On the first of every month, Mary B., a 72-year-old retired state worker, mails off a $200 check to ensure the safety of her son, who is imprisoned in Virginia. She’s been doing so since 2007, when her son was sentenced in federal court to 15 years, after pleading guilty to a series of drug-fueled bank robberies. While Mary lives on a fixed income that doesn’t leave much money to play with, she says she is afraid of what will happen to her son if she were to stop sending the money. “I just want to make sure he’s safe,” she says.

Anyone familiar with the world of prison knows that Mary’s predicament is one that occurs often in some prisons: family members on the outside, paying extortion to protect loved ones inside the walls. In some countries, “protection money” is virtually automatic. In American prisons, gangs routinely extort fellow prisoners who must “pay to stay.” But the shakedown facing Mary and her son isn’t being perpetrated by a prison gang; it’s being committed by the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

That’s right: the Federal Bureau of Prisons routinely extracts funds from the family members of prisoners, who can face hardship consequences if they are unwilling, or unable, to make monetary payments demanded by prison staff under the BOP’s Inmate Financial Responsibility Program (IFRP).

The Inmate Financial Responsibility Program is intended to “encourage” federal prisoners who own financial obligations, i.e., fines, restitution, etc., to “voluntarily” pay down their debt while they are incarcerated. Governed by a Federal Bureau of Prisons Policy Statement (Program Statement 5380.08) and federal regulations, 28 C.F.R. § 545.10 {et seq.}, the IFRP allows local staff to set a payment schedule to “help the inmate develop a financial plan” that is “commensurate with [the prisoner’s] ability to pay.” 28 C.F.R. § 545.11(a).

Mary B. says that her son still owes the government some $16,000.00 in restitution for his crimes and that he indeed wants to make a dent in his debt while he’s incarcerated but only makes roughly $20.00 a month picking up trash in the prison yard. It’s nowhere near enough to meet the $200.00 a month payment demanded by administrators at his prison.

So how does BOP staff make such exorbitant demands for funds? Well, for starters, the relevant regulations set forth no formula or guidelines as to what constitutes a “commensurate” payment. The decision as to how much a prisoner is expected to pay is made at the local level, by front-line “correctional counselors” at a prisoner’s housing unit. In Mary’s son’s case, the counselor in his housing unit makes it her practice to simply add up the prisoner’s incoming funds for the prior six months, subtract $70 per month from this amount so that the inmate can still call home, and, after deducting IFRP payments from the total, dividing by six to set a monthly payment figure. The counselor’s practice appears based on the IFRP regulation’s reference to using a six-month figure as to the basis for figuring a “commensurate” payment. 28 C.F.R. § 545.11(b).

When Mary’s son pointed out that the word “commensurate” means “percentage,” and asked for a “reasonable” payment plan, his counselor wrote, “Policy does not apply ‘reasonable payment’ (sic) but is based on inmate’s 6 mos deposits[,] your monthly payment is commensurate based on 6 mos deposit (sic).”

Under this method of computation, Mary’s son could just make sure his inmate account never exceeds the deductible amount, never buying anything or using any services, thereby reducing his payment the next time.

The catch is that in today’s Federal Bureau of Prisons, inmates are required to pay for virtually everything. And “everything” is, of course, expensive. Soap at a dollar a bar. Four dollars for toothpaste. Those who wish to exercise must buy sneakers at $50.00 to $80.00 a pair. Pursuant to federal policy, items are sold to prisoners at a 30% markup, inflating prices well above retail ones. Naturally, the BOP’s 200 or so institution’s purchase from only two vendors, Union Supply Co., and Bob Barker Company, two corporations that deal exclusively with correctional systems. (Business is, obviously, booming).

Mary’s son has been dealing with a serious medical condition, too, and all “over the counter” medications must be purchased from the institutional commissary, as is the case with vitamins and other food items (no citrus fruit or other sources of Vitamin C are available in the institutional chow hall). “I don’t want him to go without,” Mary says. “And they will punish him if he doesn’t pay.”

Yes, punishments. While the BOP calls the IFRP “voluntary,” the relevant regulation provides that “[r]efusal by an inmate to participate in the [program] ordinarily shall result in the following” sanctions:

(1) Where applicable, the Parole Commission will be notified of the inmate’s failure to participate;

(2) The inmate will not receive any furlough (other than possibly an emergency or medical furlough);

(3) The inmate will not receive performance pay above the maintenance pay level or bonus pay or vacation pay [Note: Maintenance pay is $5.00 per month];

(4) The inmate will not be assigned to any work detail outside the secure perimeter of the facility;

(5) The inmate will not be placed in UNICOR. Any inmate assigned to UNICOR who fails to make adequate progress on his/her financial plan will be removed from UNICOR… .;

(6) The inmate shall be subject to a monthly commissary spending limitation more stringent than the monthly commissary spending limit set for all inmates [Note: This limit is $25.00 versus $320.00 per month, excluding postage and other exempt items]

(7) The inmate will be quartered in the lowest housing status (dormitory, double-bunking, etc.); and

(8) The inmate will not be placed in a community-based program . . .”

28 C.F.R. § 545.11(d).

While the application of such punishments — some of them substantial — would seem to render dubious the BOP’s claim that the IFRP is “voluntary,” the federal courts have upheld this characterization, holding that no prisoner has a constitutional right to avoid such sanctions. See, e.g., United States v. Lemoine, 346 F.3d 1042, 1050 (9th Cir. 2008)(consequences for nonparticipation in IFRP does not constitute an atypical and significant hardship for prisoners in relation to ordinary prison life). So, as such, prisoners like Mary’s son really have no choice but to pay whatever their guards deem appropriate, or face a harder set of circumstances than the ones they already face in prison.

“My son is serving a 15-year sentence. He wants to pay his debt to society, but he just doesn’t have the money they want. So I guess I’ll keep paying it for him.” She pauses. “We’ve got it down to $16,000.00 now. I hope I live long enough to pay it all off.”

About Christopher Zoukis, MBA

Christopher Zoukis, MBA, is the Managing Director of the Zoukis Consulting Group, a federal prison consultancy that assists attorneys, federal criminal defendants, and federal prisoners with prison preparation, in-prison matters, and reentry. His books include Directory of Federal Prisons (Middle Street Publishing, 2020), Federal Prison Handbook (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), Prison Education Guide (PLN Publishing, 2016), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Company, 2014).

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