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Saturday, December 10, 2016

Families already struggle to visit incarcerated loved ones, but a new charge will make it harder and further isolate inmates.

Imprisonment has always generated invisible inequalities. But new legislation in Arizona now forces families and friends of inmates to bear an extra burden and will end up creating more barriers to reentry for inmates after they leave the system.

As of July 20, Arizona became the first state to pass a “background check fee” that charges adults a one-time fee of $25 to visit any of the 15 prison complexes that house state prisoners. While the legislation was instituted under the pretext that the profit would be used to support the administration of background checks, Wendy Baldo, chief of staff for the Arizona Senate, has explained that the earnings will fund prison maintenance and repairs. However, prison maintenance and repairs is the least of concerns among prisoners and visitors.

Instead, the legislation imposes unusual punishment on the prisoners’ family and friends. This fee directly penalizes the family of inmates for the simple reason that their loved ones are in prison and they want to visit them while incarcerated.

While $25 may not seem like a huge amount for many Americans, there is a vast economic disparity between the families of inmates and an average two-parent household. Although specific figures on household income of incarcerated parents are not available, a single parent home that loses one parent to the prison system is expected to experience an income drop of an average 41 percent in the first year. Although the majority of families affected by incarceration are often already low-income households, there is evidence that the men within these families are the key contributors to household income. For instance, 54 percent of the men incarcerated reported being the primary financial support in their household, with an average of 61 percent of fathers employed full time and 12 percent employed part time.

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