Incarcerated people across the US could find their commissary funds depleted by a new proposed policy from the Bureau of Prisons to automatically deduct three quarters of all funds prisoners receive from loved ones on the outside. The BOP is justifying the proposed change by appealing to personal responsibility—claiming that the deductions will go towards covering prisoners’ financial obligations such as child support and court fees. But what about the financial obligations of the federal government? Billions of public dollars are earmarked for corporate contractors profiting from incarceration and war each year, while the costs of operating courts and raising children are pushed onto incarcerated individuals and their families. Tim Curry, Mark Ford, and Jodi Hocking join Rattling the Bars to discuss the new Bureau of Prisons proposal and how incarcerated people, their families, and organizers are fighting back.
Tim Curry is the Policy & Research Director at the Fines and Fees Justice Center.
Jodi Hocking is the founder and Executive Director of Return Strong, a grassroots organization of families and loved ones of incarcerated people fighting for transparency, accountability, and communication from the Nevada Department of Corrections.
Mark Ford is a formerly incarcerated person who won relief from the BOP’s proposed deductions after advocates won a statutory cap on the new policy.
Mansa Musa: Welcome to this edition of Rattling the Bars. I’m Mansa Musa, and today we’ll be talking to three extraordinary individuals that will be educating us on how the prison-industrial complex, mass incarceration, is profiting off of prisoners and their families. As if it is not enough to have us be dehumanized by being subjected to some of the harshest living conditions, now we’re being subjected to paying for those living conditions.
According to a report, the Bureau of Prisons is proposing a change of the operations of inmate’s trust accounts. The new rule will automatically apply to 75% of the money received from family members or other outside sources towards restitution, court costs, child support, and other obligations. That means that if your loved one has court ordered financial obligations that have not been met and you send them $100, only $25 will be deposited into their account.
Here to talk about this proposed policy and how the state has implemented some of these policies is Mark Ford, Jodi Hocking, and Tim Curry. Welcome to Rattling the Bars.
Mark Ford: Thank you.
Jodi Hocking: Thank you. Thanks for having us.
Mansa Musa: All right, Mark, introduce yourself to Rattling the Bars, just tell us a little bit about yourself.
Mark Ford: Hello, my name’s Mark Ford. I just recently was released from prison. I’ve been out about a week right now. I served 20 years for second degree murder, and I’m currently staying at a halfway house and trying to get back on the track of life.
Mansa Musa: All right. Welcome home.
Mark Ford: Thank you.
Mansa Musa: Jodi? Introduce yourself to the Rattling the Bars audience. Tell us a little bit about who you are and what your organization represents.
Jodi Hocking: Thank you. My name is Jodi Hocking. I am the founder and executive director of an organization in Nevada called Return Strong. We actually came into existence because of this exact situation in Nevada. So, we are a group of family activists, formerly incarcerated people as they return. Mark is a perfect example, he was one of our members while he was incarcerated and comes home and becomes part of the voice of making change. So we work on humanity issues, privatization issues, and ultimately, are abolitionists that are looking to end incarceration.
Mansa Musa: And Tim, Tim Curry, introduce yourself to Rattling the Bars and tell us a little bit about your organization.
Tim Curry: Yeah, hi. Thank you for having me. I’m the policy and research director at the Fines and Fees Justice Center. We’re a national organization that’s working to reform the way that our court systems and our governments are funding themselves by taking money from people who are caught up in the system.
Mansa Musa: All right. Mark, you said that you was recently released from prison after serving 20 some-odd years. All right. While you was incarcerated – And you was incarcerated in the Nevada prison system, am I correct?
Mark Ford: Yes, sir.
Mansa Musa: All right. And while you was incarcerated, the policy of taking a percentage of the monies that was received from prisoners, can you explain what that policy looked like in the Nevada prison system?
Mark Ford: So I have a few examples here. I worked at a prison industries, worked with vehicles, we worked with the casinos, packaging the cards and things like that. With the overhead charges from the prison industries, every time I made $100, 34.5% was taken out of my check for victim’s fund, overhead charges, PI fees. After that deduction, I was left with $65.50. If your savings wasn’t full, you would get deducted another 10%. So that was another $6.55. So after all that, I would clear $58.95. A little while back, we were getting 80% deduction for Marcy’s Law, which left me with only $14.73.
Mansa Musa: $14.73?
Mark Ford: After two weeks, from a $100 paycheck, which is a very low amount after working eight hours a day every day for five days a week. With that rate, to save for a pair of tennis shoes, you do the math, it takes almost four months just to buy a pair of tennis shoes. The taxation is high. It’s rough on everybody. I got the job in prison to relieve some pressure off my family so I didn’t have to ask them for money. With inflation, everything out there in the world, it’s hard for them. I still had to ask for help because it wasn’t enough. So there I am relying on family members again. It’s difficult.
Mansa Musa: And let me ask you this here. Okay, so we know that they taking a large percentage of your money, and they taking it under the pretense for a whole panacea of reasons. But in terms of outside of your hygienic needs that you have to pay for, did you have to pay for phone calls, and did you have to pay for sick call medical, and if you wanted to go with sick call, did you have to pay for a sick call, and you have to pay for the phones? The calls for a pay phone?
Mark Ford: Correct. So the phone system is set up where you can buy phone time right there at the phone. A 15-minute phone call, I believe, is roughly $1.67. So just for me to call my family just to check in and let them know how I’m doing, every phone call is $1.67. Any medical charges, you would put a request and be seen. It’s $8 to be seen for any medication or anything that is wrong with you. So just showing how much I would clear after two weeks, by medical bills and making a few calls just to let my family know, that $14 goes real fast.
Mansa Musa: Let me ask you this here. What impact did that have on the prison population? Like I said, I did 48 years in prison, and I know that whenever a policy came out, it always have a collateral effect on the general population. I know the environments I’ve been in, when you have a situation where prisoners are unable to take care of themselves, it creates a hostile environment, it creates a black market, it created [inaudible] balance, it created a lot of tension, and it created a lot of predatory behavior. Did you witness that, or was that something that took place in the Nevada prison system that you was in?
Mark Ford: Correct. I’ve seen that with my own eyes. The prison provides very little hygiene [items] for yourself. It provides you some toothpaste and some soap. So you are forced to use your money to buy hygiene from the canteen. Better name brand, better products. Me, myself, I used most of my money for food. The prison food is not the best food due to a lot of strain on the system with officers not having enough to run the system, and the inmates just want to go to the kitchen, get their hours done, and get out. The food is bad, so I’m forced to spend my money for the canteen. And you see a lot of strain on other people.
And like you said, black market, you see people trying to get drugs in the system to get faster money and support themselves that way. So it does have a ripple effect. It puts pressure on everybody, makes hostile environments between different people. The drugs nowadays are stronger. People act wild, so it does put safety concerns for other inmates, officers. So it definitely has a ripple effect.
Mansa Musa: Okay. And so suffice to say that these draconian oppressive policies are the result of a lot of the prison population being unstable.
Jodi, your organization was successful in having the initial policy of taking 80%… Your organization was instrumental in having that reversed. Talk about how y’all was able to get them to change it, and where are y’all at now trying to get it eradicated all together?
Jodi Hocking: So at that time – And I mentioned this earlier – We’d only been in existence for three weeks and on Aug. 31, 2020, they implemented this. And people woke up on Sept. 1 and their trust accounts, everything had been gutted. There was no money, and if you had made a deposit that night, it was gone. They were taking 80% to 100% from everybody’s, anybody who owed restitution is really who was impacted by that at the time. And there was a Board of Prison Commissioners meeting coming up.
So the policy had not been passed yet by the Board of Prison Commissioners. And we just started organizing families. There were only 15 of us at the time, and we started writing letters to all of our loved ones and asking people to send their families to us. And we showed up in force at that Board of Prison Commissioners meeting. I think there were well over 100 people. We don’t even know what the actual number was on phone calls, because it was all virtual at the time,because it was in the middle of COVID. So the phone lines were so clogged that they couldn’t even start the public comment process because people were there and so angry. But typically, angry people organize, so it worked to our benefit in that way. And the governor implemented a stay on the deductions, so for five months they stopped. So it was in September they took deductions, then starting on Oct. 8 until March, they stopped taking deductions.
What we did is we fought, we actually created a bill draft proposal, and we just made as much noise as we could. We used the media, we used legal avenues. We were brand new at the time, so really what we did was make noise, and we got every family that we could find to help us do it. From inside, our members that were incarcerated, we asked them to write us letters and talk to us about the impact. We collected… I don’t know how many letters at this time, because now we got 3000 letters this year, so I don’t remember how many we got. But we used those in the press. We did op-eds, we did everything we could to elevate this into the public eye so that the Department of Corrections couldn’t just slide it under the radar. Everybody knew what they were doing.
And we really… This might sound bad, but we knew generally people didn’t care how it was impacting incarcerated people. But if we framed it from the impact on families that were left outside, people would listen. And so our intention and concern was our loved ones that were incarcerated. We were very careful to message it so that it would appeal to legislators and decision makers, so that they would care about people who could vote for them.
We got the stay, we got a bill proposal, and we actually passed a bill that we wanted to be no deductions, but this was very related to Marcy’s Law in Nevada, and that was a Constitutional amendment that had happened a few years prior. And so we weren’t able to win that they couldn’t take restitution while people are incarcerated, even though other states do do that. What we were able to do was implement statutory caps. So all of the deductions included, if you owed court fees and restitution and child support – And I add this to what Mark said is, in Nevada they charge people who work in prison industries room and board – So you owe room and board, you owe all these things all together. If you didn’t work in prison industries, there’s a 25% cap now. So I send my husband $100, he’s going to get $75 of it.
Mansa Musa: Basically, for y’all strategy, y’all was able to identify certain aspects of this concept or this draconian policy, and attack them and get them to put a cap on it overall.
Jodi Hocking: So I think, in Nevada, one of the things that is happening is that it’s, one, we were able to do that with the deductions and get the caps on them. But in addition, this legislative session – Well even before the legislative session, we’re fighting some other privatization attacks around mail and mail scanning. Which right now, so far – Knock on wood – We’re doing really well and kind of leading in that unregulated industry in terms of protecting our mail from being privatized and scanned under the guise of it being drugs.
And we also have a bill that we’re working together with the Fines and Fees Justice Center that would eliminate medical copays, it would eliminate room and board fees, it would eliminate all of those fees. We’re calling it Ending the Cost of Incarceration. And we’re waiting right now for the bill number to be assigned, but we’re doing some really heavy work in terms of how do we end the cost of incarceration and look at how prisons are funded. In Nevada, they don’t fully fund the prisons, and they expect families and incarcerated people to make up the difference on that. And we’re fighting that extremely hard.
Mansa Musa: And Tim, I’m going to come to you in a minute. I just want to make this observation – The state’s legislative give, the prison budget is astronomical. So you putting money into the prison, you putting money into it in astronomical numbers. And then you turn around and say you going to charge a person that is in prison for life or in prison for 20 years a fee for staying there, a fee for getting medical attention that you put money in the budget for medical, for having to go buy some food, that you put money in for food. It just stands to reason that the criminal justice system is actually the new form of slavery.
Tim, talk about where do y’all go at in your organization, talk about your organization, and where your organization’s at in terms of trying to educate people and trying to get reversed some of these policies that Jodi and Mark was talking about.
Tim Curry: So the examples that Jodi and Mark are giving are things that we’re seeing play out all around the country. Kind of the way we approach this is we have to separate what fines and fees are. So a fine is something that the court imposes as a punishment, it’s a financial punishment. But then states and courts add on so many other fees. These are things that are basically hidden taxes that are only imposed on people in the system to pay for courts, prisons, or other government things. There could be payments for funds on autism research, but they’re only charging it for people who are in the system.
And so we’re working around the country, state by state, to try to address some of these things. And when they come up in the federal system, we really try to raise a light on them as well, because what happens is, Jodi and her group were successful in pushing back on what was happening in Nevada. But with the Bureau of Prisons trying to introduce something almost identical, it’s just a signal to other states that hey, this is okay to do. Why don’t you go do it too? And this is the stuff that we’re trying to stop.
Mansa Musa: And talk about, I was reading where the Federal Bureau of Prisons right now, they made this proposal and we know that we got a conservative Congress and a conservative Senate, and we got a conservative president when it comes to all things criminal justice or criminal injustice. Talk about y’all strategy in trying to get the federal, ’cause that’s the next leg up right now. And like you say, if the federal government does it, then it becomes the law of the land. Talk about what y’all are doing in terms of trying to educate people on what they need to do to try to get this reversed, because we have a large prison population, 2.1 million people that are incarcerated, and a large percentage are federal prisoners.
Tim Curry: So what we do is we try to shed light and educate both lawmakers, policymakers, but also the public on what’s going on so that they can put pressure on their elected officials, because this hits people from all walks of life. What this is is really anti-family. And Jodi was talking about how her concern as an impacted family member was that the person who’s incarcerated, but it really is impacting families all across the country. We’re draining wealth from communities all over this country that actually need that wealth to survive.
And so what we’re doing, so I’ll give you an example of what’s going on with the Bureau of Prisons proposal. Similar to what Nevada was trying to do, the Bureau of Prisons is now saying that they would like to implement – It’s not yet official – They would like to implement this policy that would take 75% of any contribution to a person in custody’s commissary account. So if your family puts any money in, they would take 75% of it.
And so think about that in terms of a struggling family back at home. If they’re trying to support their incarcerated loved one, and they wanted to get that person $100 for their commissary, right now, coming up, the Bureau of Prisons would take $75 of that, and the person only gets $25. So for that mother who’s trying to get her son $100, she would now have to come up with $400 to be able to do that exact same thing. And the Bureau of Prisons is no different than Nevada in the fact that it’s not providing for the basic needs of inmates, people who are in custody. And so people in custody rely on their commissary accounts to buy food and toiletries and clothing and everything they need to survive.
And so what we’re doing is we’re trying to rally advocate groups from around the country, but also the general population to let them know that, the way the federal system works is if the Bureau of Prisons wants to do this, they have to put out what’s called a public comment. They have to put it out online and people can weigh in and say whether they think it’s a good or bad idea. And right now, we’ve got nearly a thousand people who have weighed in and said this is a terrible idea and the Department of Justice really needs to listen to the population and say, stop doing this. And so that’s one of the things that we’re trying to do.
I think the irony that we see here is that the Bureau of Prisons is a division of the Department of Justice, and President Biden says that he is for equity, racial and economic equity, in all federal policy making. He’s issued executive orders that say all of his agencies have to implement policies that are racially and economically equitable. But the Department of Justice and Bureau of Prisons are his agencies, and they’re not doing that. So in this proposal, they say explicitly in the proposal that they understand that taking 75% of everyone’s money is unjust, is racially inequitable, and it is economically inequitable. And that they could do something different, they could do a tier system, they could take more money from people who have a lot of money and less money from people who have no money, but they decided that that’s too difficult. And so what the Bureau of Prisons has said is that equity is just not worth their time and effort, despite what the president and the White House has said they should be doing.
And not only are they taking that money in the moment, but one of President Biden’s other policy priorities is helping with reentry for people who are returning to their communities. But if you are taking any of the money that they’re trying to save for reentry, that’s not helping. And again, the Bureau of Prisons is taking money, or is proposing to take all this money from affected communities, because the money’s not coming from the individual people in custody, it’s coming from outside sources. That’s what the policy says. We’re taking 75% of money from outside sources, friends and families.
Mansa Musa: Okay, thanks. And as we close, Mark, how much money did you come out of prison with?
Mark Ford: I saved a few thousand working in prison industries over the years. I just want to let the viewers also know my personal thoughts on restitution for the victims in my case. I was never opposed to paying, I just believe that 80%, 75% is very high. I transitioned to a halfway house and it cost me $600 to pay for the first 30 days there. Getting the money sent to my account so I could pay for it myself, the tax was so high that I was not able to do that to get released. So I had family still waste their time to go down there to pay, which is a big inconvenience for them.
I also want to let people know that part of my condition on parole, I have to pay the restitution when I’m released. So I’m still making progress to pay that restitution fine off. So it’s not like we’re saying, hey, I don’t want to pay any of this money, but this is very, very hard on your family. Majority of the money that people get in prison is from their family, and it takes a toll on them, especially in this hard time out there.
Mansa Musa: Yeah, and I think that’s really the issue. The issue is not so much whether the person wants to be accountable. The issue is whether or not you want to force accountability on me at the expense of my family or give me a double punishment. You give me 25 years in prison, you tell me that upon my release, I’m going to have to pay restitution. Do you want me to stay out, but when I get out you taking money from me, money I need to survive. Jodi, you got the last word on this. What do you want to tell our audience?
Jodi Hocking: I just think that all of these issues with prisons, prisons have become predatory on not just the people who are incarcerated, but on families. And that if, as a community, like wide-based community, talking about the country, if we are going to choose incarceration, then they have to fund it themselves. But in the meantime, the reality is, this is not the just or equitable way to do this. It really is predatory on the people who are most vulnerable.
Mansa Musa: And Tim, tell us how we can get in touch with you, how our audience can get in touch with your organization, and what y’all got planned coming up.
Tim Curry: Yeah, so right now, first of all, if anyone is interested in submitting a public comment, anybody who’s an individual can submit a public comment against the Federal Bureau of Prisons proposal, and I can provide your team a link to that. The public comments close on March 13. So you have a couple more days to get that in. But otherwise, we welcome input from the community, so feel free to reach out to the Fines and Fees Justice Center. You can email me directly, we have a form on our website. And we love to work with communities who are trying to make change in this. We know that fines and fees are a local and state issue around the country predominantly, and so we need partners in communities that want to see change, and we’re happy to connect with folks.
Mansa Musa: There you have it, the real news about the prison-industrial complex taxing people’s family members by taking money from their families that’s being sent to them, 80%, 75%. They got a state budget that put money into the prison-industrial complex for housing, yet they are charging prisoners’ family members money for housing. You have the state budgets that’s putting money in for medical, yet you have the prison-industrial complex taxing people’s family members for medical. You have the state budget putting money in for phone calls, and yet you have the state prison-industrial complex taxing family members for phone calls.
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