In response to recent reporting about a handful of wealthy people in federal prison who are not paying court-ordered victim restitution, the Bureau of Prisons has proposed rule changes that inequitably target low-income people in prison and their families.
The vast majority of people in federal prison are poor, and they struggle to meet basic, critical needs for essential items that BOP does not provide in sufficient quantities or at all, like toothpaste, deodorant, soap, underwear, socks, laundry detergent, over-the-counter medications, medical visits, dietary supplements, stamps, and phone calls.
People who are able to work in prison are paid only 12 cents to (at most) $1.15 per hour, leaving most people in prison to rely on financial help from friends and family members, many of whom are struggling to make ends meet themselves.
Half of Americans have family members who have been incarcerated, and the financial repercussions of incarceration can be devastating for low-income families. Nearly two in three families were unable to meet basic needs such as food, housing, and medical care while their family member was incarcerated—and nearly half of working families could not afford the costs of incarceration and had to sacrifice to help their loved ones.
The proposed amendment to BOP regulations would garnish 75% of contributions from family members and friends to pay for court-ordered fines, fees, and restitution.
While the rule change applies to people who participate in the BOP’s Inmate Financial Responsibility Program, individuals who do not participate in IFRP are ineligible to earn time credits that reduce the amount of time they must serve—forcing the untenable choice between time credits towards earlier release and having enough funds to purchase basic necessities.
Under the current rules, BOP must leave at least $75 in a person’s account for phone calls—reflecting the agency’s recognition that maintaining relationships with friends and family greatly reduces the risk that people will reoffend after release. But the proposed rule change eliminates that minimum threshold, asserting that one collect call a month is sufficient.
It is also widely recognized that having work experience reduces recidivism. But under the proposed new rules, people who work in prison will be required to allot 25 to 50% of their pay to IFRP, which will only increase their reliance on support from family members.
The proposed regulations have generated more than 1,100 public comments in opposition, including hundreds from incarcerated people and their families, crime victims, and key Senators.
Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice, which represents more than 180,000 crime victims, objected that the proposed rule change undermines rehabilitation and reentry for thousands of low-income people in federal prisons.
Importantly, they explained, the proposed “collection program will largely take money from low-income families to pay federal courts, not survivors.” It wrote:
This is because the most common offenses for people held by the BOP are drug charges and other charges where there is no victim identified in the case. Even in the 1 in 10 cases where federal courts order a person to pay restitution—in many of these cases the ‘victim’ is a government entity or a corporation, not an individual victim who was harmed.
The group noted that BOP could support victims without excessively burdening low-income families by tapping into the nearly $2 million in interest that Inmate Trust Fund accounts generated from FY2019 to FY2021.
Opponents of the proposed rule also pointed out that, by its own admission, BOP’s proposed new rule is inequitable. The bureau said in its proposal that it rejected “more equitable” approaches because they would create “technological and administrative challenges.”
And although federal agencies are required to evaluate whether their policies produce racially inequitable results and to work to redress inequalities in their policies and programs, the BOP’s proposal fails to address its disproportionate impact on people of color and their families.