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Ninth Circuit Denies Arizona Prisoner Access to Dedicated Discharge Account

In a September 27, 2010 decision, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a district court’s order denying Arizona prisoner Timmy Lee Ward access to a dedicated discharge account while he was still imprisoned.

Ward alleged that since his 197-year sentence made it unlikely that he would be released from prison prior to his death, he should be allowed to use the funds in his discharge account while he was incarcerated. At issue was the sum of $50.00.

Ward, who had received the 197-year sentence as a result of twenty-two felony convictions, worked in a prison job. Most of his earnings were placed in his spendable account, but pursuant to Arizona state law (A.R.S. § 31-237(A)), $50.00 was put in a dedicated discharge account to provide “gate money” upon release. If a prisoner dies while incarcerated, the money is applied to cremation costs or other related expenses, with the balance released to his or her estate or heirs.

Ward had filed a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 civil rights suit alleging violation of the Sixth Amendment, and, in a supplemental brief, violations of his Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment rights against the government’s taking of property without just compensation. The district court granted summary judgment to the defendants and Ward appealed.

The Ninth Circuit affirmed, holding that “Ward does not have a current possessory property interest in the wages withheld ... and he has not been permanently deprived of those funds, so the Department’s withholding of the $50.00 from his wages ... does not violate his constitutional rights....” Rather, the prison system’s discharge account policy “promotes public welfare and common good by aiding inmates’ integration into society and removing the immediate temptation to acquire needed funds through illegal means,” the appellate court wrote.

Thus, to obtain the $50.00 in his discharge account, Ward apparently will have to complete his 197-year sentence. Las Vegas attorney Beau Sterling represented Ward on appeal. See: Ward v. Ryan, 623 F.3d 807 (9th Cir. 2010).

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Related legal case

Ward v. Ryan