Prison surtax costs more than it earns

On Sept. 1 Minnesota will begin charging inmates for the costs of their imprisonment. In addition to being an ineffective means of raising money, the policy is an unfair additional punishment and will be applied to a prison population that is already statistically much poorer than average.
The bill allows the state to deduct a ‘service fee’ from inmates’ financial accounts. The bill allows the state to assess a fee of 10 percent on bank deposits from family and friends, back pay from previous employment and money earned from legal settlements. The bill was passed in 1995 but will not go into effect until this year.
This arrangement is unfair because it levies additional punishment on prisoners that was not part of the original sentence. Prisoners will now essentially be assessed a fine for their crime, with no compensating reduction in the amount of time they are required to serve. Some prisoners who have served longer sentences will have to forfeit larger amounts of money, as they have had more time to acquire money from relatives to build new lives upon release.
This policy is another quality-of-life reduction prisoners have suffered recently. Since the beginning of the ’90s, sentencing guidelines have increased, double-bunking has become more common and more restrictions have been placed on visitation and types of gifts that inmates can receive. In violation of the United Nations’ Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, stun belts are being used frequently. Amnesty International has released several reports on the belts, which can induce a 50,000 volt shock, documenting their use in 30 states.
However, reductions in quality of life have been most apparent in the financial treatment of prisoners. Work programs have become mandatory while pay has been cut in half. State support of these programs has dropped from $5 million to $2.5 million a year, and will be completely phased out by 2003. Significant price increases at the prison canteens will also be implemented Sept. 1.
The policy’s ineffectiveness will result from the meager amount earned from the service fees and the canteen price increases. Prisoners receive an average of $930 each year; this amount combined with the price increases will raise an estimated $750,000 annually. This is only slightly more than one-half of 1 percent of the total statewide prison costs of $200 million. Considering costs to administer the policy will further reduce the $750,000, many are skeptical of its value. Even the co-author, state Sen. Thomas Neuville, R-Northfield, has expressed doubts of the program’s effectiveness, postulating that friends and families of prisoners will deposit less so prisoners avoid the fee.
If state prisons indeed lack the necessary funding, government has the authority to increase it using more traditional methods. Prisoners, lacking the vote, have no method to voice their opinions on policies that affect their lives. The responsibility for prisoners is therefore assumed by citizens and legislators. Additional punishments that were not levied at the time of sentencing should not be administered particularly when the advantages to be gained are so minimal.