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Families Must Pay for Cremation Bill of Loved Ones Who Die in Prison

Melford was scheduled for release at the end of 2020. He and Tracy maintained contact daily through phone calls until sometime in April. On April 29, Tracy received a call from a Chino hospital to inform her that Melford was at the facility on a ventilator battling COVID-19. He died a week later.

When Tracy contacted the mortuary that services the prison to collect her husband’s remains, she learned that California law required that family members claiming the remains of anyone who has died in prison are responsible for the costs of all burial services, otherwise the body will be considered “unclaimed” and the ashes will be scattered at sea. “I cried my eyes out,” said Tracy when she heard this. “ I don’t have that kind of money sitting around.”

California is not the only state that requires surviving relatives pay to claim prisoners’ bodies. Indeed, most do. And some do not even pay burial services for unclaimed bodies. They leave that to local counties or medical examiners’ offices. Arkansas is the only state whose Department of Corrections helps to pay for cremation and burial of prisoners for those unable to cover costs.

One woman (who asked to remain anonymous) said her brother contracted COVID-19 while serving time at CIM and was transferred to a hospital June 3. She was never even informed that her brother was sick until she received a call June 8 from a lieutenant at CIM to tell her that her brother had died. On June 19, she received a telegram from the warden informing her that her brother’s body had been sent to All Caring Cremations and that she must contact them for burial arrangements “without expense to the state of California.”

When she contacted All Caring, they sent her an itemized bill listing: $140 for direct cremation, $295 for refrigeration, $695 for transfer of remains to the funeral home, $195 for another cremation fee, $195 for mailing cremated remains and hundreds in additional costs for a total of $1,807.57. The woman said she was horrified by the way she was treated. All she wanted was her husband’s remains to be by her side and to be left in peace.

California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokeswoman Dana Simas said, “It is our highest priority to respect the traditional and religious beliefs of the loved ones of incarcerated persons who have passed away while in CDCR custody. We offer families the ability to provide burial and funeral arrangements according to their own values and traditions.”

Attorney Michael Bien, who represents many prisoners and their families, said the state had a moral duty to cover the costs of a basic burial or cremation for prisoners who die in their custody. Advocates state that it discriminates against the poor to make them pay these fees. “It’s a pretty disgusting policy,” said Bien. “This is basic human decency here.”

Bien is pushing the state of California to change its laws through litigation and working with the legislature, the Governor’s Office and various advocacy groups for the state to cover funeral expenses.