The Huge Bill Families Have To Pay For Incarcerated Relatives

The tab typically exceeds $13,000, and families often forego basic needs to pay the expenses

Sep 15, 2015 at 6:36 PM ET

It costs more to pay for a family member in prison than it does for a year of in-state tuition at many public universities.

The price of paying for an incarcerated family member over a lifetime comes to an average of $13,607, according to a report released Tuesday by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Forward Together and Research Action Design. That’s the case in the 40 states where people are charged for conviction-related costs, including restitution and attorney fees.

That’s more expensive than a year of in-state tuition at many public universities—at the University of Virginia, University of Illinois, Indiana University, University of Washington and UCLA tuition is between $10,000 and $13,000 for in-state students.

The Ella Baker Center report, which analyzed longterm economic consequences of prison based on interviews with 1,500 incarcerated people and their families and employers, found incarceration economically cripples not only inmates but their families. One fifth of families had to take out a loan in order to make payments associated with their loved one’s sentence, and in 12 percent of instances, the formerly incarcerated family member was re-incarcerated for not making payments, according to the report.

Almost half of family members who were primarily responsible for paying court-related costs were mothers, and one in 10 were grandmothers, the report said. Eighty-three percent of them were women.

“Everything that was put into bailing me out was everything my mother had in savings, and she borrowed some money from my grandparents,” the report quoted an anonymous former prisoner from Oakland as saying. “She was back to working paycheck to paycheck. Eventually, about a year and a half after being locked up, my mother had to give up the house she loved and move back to an apartment.”

Court fees are one window into the poverty that pollutes the lives of families of prisoners and former prisoners. Almost two of every three families interviewed in the report were unable to meet their basic economic needs, and 70 percent were caring for children under 18.