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Arizona prisons now charging visitors $25 to see inmates

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If you come from a poor family and are going to get arrested, make sure it's not in Arizona. New legislation, believed to be the first of its kind, allows the Arizona Department of Corrections to shake down charge adults twenty-five dollars each for the right to visit inmates at any of the state's fifteen prison complexes. These one-off penal paywalls were instituted under the pretext of using the extra money for background checks, but the Arizona Senate's chief of staff, Wendy Baldo, said the proceeds would help defray a $1.6 billion shortfall, and actually go into a fund for prison maintenance and repairs.

The correlation between low morale and violence is not a mystery, so this punishing of innocent visitors could backfire in that sense. Friends and family of inmates who already pay the expenses for long trips to visit, and often have low-income jobs, might just stop coming. It's not surprising to learn that Governor Brewer's chief of staff worked as a private prison lobbyist. Maybe they could also start charging visitors to use the bathroom and then hit them with an exit fee.

One inmate's wife said, "It's hard for a family to survive incarceration. They are wanting to make us pay a fee every year, which is just a way to make a profit off of families that are already struggling." But Arizona DOC Director Charles L. Ryan said in February that "the prison system costs the Arizona taxpayer about $1 billion a year and visitation is a privilege."

A Tempe-based group called Middle Ground Prison Reform filed a lawsuit against the Corrections Department last month, arguing the fee is just a pretext for raising money "for general public purposes," and is unconstitutional because it essentially amounts to a special tax on a single group. Middle Ground is also suing over one of the law's provisions which imposes a one-percent charge on each deposit to a prisoner's spending account.