“It’s important to understand how someone who has money is able to buy their way out of jail or prison, so you’re much better off in our justice system if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent,” Sam Brooke, the Deputy Director of the Southern Poverty Law Center said Thursday.
Brooke was speaking at a two-day conference on fines and fees, entitled “Cash Register Justice,” at John Jay College in New York.
The Deputy Director conversed with fellow panelists Emily Gerrick, of the Texas Fair Defense Project, Bianca Tylek, from the Corrections Accountability Project and Paul Wright, of the Human Rights Defense Center about the fines and fees imposed on incarcerated individuals.
Fines and fees often lead to an incarceration trap that disproportionately affects low income people, and the system is perpetuated by laws, legislatures, and companies that benefit from extracting the poor in prison, they acknowledged.
Tylek used the prison telecom industry, which controls the phone calls and video calls incarcerated individuals make, as one example. “They’re preying on people’s desire to be in contact with loved ones,” she said.
She noted that some jails charge up to 25 dollars for one fifteen minute phone call, which benefits telecom companies and jails, who collect the money, but imposes an unnecessary financial burden on incarcerated folks and their family members on the outside (who might be paying for the phone call or video call).
Significantly, policies like cost of incarceration statutes can be devastating to people on the inside because they end up surrendering any money they make on the inside to pay for their incarceration.
“These people working in prison are slaves of the state,” said Wright.
Wright told the panel the problem was particularly problematic in Florida, where injury lawsuits can be turned around to make the incarcerate pay.
“In Florida, prisoners know if they file a lawsuit, the state will file a counter suit for the cost of incarceration. Now you’re paying to be injured while incarcerated.”
He also said in Missouri, the Attorney General’s office pockets any money a prisoner might come into if a family member dies and he/ she gets an inheritance.
“It takes a lot of money to be a poor person in prison,” he continued.
Moreover, bail laws disproportionately affect the poor in jail, and they either remain incarcerated or drain their bank accounts to get out.
“Just because someone got out of jail doesn’t mean they could afford to pay that bond,” Gerrick said.
The conference, which continued Friday, is livestreamed, which can be found here.
A video of Thursday’s discussions can be viewed here.