Consider the effects of taking prisoner funds

The need for families and friends to maintain strong connections with their incarcerated loved ones can not be understated. This is difficult to do in the best of times and has become significantly more difficult during the pandemic, with sporadic lockdowns and the canceling of visitation. One of the few ways families and friends are able to maintain this connection is through ensuring that their loved ones have money on their books and are able to purchase essentials and items that may bring about some semblance of comfort.

I speak from direct experience, having served a significant amount of time in the Nevada Department of Corrections. My road to rehabilitation and my now happy and productive life outside of the system was made possible in part by the support of people who cared about me and ensured I had access to the items I needed. This is not the first time the funds of incarcerated people have been garnished without notice. I have seen my funds drained and felt firsthand the guilt, sadness and anger that comes as a result of this practice. It did not serve me or my fellow prisoners, it was at best a hindrance to our progress in the system. Finding out about this new policy has hit home and I felt the need to explain in some detail its negative ramifications.

During this global pandemic, loved ones are undoubtedly sending in more money than normal to ensure their people on the inside have access to food, allowing them to avoid crowded chow halls, and extra soap to protect them from this deadly coronavirus. The newly announced policy of taking some 80 percent of monies sent into incarcerated men and women will have a devastating impact on both families and the incarcerated.

I urge the Advisory Committee on the Administration of Justice, the Board of Prison Commissioners, or the Nevada Department of Corrections to end this practice immediately and seek a legislative solution that works for both victims of crime and the families of the incarcerated.  

We know that poverty is a major driver of crime rates and that families who have lost income due to a loved one’s incarceration often find themselves in difficult financial situations. Many households become single parent households due to a parent’s incarceration. Now these families are not only being asked to make sacrifices in order to send money to their loved ones, they are being asked to pay their loved one’s restitution. While ensuring victims of crime receive compensation is an important part of our justice system, it is unfair to place this burden on families and friends who are guilty of no crime.

The money that families and friends send is not a gift but financial support for a loved one, who at best can earn a few dollars a day. This money comes from mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, and the children of the incarcerated, they earn it. They chose to spend it in a way that will bring a slight amount of comfort and normalcy to their loved one. It is clear that the Nevada Department of Corrections failed to take the mental and emotional wellbeing of families into account when instituting this policy. The family unit is often made fragile by incarceration, and this policy will only increase that fragility.

The devastating consequences to the families of the incarcerated can not be ignored, but the impact doesn’t stop there. This policy has the potential of creating an unsafe environment within Nevada’s prisons as well. Not all incarcerated individuals owe restitution, which will create an unbalanced power dynamic that could lead to extortion or worse. Particularly at risk are mentally ill inmates who may be pressured to receive funds intended for another prisoner, which is a rule violation that carries its own consequences. The unfortunate truth inside prison is that bad actors both incarcerated and employed by NDOC have a history of taking advantage of situations like the one created by this policy.

Many incarcerated people affected by this policy will demand their loved ones stop sending money and become indigent and fully dependent on the system. It has been my experience that prisoners who lose their sense of independence and rely solely on the state for three squares and a cot are the least susceptible to rehabilitation and often the most likely to break rules and engage in violence or gang. A strong tie to one’s family is one of the most powerful drivers of good behavior in prison.     

This new policy will generate a moderate amount of money for victims at best. What it will do is damage family ties and create indigent prisoners who rely heavily on the system. This does not bode well for the successful reentry to society for incarcerated persons. When we prioritize money over maintaining strong family ties and rehabilitation, it is not only those directly impacted who suffer, but also the communities to which these incarcerated men and women will return.   

Richard L. Carmichael works as a consultant in Reno. As a formerly incarcerated individual, he is deeply passionate about prison and rehabilitation issues and criminal justice reform.