Headed to prison? Beware: Debt is the new black

Updated
Women chat as they lie in beds placed in the communal area outside cells, due to overcrowding at the Los Angeles County Women's jail in Lynwood, California...
Women chat as they lie in beds placed in the communal area outside cells, due to overcrowding at the Los Angeles County Women's jail in Lynwood, California...
Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

They say you go to prison to pay your debt to society. But those who leave often find themselves still in debt to the state.
(Spoiler alert: don’t read any further if you’re watching Orange Is the New Black and aren’t caught up.)
When Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson, one of the reccurring characters on the new Netflix show Orange Is the New Black is let out on parole, she finds that her cousin’s apartment is now overcrowded and occupied by someone else who isn’t interested in taking on any more roommates. She has to sleep on the floor. Several episodes later, she’s back in prison, with her disappointed friend Poussey Washington demanding to know if Jefferson came back because “freedom was inconvenient.”
“Minimum wage is some kinda joke, I got a part time job working at Pizza Hut and I still owe the prison $900 in fees I gotta pay back,” Jefferson responds. She’s technically free but, she explains, the terms of her parole mean that she has to keep sleeping on the floor of an apartment ridden with lice.
The show is an adaptation of a critically acclaimed memoir of the same name written by Piper Kerman, who spent thirteen months in federal prison on drug-related conspiracy charges and now advocates for prison reform. Among the more realistic aspects of the show are the challenges facing ex-offenders as they try to restart their lives. With state budgets strained by the recession, many states have been increasingly shifting the cost of mass incarceration to the incarcerated. After spending time in prison or jail, ex-offenders find themselves facing not only the already considerable challenge of finding work and housing, but also paying off financial penalties imposed by the state. The show takes place in a federal prison, which don’t charge inmates for their involuntary stays behind bars. But the dilemma the show highlights is nevertheless very real.
According to a 2010 report by the Brennan Center for Justice, the 15 states with the highest prison populations all impose fees on those convicted of crimes, which can range from charging “user fees” for their stay in prison or jail or even imposing costs on them for utilizing a public defender. Even though debtor’s prisons are technically unconstitutional, failing to pay those fees—or the interest that accrues on them—can mean violating the terms of parole or probation and ending up in jail. Nine hundred dollars in fees may sound like it’s exaggerated for television, but it isn’t. The Brennan Center study cites a Pennsylvania case where an ex-offender faced $2,464 in fees after release. That’s separate from fines or restitution, which can also create a big financial burden on ex-offenders but are imposed for specific offenses. Fees are charged for simply going through the system.
“It’s really one more barrier to someone staying out of jail,” said Lauren-Brooke Eisen, counsel at the Brennan Center. The irony is that reincarceration usually costs more than the fee itself, meaning the state loses the money it’s trying to make back.

Related: States push to give ex-felons a second chance

The fact that the character ends up back in prison so quickly is also fairly realistic. While women are slightly less likely than men to be rearrested within three years of release, more than half are. The debt that ex-offenders are saddled with, experts say, makes it less likely they’ll succeed. About 80% of offenders can’t afford a lawyer to begin with.
“It really is trying to get blood from a stone,” said Vanita Gupta, deputy legal director at the ACLU. “You’re coming out already facing a lot of challenges–trying to face your life on the outside–and you have these onerous fines that have the first claim to the income you’re generating.”
Like most people in real life who go to prison, Jefferson eventually ends up incarcerated again. Part of the reason why so many end up reincarcerated may be that after even they’re supposed to have paid their debt, they’re forced to pay even more.
(Watch an interview with author Piper Kerman and Orange Is the New Black actress Taylor Schilling below.) 

Headed to prison? Beware: Debt is the new black

Updated