Imprisonment has always generated invisible inequalities. But new legislation in Arizona now forces families and friends of inmates to bear an extra burden and will end up creating more barriers to reentry for inmates after they leave the system.
As of July 20th, Arizona became the first state to pass a “background check fee” that charges adults a one-time fee of $25 to visit any of the 15 prison complexes that house state prisoners. While the legislation was instituted under the pretext that the profit would be used to support the administration of background checks, Wendy Baldo, chief of staff for the Arizona Senate, has explained that the earnings will fund prison maintenance and repairs. However, prison maintenance and repairs is the least of concerns among prisoners and visitors.
Instead, the legislation imposes unusual punishment on the prisoners’ family and friends. This fee directly penalizes the family of inmates for the simple reason that their loved ones are in prison and they want to visit them while incarcerated.
While $25 may not seem like a huge amount for many Americans, there is a vast economic disparity between the families of inmates and an average two-parent household. Although specific figures on household income of incarcerated parents are not available, a single parent home that loses one parent to the prison system is expected to experience an income drop of an average 41 percent in the first year. Although the majority of families affected by incarceration are often already low-income households, there is evidence that the men within these families are the key contributors to household income. For instance, 54 percent of the men incarcerated reported being the primary financial support in their household, with an average of 61 percent of fathers employed full-time and 12 percent of employed part-time.
The magnitude of the destabilization of a family struggling financially before an incarceration only demonstrates the declining probability of a family being able to make ends meet in a single household. Arizona’s fee simply adds another cost for the family. It comes on top of acquiring the funds necessary to maintain contact with their loved ones such as having to take time off of work and travel to the desolate areas where prisons are often located. It should come as no surprise, then, that this fee is likely to reduce the frequency of visits and cut off inmates’ connection to their loved ones and the outside world.
While prison maintenance is important to the functions of Arizona’s Department of Correction, prisoners, their families, and the law has the potential for long-lasting negative effects on prisoners. Importantly, the new law may put a key goal of our criminal justice system in jeopardy: rehabilitating and integrating formerly incarcerated people back into society.
With this fee forcing families to shoulder greater expenses, the Arizona Department of Correction undermines their mission of “successful community reintegration.” It discourages visits from wives, husbands, children, and many loved ones that play a vital part in keeping prisoners on a straight and narrow path. While others programs, such as Florida’s Department of Correction, create strategies to decrease recidivism through visitation programs, Arizona’s Department of Correction chooses to discount the importance of visitation. The PEW Center and the National Prison Project of the American Civil Liberties Union have stated that prison visitation has a positive impact on inmates socially and psychologically, deterring them from potentially bad influences that could lead to reincarceration. Adding a price tag to an important factor in an inmate’s ability to avert reincarceration defeats the purpose of the prison system.
This fee may be the first of many to be seen among state correction departments looking to join the national trend of “prisons for profits” and decrease the state’s cost of incarceration. While the politics of prisons for profit are anything but new, such policies continue to be a strong determinant of the future of the impoverished communities victimized by the hardships related to incarceration. We need to reconsider the goals and values of our criminal justice system so they are not just about how they save money and make profits.
Barrett Marson, the spokesman for the state Department of Correction, explained that Arizona receives over 30,000 applications to visit prison inmates each year and expect to generate at least $750,000 a year with this fee. But it will undeniably challenge families’ of inmates access to visitation, reduce prisoners’ chances of adequate rehabilitation and reintegration, and instead encourage the revolving door of prison’s release and reentry in order to generate less then 1% of Arizona’s Department of Correction’s $1 billion budget. As a nation we need to understand the destructive implications of such policies. Is this income worth the greater price tag?