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At least 2 states let prisons charge the families of dead ex-prisoners for their food and health care

Is this prisoner getting charged a fee for this meal?
Is this prisoner getting charged a fee for this meal?
Jesse Dearing/Boston Globe via Getty

Nearly every state lets prisons and jails charge inmates for their own incarceration — room, board, clothing, and doctor's visits — in a phenomenon called "pay-to-stay."

We don't know exactly how many prisons and jails take advantage of "pay to stay." The latest survey, done in 2005, found that 90 percent of jails surveyed charged inmates fees of one kind of another. In an era of tight budgets, the practice is probably even more widespread today.

The Brennan Center for Justice, a criminal justice reform think tank, put together an analysis of what pay-to-stay laws are on the books in every state. If you're interested in what your state's laws are, you can check out this nifty interactive map on its website. But spoiler alert: your state almost certainly has pay-to-stay.

Pay-to-stay piles on a second punishment to the sentence that's been handed down by a judge. That creates lasting, detrimental effects on inmates and their families — and society as a whole. It doubles the strain on inmates' families: in addition to losing a household income, they have to pay to support their incarcerated family member. And it makes it even harder for inmates to get back on their own two feet financially after they're released from prison.

It's estimated that about 10 million Americans owe about $50 billion in debt because of fees and fines they've gotten through the criminal justice system — and because of pay-to-stay, some of that debt comes from prisoners having to pay for their own incarceration.

Almost every state practices pay-to-stay

Forty-three states allow inmates to get charged for "room and board" — the cost of their own imprisonment. Thirty-five states charge inmates for at least some medical expenses. Taken together, at least 49 states have a law on the books that authorizes at least one of the two. (Hawaii, as well as DC, doesn't have statutes that explicitly address pay-to-stay.)

pay-to-stay screenshot

(Screenshot via Brennan Center for Justice)

In many of the statutes the Brennan Center analyzed, states only charge room and board to inmates who are on work release or have a prison job, on the logic that they're the only ones making money while in prison. (It seems possible that some inmates might be dissuaded from taking prison jobs if they know some of their wages are going to be garnished.) Others take the money out of inmates' commissary accounts — which are usually filled by family members on the outside — or bank accounts.

That's particularly worrisome when inmates are being charged for their own medical care — especially when, as many states do, prisoners get charged a fee for every doctor's visit they request. Most states set that fee pretty low, around $5, but Texas charges a $100 annual fee for any inmate who asks to see a doctor.

As the Brennan Center points out, some inmates are afraid to ask to see a doctor if they know their families will get hit with a fee for it — which increases the risk that an inmate won't get treated for a contagious disease that will spread throughout the facility.

Three states allow at least some inmates to get charged for clothing. Missouri allows clothing fees for prison and jail inmates; Louisiana allows it for jail inmates; and Nevada allows inmates on work release to get charged for the clothing they need for their jobs.

In Michigan, an inmate is charged $12 when he enters jail. But if he hasn't paid the fee by the time he's released — for example, if he can't afford it — he owes the state $100.

Pay-to-stay doesn't even save states much money

Many states make fees dependent on inmates' ability to pay. But some states are willing to put people (or their families) in debt for the cost of their own incarceration. In at least eight states, ex-prisoners are liable to pay back any debt they owe even after they're released from prison — and many jurisdictions hire collections agencies to get that money back. And in at least two states — Florida and Wisconsin — the law says that after an ex-prisoner dies, his or her estate can be on the hook for any unpaid debt.

All of this would at least be explicable if the fees that got charged were actually recouped. But they're not. Even when a collections agency gets called in, governments often don't see much of the money they're owed. At least one county (in Minnesota) had to overhaul its pay-to-stay program because it wasn't making as much as it cost to run.

The premise of pay-to-stay is that it's more important for governments to save money than for inmates to be as financially stable as possible when they leave prison. That's a risky tradeoff to begin with, since financial instability could make it harder for people to stay out of prison for good. So if pay-to-stay isn't even saving states money, what's the reason to keep these laws on the books?