By Christopher Zoukis Lower-income, and racial and ethnic minority youth are far more likely to face incarceration or probation because of an inability to pay debts imposed by the justice system, according to a report issued by Philadelphia’s Juvenile Law Center. The legal aid and advocacy group analyzed state laws on the fines, fees, restitution…

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By Christopher Zoukis

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 IFRP 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).

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