The Price of Admission

There are few populations more vulnerable to abuse than prisoners and their families, and there’s no place like Arizona for enjoying the opportunity to take advantage.  From the New York Times :

For the Arizona Department of Corrections, crime has finally started to pay.

New legislation allows the department to impose a $25 fee on adults who wish to visit inmates at any of the 15 prison complexes that house state prisoners. The one-time “background check fee” for visitors, believed to be the first of its kind in the nation, has angered prisoner advocacy groups and family members of inmates, who in many cases already shoulder the expense of traveling long distances to the remote areas where many prisons are located.

While they call it a “background check fee, they make no bones about the real purpose, a quick and easy money-raiser.

Wendy Baldo, chief of staff for the Arizona Senate, confirmed that the fees were intended to help make up the $1.6 billion deficit the state faced at the beginning of the year.

“We were trying to cut the budget and think of ways that could help get some services for the Department of Corrections,” Ms. Baldo said. She added that the department “needed about $150 million in building renewal and maintenance and prior to this year, it just wasn’t getting done and it wasn’t a safe environment for the people who were in prison and certainly for the people who worked there.”

“Maintenance funds for our buildings are scarce in this difficult economic time,” he said. “A $25 visitation fee helps to ensure our prisons remain safe environments for staff, inmates and visitors.”

The massive prison population has long been a fabulous revenue opportunity, from the  telephone scam to charging for room and board, as if prisons were the Hotel California.  While there are advocacy groups to help prisoners, not to mention the occasional interested lawyers and a judge or two, the rationale for picking on inmates is straightforward: They’re prisoners, screw ’em.

Decades ago, it became clear to prison officials and theorists that there were things to be done on behalf of prisoners that had salutary effects, such as providing them with some entertainment to keep them occupied, some exercise to release pent up tension and education so that they might have half a chance of going straight when they came out.  Each of these ideas caused a public backlash, as if prisoners had the sweetest deal in the world.

Before color television was commonplace, prisoners were able to watch them in the day room and people went bonkers.  Why should prisoners get to watch color TV when law-abiding folk couldn’t?  The problem was exacerbated when prisons offered college courses while tuition increases for the general public made college a stretch for many working people.  The joke was that people would do better to send their kids to prison than college to get their education.

The reasons in favor of providing prisoners with the accoutrements that would both facilitate their stay and help them to re-integrate into society were sound.  So were the beefs against them, as people struggled in their ordinary lives while prisoners were provided access to things they couldn’t afford.  Combined with the backlash toward the Welfare Queens of the 1970s, rational and humane treatment of prisoners became a dirty idea.

Arizona’s new brainstorm, charging visitors for the pleasure of seeing their loved one in prison, is not merely the latest version of how to suck blood from prisoners, but one that flies in the face of one of the more fundamental elements of a successful rehabilitation, the support of family.  Hard as it may be to believe, the family of some prisoners may not have much by way of disposable income, and having to pay sucks up money that might otherwise be used to feed the children.

Missing from this analysis is that prisoners aren’t exactly there by choice, though some would argue that having done the crime, they indeed made a decision to become guests of the state, willingly or not.  Of course, that ignores the innocent who are wrongfully convicted, the innocent who plead guilty for fear of conviction and the guilty who should never have been sentenced to prison.  But hey, these prisoners blend, so we need not concern ourselves with people we can’t easily pick out from the crowd.

But the people who are actually paying the price aren’t convicted of any crime.  These are the families who are trying to support their loved one, and upon whom society relies in trying to bring the former prisoner back into the fold.  The prisoners will get their three square meals regardless, but what of their children?

There never seems to be an end to the great ideas of using the captive population as a source of revenue, despite the backside harm caused.  And these ideas bake to perfection in the Arizona sun.  Yet they remain as misguided and counterproductive now as they were when TV used rabbit ears.  It’s enough that prisoners are incarcerated.  Leave their families, their children out of it.

3 thoughts on “The Price of Admission

  1. Billy

    Thank you, Scott.

    Having been an inmate in a Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) for profit prison and FCI, Morgantown I can attest to everything you say in this post.

    Personally, I would not allow my family or friends to visit me while I was in prison–for several reasons: the relatively short period of incarceration (5 months) made the separation painful but bearable: I did not want them to have present memory of me in prison issue clothing or in that milieu; and, the indignity that visitors are put through in the name of security was a further trauma that I did not wish to inflict on them. But I did see the emotional toll that visits held for others. Just imagine what family and friends have to undertake to visit you in the first place. Since prisons usually aren’t in your hometown a visit often entails leaving home and responsibilities unattended in order to travel often considerable distances. Visitors are at risk of strip or other intrusive or humiliating searches. Corrections officers can treat all involved with a level of infantilism bordering on insult; combined with penny-ante profit making via vending machines.

    When I saw this article about AZ’s proposal I wasn’t all surprised. It’s hard to see how it passes constitutional muster, but in this day in age I no longer think I can reflexively dismiss such punitive and offensive official rapacity as beyond the pale.

    A long time ago it dawned on me that prison inmates comprise no constituency. But, if we continue to criminalize the trivia eventually, everyone will have a loved one who is incarcerated, was incarcerated, or who will be incarcerated–maybe, then things will change. Gee what a thing to hope for, huh?

  2. John Neff

    The folks that run the prisons are not vindictive nut jobs but they get their orders from people that are.
    They justify the vindictiveness with BS about the prisoners are the worst-of-the-worst where in fact about 60% are folks with a history of making bad choices when under stress.

  3. AL

    anything for a buck, GOD will Judge these people one day, People running the private facilites are the worse, most families do everything they can to comply in order to visit their loved ones, yet these “correctional” facility employees treat them like dirt for the most part. Commissary items triple in price from prices in the “real world” telephone calls outrageous. its all about money. YEP taking the food out of the mouths of children for a short visit maybe once a month sometimes with glass walls dividing. JUST MY OPINION,

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