The sheriff of Dallas County, Texas had a good reason for giving prepaid debit cards to prisoners containing the balance of their trust fund accounts when they were released from jail.

“There was too much money handling,” said Sheriff Lupe Valdez.

The cards contain the funds the prisoners had with them when they were booked into the facility, plus any money they received during their incarceration, less what they spent at the jail’s commissary. But Valdez and the Dallas County Commissioners were surprised to learn that the debit cards come with fees and that prisoners who use the cards are charged for accessing their own money.

The issue came to light when former prisoner Steve Mathis addressed the commissioners at the end of their first regular meeting in January 2013, to complain about the fees. County Judge Clay Jenkins and Commissioner John Wiley Price didn’t like the idea of released prisoners having to pay debit card fees.

“But let me just tell you, it’s his money,” Price said, noting that was the first he’d heard about any fees. “He said he didn’t give us no bank card [when he was jailed], he gave us cash. He should be able to get his money back. I got a real problem if they’re being charged a fee.”

Sheriff Valdez agreed but said she didn’t know much about the issue since Mathis was the first to complain about it. However, she promised to look into whether an ATM or kiosk could be placed in the jail complex so the debit cards could be redeemed with no fees.

Judge Jenkins said it would be one thing if a released prisoner could cash the card without fees by walking across the street or maybe just a few blocks away, but that is not the case.

The only places to exchange the debit cards for cash without incurring fees are two credit union locations, neither of which is within easy walking distance of the jail. A fee is charged if the cards are used at a bank not affiliated with the county’s credit union; there is also a $1.50 monthly fee even if the card is not used.

The Dallas County Jail is the first in Texas to use prepaid debit cards to return funds to released prisoners, but it is not alone in facing a backlash over debit card fees.

A former prisoner at the jail in Ramsey County, Minnesota filed suit in U.S. District Court in 2013 challenging fees on the debit card he was given upon his release.

Erik Mickelson had surrendered $95 in cash when he was booked into the jail in May 2013 on a charge of violating the city’s noise ordinance. But when he was released only a few hours later, he received a prepaid debit card with a $25 deduction for a mandatory booking fee plus a fee schedule that would start reducing the balance on the card within three days, according to his lawsuit. He alleged the fees included $2.75 for using an ATM, $1.50 to check the card’s balance and $3.00 to transfer the money to a bank account.

“We just think that’s stealing,” said Mickelson’s attorney, Joshua Williams. “The policy doesn’t pass the sniff test.”

Williams said Mickelson did not have the option of receiving a check instead of the prepaid card. “If this were a situation where someone, for whatever reason, decided that they wanted to get one of these preloaded debit cards, and they agreed to the fees, then that would be one thing,” Williams noted. “But they are giving the debit cards without anyone having any meaningful say in the matter.”

Ramsey County replaced paper checks with debit cards in 2012. Responding to Mickelson’s suit, the county denied most of the allegations but conceded the mandatory booking fee had been deducted from Mickelson’s funds and acknowledged that the cards included usage fees. The lawsuit, which seeks class-action status, remains pending. See: Mickelson v. County of Ramsey, U.S.D.C. (D. Minn.), Case No. 0:13-cv-02911-SRN-FLN.

A lawsuit raising similar claims was filed in federal court in April 2012 by a former prisoner who had been held at a jail in Benton County, Arkansas, naming Benton County Sheriff Kelly Cradduck and Keefe Commissary Network as defendants. Keefe issues prepaid debit cards to prisoners released from the jail and collects fees on the cards, including a $1.50 weekly “maintenance” fee.

Attorneys for Keefe defended the fees when they responded to the suit. The company maintained that the “so-called ‘numerous and exorbitant fees’ at issue involved less than $14,000 in debit card usage fees” out of $260,000 issued to released prisoners in prepaid debit cards over a 14-month period. The lawsuit claimed that the debit card fees are “paid to Defendant Keefe in consideration of a kickback that Defendant Cradduck receives” from the company.

The parties in the class-action lawsuit reached a proposed settlement in April 2014; the class members include all people who were held at the Benton County Jail on or after April 19, 2012, who received a prepaid debit card when they were released. The county has agreed to pay $71,609.58 into a settlement fund, which includes $50,385 in attorney’s fees and costs. The four named plaintiffs in the suit will receive incentive payments of $1,000 each.

The settlement has not yet been approved by the federal district court, and the case remains pending. See: Adams v. Benton County Sheriff, U.S.D.C. (W.D. Ark.), Case No. 5:13-cv-05074-PKH.

Former prisoners at the Sequoyah County Jail in Sallisaw, Oklahoma have also complained about debit card fees, but Chief Deputy Roger Fuller defended the practice, which was implemented in 2010. Fuller said the debit cards, provided by Swanson Services Corp., prevent jail employees from stealing prisoners’ funds – which had happened in the past.

“It’s been really helpful, especially with the responsibility of dealing with money,” he observed.

Until a class-action lawsuit challenging the debit card fees is filed, that is.

Sources: Dallas Morning News, www.keranews.org, www.startribune.com

(First published by Prison Legal News; used by permission)

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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