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Former Connecticut Prisoner’s Challenge Proceeds Against “Pay-to-Stay” Fees

According to an analysis published by the nonprofit Brennan Center for Justice on April 19, 2023, the cost of locking up America’s two million prisoners and detainees exceeds government agencies’ ability to afford it. With the help of tough-on-crime lawmakers, that has created a financial hell for prisoners and their families with “pay-to-stay” fees in at least 43 states where they are forced to pay for their own incarceration.

Nearly 20 years after her release from a two-and-a-half-year imprisonment on a drug conviction, Teresa Beatty still owed $83,762 to the state of Connecticut – which showed up in probate court when her mother died to demand satisfaction with a piece of Beatty’s inheritance. The claim was quickly quashed because the state’s “pay-to-stay” scheme includes a two-year period after release to make such claims, and the window had long ago closed in Beatty’s case. However, she wanted to make sure it didn’t happen again, so with the help of the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, she filed suit in federal court for the District of Connecticut, claiming the law violated her Eighth Amendment guarantee of freedom from excessive fines.

On March 6, 2023, the Court ruled that the closure of the two-year window had barred the state from coming after Beatty for the money – meaning she suffered no actual injury for which she could sue Gov. Ned Lamont (D) or state Attorney General William Tong (D). However, it did not agree with them that Beatty had no right to challenge the pay-to-stay scheme. Rather, the Court said she could refile her claim, naming any state official who threatened to come after her for the money. See: Beatty v. Tong, 2023 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 36528 (D. Conn.).

Beatty then refiled her complaint on April 20, 2023, naming state Department of Corrections (DOC) Commissioner Angel Quiros, as well as Department of Administrative Services Commissioner Michelle Gilman. The case remains pending, and PLN will update developments as they are available. See: Beatty v. Lamont, USDC (D. Conn.), Case No. 3:22-cv-00380.

The Urban Institute estimates that the detention bill for state and local governments totaled $82 billion in 2019 – a massive public safety price tag that represents about 67 cents for each of the country’s 332 million residents every day. But passing the cost along to those who are locked up is crippling for them and their families. According to a 2015 report, this happened to 63% of released prisoners, and 83% of the time it was a female family member who had to pay.

Some states have recently tried to reduce or even eliminate pay-to-stay laws, including Illinois and New Hampshire. On the flip side, a jail in Wisconsin charges its “guests” $26 a day. Added to this, most every moment of comfort or connection for a prisoner has a price tag connected to a lucrative contract between jail or prison officials and a private contractor.

In Florida, when a mother sends her incarcerated son $20 on the JPay messaging platform, she winds up paying $24.95. The extra amount goes to JPay, which then kicks back a portion to the state DOC. In Kentucky, a video call via Securus Technologies costs 40 cents per minute – for which there is no doubt plenty of demand, since the state DOC began limiting in-person visitation to just once a week on Saturday mornings as of August 1, 2023.

Price-gouging on commissary goods also hammers the finances of prisoners and their families. Florida prisons charge $4.02 for four tampons. In Kentucky, a 4.6-ounce tube of Crest toothpaste that costs $1.38 at the local Walmart is $3.77 at the prison canteen. Inflation has given commissary distributors an excuse to charge even more. So while these companies earn record profits, prisoners are forced to skip meals, medicines and even toilet paper.  

Additional source: AP News