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Court Certifies Class of Former Washington State Prisoners Challenging Debit Release Cards in HRDC Case

by Matt Clarke

At the vast majority of the nation’s jails, when someone is arrested their money is confiscated during the booking process. Those funds are placed in a trust account, where prisoners’ families and friends can also deposit money to be used to purchase food and hygiene items from the jail’s commissary. Historically, upon release from custody, a prisoner receives any remaining funds in their trust account in the form of a check or cash. But many jails have recently started giving released prisoners prepaid debit cards that impose numerous fees, with no other option for receiving their release funds. In Washington State, a federal judge has certified a class of former jail prisoners who were required to accept such debit release cards.

The Human Rights Defense Center, the parent organization of Prison Legal News, helped former Kitsap County, Washington jail prisoner Jeffery Reichert file a federal lawsuit against Keefe Commissary Network, LLC, doing business as Access Corrections; Rapid Financial Solutions, doing business as Access Freedom; and Cache Valley Bank, alleging they had violated the Electronic Funds Transfer Act (EFTA), 15 U.S.C. § 1693, when they required prisoners to accept their release funds on prepaid debit cards. [See: PLN, Dec. 2017, p.26].

Reichert filed a motion to certify a national class of releasees and a subclass of prisoners released in Washington State, asserting EFTA claims and claims under the Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause and the Washington Consumer Protection Act, as well as state tort claims of conversion and unjust enrichment. The defendants contested class certification, arguing that 1) Reichert was not a typical plaintiff because he was not even given a copy of the contract for the release card; 2) release procedures vary among facilities, making each releasee’s experience unique and not amenable to class-action status; 3) government entities would have to be joined; and 4) variations in laws among the states would make a national class unmanageable.

The district court found that Keefe contracts with numerous government agencies to provide hardware and software for managing prisoners’ money during incarceration, including the issuance of debit release cards. The company estimated it had 25 such contracts in Washington State and around 700 nationwide. The court noted that the release cards impose hefty fees which kick in within 36 or 72 hours of release and can quickly deplete the balance on a card. Such fees include “weekly maintenance fees.”

Rapid Investments, doing business as Rapid Financial Solutions, contracts with Keefe to provide and manage the debit release cards. It also contracts with Cache Valley Bank, which issues the cards, as well as MasterCard, which sponsors the payment network.

The district court held that binding arbitration required by the release card contract did not apply since Reichert had not signed or voluntarily entered into the contract. It allowed a redefinition of the proposed class to include only those releasees who were not offered an alternative to receiving a debit release card. The court held that the numerosity, typicality and adequacy requirements for a class-action suit were met, provided that Reichert adds a named plaintiff who received a contract for a prepaid debit card upon their release.

The district court further found that variations in procedures and laws were not great among Washington counties. In a May 8, 2019 order, it certified a class of Washington State releasees who were given prepaid debit cards with no other option for receiving their release funds (provided the additional named plaintiff is added).

The court reserved ruling on the certification of a national class and joinder of government entities until after a hearing on those issues has been held. See: Reichert v. Keefe Commissary Network, LLC, U.S.D.C. (W.D. Wash.), Case No. 3:17-cv-05848-RBL. 

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Related legal case

Reichert v. Keefe Commissary Network, LLC d/b/a Access Corrections