Washtenaw wipes prisoner jail debt from 2013-20, ending 'financial burden of incarceration'

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

The Washtenaw County Sheriff's Office announced that outstanding jail debts from between 2013 and 2020 will be forgiven, ending what the sheriff called "an absurd cycle" that can trail an inmate even after release.

Under the State Correctional Facility Reimbursement Act, sheriffs can recover any debt incurred while inmates are incarcerated. Inmates who are lodged in the jail receive a set of free items that are intended to help meet their basic needs. Additional supplies and services can be bought at the commissary, but without the ability to pay at that time, inmates incur debt.

During a recent review of the debt owed since 2013, corrections staff identified 31,614 inmates with total debt of more than $509,000.

If a family member of an inmate deposits money into an account the amount deposited is seized and allocated toward the debt. 

"This discourages families from financially supporting their incarcerated loved ones

and in some cases is a barrier to family involvement and reunification," the Sheriff's Office said in a news release.

After relieving the burden of their debts, the jail said behavior among inmates has improved and they are less reluctant to seek basic services like seeing the doctor or dentist.

Washtenaw County Sheriff Jerry Clayton said historically the department has not aggressively tried to collect the debt, but it can add stress in inmates' day-to-day lives once they are released.

"Our decision to eliminate this debt reflects our understanding of the stress and financial burden of incarceration,” Clayton said in the release. "We know that as people leave our jail in hope of positioning themselves to be successful upon returning home, the burden of jail debt is an added negative factor that can undermine their attempt at reintegration and feed the cycle of incarceration.

"We also know that incarceration can seriously compromise a person’s ability to generate income, leading to even more debt. It’s this absurd cycle, along with reincarceration, that we are focused on,” he said. 

Incarcerated people who do not have the support to purchase supplies are considered indigent. In 2019, the department increased the cash allocation for those inmates from $3.50 to $5 per week.

Clayton said the office has previously taken steps to reduce costs and negotiated reduced fees for phone calls.

  • Initial fees for phone calls included a $4.25 connection fee, local call rates were 25 cents per minute and non-local calls were 30 cents per minute.
  • The 2019 contract eliminated connection fees entirely and charged 21 cents per minute.
  • In the first two months of the pandemic, the jail provided two free 15-minute calls per week.
  • Inmates considered indigent are allowed $5 in purchases a week. Prior to last year, they were allowed $3.50 per week.

The office also is exploring changes to services. Here's how the debt broke down:

  • Booking fees – 17,198 inmates totaling $291,318
  • Indigent inmate debt – 2,902 individuals totaling $73,560
  • Medical slips – 4,583 inmates totaling $64,867
  • Intake kits (items inmates receive above and beyond standard issued items), $3.30 for hygiene kits and $2.30 for stationery kits, with 3,231 inmates totaling $25,594
  • Barber –  $15, with 17,198 inmates totaling $21,729 
  • Doctor – $10, for a scheduled visit (Emergency care is provided separately.) with 998 inmates totaling $17,398
  • Nurse visits – $3, with 1,622 inmates totalling $10,718
  • Dental visit – $10, for a scheduled visit. Emergency care is provided separately), with 311 inmates totaling $4,633.
  • Copies of paperwork – 10 cents per copy with 26 inmates totaling $66.

srahal@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @SarahRahal_