Explainer: Do Prisoners Really Pay $249 Per Day?

Explainer: Do Prisoners Really Pay $249 Per Day?

Over the weekend, you may have saw this headline from the Associated Press: “At $249 per day, prison stays leave ex-inmates deep in debt.” The article, which you can read here, told the story of two former Connecticut prisoners, Teresa Beatty and Fred Hodges, both of whom have watched the costs of their incarceration continue to haunt them for years after they “finished” serving their sentences.

What is a “pay-to-stay” prison law?

In Connecticut, like in almost every state, incarcerated people are required to pay for their incarceration after they are released under what is called a “pay-to-stay” law. The idea behind these laws is relatively simple: In addition to whatever you may owe in court costs and fines, you’re on the hook for a daily charge for every day you spend behind bars. In Connecticut, prisoners must pay $249 per day.

Most of the time, the math is a little more complicated than multiplying $249 by however many days you were in prison. Otherwise, you’d have to pay more than $90,000 every year no matter what. And, in a country where the median household income is less than $70,000 per year, paying that amount of money back would be virtually impossible. This is especially true when you consider the fact that roughly one-third of the formerly incarcerated people in the U.S. cannot find any employment.

But, even with the complicated math, the numbers are still wild. For Teresa Beatty, she owed $83,762 after a two-and-a-half-year sentence for a drug-related crime. That’s a cost of more than $33,000 per year behind bars. For Fred Hodges, the total number wasn’t as clear. But, when Connecticut claimed roughly half of Hodges’ recovery in a lawsuit after a motor-vehicle collision, the impact was clear.

Image of prison family visits.
Image courtesy of fotojog via Getty Images.

Do prisoners really pay $249 per day?

Sort of. Almost every state in the U.S. has a “pay-to-stay” law. While not all of those states charge prisoners $249 per day, the amount the cost is often crippling. As Brittany Friedman explained in her article, Unveiling the Necrocapitalist Dimensions of the Shadow Carceral State: On Pay-to-Stay to Recoup the Cost of Incarceration, for the Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, allow government officials to continue penalizing incarcerated people — and sometimes even their families after their deaths — without the same legal protections that ordinarily apply in a criminal case.

“A person can be charged $20 to $80 a day for their incarceration,” Friedman, a faculty affiliate of Rutgers University’s criminal justice program, said when she published the article in 2020. “That per diem rate can lead to hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees when a person gets out of prison. To recoup fees, states use civil means such as lawsuits and wage garnishment against currently and formerly incarcerated people, and regularly use administrative means such as seizing employment pensions, tax refunds and public benefits to satisfy the debt.”

People who can't pay court fines often end up back in prison.
Image courtesy of Jirapong Manustrong via iStockphotos.com.

The Takeaway:

In the United States, incarcerated people almost always have to pay for their incarceration. Even once you finish your time behind bars, finish your time on supervised release and pay all of your court costs and fines, you can still be on the hook for thousands of dollars. And, if you don’t pay right away, states have the power to take it from your recovery in lawsuits, from your pension, from your tax refund and, in some cases, even from your family.

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