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Federal prisons want inmates to pay victims, before making phone calls or buying shoes

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, during a Senate Judiciary Committee oversight hearing on Sept. 29, 2022, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.
Mariam Zuhaib
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, during a Senate Judiciary Committee oversight hearing on Sept. 29, 2022, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

Every month, Renee Hoolan sends her son, Bailey Sanders, $75. He's been incarcerated for the last 6 years, so he uses that money for things like over-the-counter medications, shoes for his job or minutes on the phone. Hoolan said it's hard having a son in prison, but she wants to stay connected and help him out.

Under a new rule proposed by the Bureau of Prisons, however, most of the money Hoolan sends to her son would not go to him. Instead, the majority of the money sent to prisoners' commissary accounts would first go to pay their restitution debts and outstanding court fines.

Opponents of the plan say it shifts responsibility to family members, like Hoolan.

"I still love him, and understand addiction," Hoolan said. But "it's more like now I'm paying his restitution and not him."

Sanders agrees with his mother. He hates that he has to ask for help. "My mother is all that I have, and she can only do so much," he said. "The bottom line is, I don't feel that it's her responsibility to pay my restitution."

The new rule would require that 75 percent of all the money family and friends send a person in prison go to pay their outstanding debts.

The Bureau of Prisons is considering the rule change after a Washington Post investigation raised concerns about high-profile people, like sex offender and former rap artist R. Kelly, keeping large sums of money in their prison accounts rather than paying restitution to their victims.

Members of Congress from both parties were outraged to learn inmates were avoiding paying restitution. In a hearing on Capitol Hill last September, U.S. Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa said that "inmates, such as the Boston bomber and Larry Nassar, have thousands of dollars to spend on cigarettes and candy that's stashed at the Bureau of Prisons."

But lawyers and advocates for people in prison feel that the proposed rule goes too far. Shanna Rifkin, deputy general counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, agrees that the Bureau of Prisons should not let wealthy people like R. Kelly avoid restitution, but she also thinks the proposed rule is too broad.

"It's really like a sledgehammer, when you could bring a tool that was much smaller to address the problem," she said.

Other advocates, like Ellen Degnan, a staff attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, argue the courts should fix the problem themselves by setting individual payment plans during sentencing.

"Courts can solve this problem," she said. "This is not for the BOP to meddle in."

Even advocates for people who are owed restitution are wary of the proposed rule. Bridgette Stumpf, executive director at the nonprofit Network for Victim Recovery of D.C., thinks the rule has the potential to get some victims restitution more quickly than they would otherwise. Still, she thinks the consequences need to be balanced.

Many of the people who would be impacted by the proposed rule do not owe victim restitution, but instead owe court fines and fees related to their initial sentencing. Sagan Soto-Stanton's husband is one of those people. He has been incarcerated for the last 10 years for a non-violent drug crime, and still has $9,000 worth of court fees to pay off. Seeing the proposed rule was difficult for Soto-Stanton.

"It's already an impact to families like myself that are supporting their loved ones," she said, "but then to do something like this it's only making it more challenging."

The Bureau of Prisons declined NPR's request for comment. In a statement, a spokesperson said that commissary accounts are a privilege, and that the Bureau remains committed to assisting inmates in paying their financial obligations. Officials say they will be reviewing public comments carefully, and that there isn't a deadline for a decision on this rule being made.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tilda Wilson

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