapses," said Hannah Floyd, the wife of a death row prisoner and leader of the Florida Death Row Advocacy Group.

The suit challenging the new law was filed by the Florida Justice Institute on behalf of FDOC prisoners Jesus Scull, John O'Callaghan, and Kindred Spirits Charitable Trust. Located in Tallahassee, Kindred Spirits is dedicated to addressing the spiritual and emotional needs of FDOC prisoners and their families. Kindred Spirits also provides limited financial assistance to prisoners and their families.

The suit alleges that the new law violates the single subject mandate of Florida's Constitution, Article III, Section 6. The administrative processing fee was tacked on as a final paragraph of a bill dealing with the Correctional Privatization Commission.

State Rep. Fred Bummer, R-Apopka, said he sponsored the legislation at the request of the FDOC so it could recoup the fees it spends maintaining the accounts. Florida law, however, already provides that costs to operate the prisoner canteen system are to be taken from the canteen profits before that money is used for other purposes. Canteen profits are to be used only on education, religious, and visitation programs.

"It's like the same fee you and I pay for banking services," said Bummer. Rev. Brant Copeland, Executive Director of Kindred Spirits, said the fee amounts to a tax and an unnecessary user's fee. The fee is supposed to generate $3.5 million annually for the State.

The action is scheduled for a hearing in mid-December 2004 on the Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment. The FDOC has agreed to not collect the fee while the suit is pending. PLN will report on future developments of this litigation. See: Kindred Spirits Charitable Trust Foundation v. Crosby, Florida Second Judicial Circuit, Case No: 04-CV-1799.

Additional Sources:; The Miami Herald;

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Related legal case

Kindred Spirits Charitable Trust v. Crosby