David Michael Miller
Imagine your job pays just 35 cents an hour. After two 40-hour weeks, that comes to $28. Your workplace provides basic meals and living quarters, but you must buy incidentals like deodorant, shampoo, lotion, writing materials, envelopes, postage, clothing items like gym shoes, and any non-provided food items or snacks.
Now imagine reaching for that $28 to meet these needs and finding it’s been cut to $6.45.
That’s the experience Reo L. Covington, an inmate at Oshkosh Correctional Institution, relates in a November letter to Peg Swan, a prisoners rights advocate in Richland County. It is one of many such letters that Swan has received in recent weeks.
Across the state, Wisconsin prison inmates are crying foul about deductions being made to their trust accounts, which hold the money they make at prison jobs or is sent in by loved ones. They say the state Department of Corrections is abusing its new statutory authority to withhold money for restitution and other costs; the DOC has admitted that some deductions were made in error.
“It really clearly has a lot of people in prison very upset,” says David Liners, state director of Wisdom, a faith-based advocacy group. “People are kind of desperate.”
Molly Collins, acting executive director of the ACLU of Wisconsin, says her group has been hearing from inmates and will take a look at the new policy. But based on what she already knows, her assessment is harsh: “Is it horrible? Yes. Are they taking people’s dignity and what little bit of self-determination they have in prison? Yes.”
The deductions target a wide range of costs, from court fees, victim restitution and “victim witness surcharges,” to supervision fees imposed by the DOC, to child support. Swan, a retired nurse’s aide who corresponds with inmates all over the state, calls what is happening “a huge scam — the DOC is literally stealing money from inmate’s accounts.”
Early this week, Swan mailed a petition to Dane County Circuit Court seeking a John Doe probe into the deductions, alleging violations of law. The petition from her advocacy group, Forum for Understanding Prisons, includes testimonials from more than 20 state prison inmates.
The DOC has said in correspondence obtained by Isthmus that it is applying its new powers appropriately. But the agency knew beforehand that its conversion to a new computer accounting system would result in errors that would have to be sorted out after the fact.
“During recent testing, DOC discovered a distribution irregularity that affects fines, court costs and attorney fees,” wrote Jim Schwochert, administrator of the DOC’s Division of Adult Institutions, in an Oct. 3 memo to inmates. He asked for “your patience over the next few months while we roll out this new software system,” adding, “Should new issues arise, we will work diligently to resolve them as quickly as possible.”
New issues arose.
In prison-posted answers to frequently asked questions dated Oct. 14 and Nov. 3, the DOC provides mostly opaque answers to such questions as, “I paid off my obligation, why does it still show I owe?” The response: “If the court ordered you to pay restitution or court costs at the time of sentencing, then it is still an obligation you owe.” The memo said steps were being taken to “reconcile the balances.”
On Jan. 18, Schwochert posted a memo acknowledging that the new system had made some “improper deductions” that would be reversed. “We apologize for the confusion this process has caused,” he wrote.
Agency spokesman Tristan Cook admits that, for a time, “additional money beyond the amount DOC prescribed was being taken from a limited number of inmates’ accounts.” The collection of restitution was temporarily suspended to resolve the issue, and now, Cook says, “the correct amounts are being withdrawn.”
The confiscated money, Cook explains, goes to “the entity or person to whom it is owed.” For instance, the subjects of court-ordered restitution are supposed to get those sums. Fees deducted for account overdrafts, loans or institution restitution go to the DOC.
Act 355, which passed the Legislature last year, amended state statutes to let prison officials “use a prisoner’s money to be paid towards applicable surcharges, victim restitution, or the benefit of the prisoner,” according to a Nov. 30 letter to Wisconsin Secure Prison Facility inmate Nate Lindell, who challenged the deductions.
The act also amended the state’s restitution statute to empower the DOC “to collect, from the defendant’s wages and from other moneys held in the defendant’s prisoner’s account, an amount or a percentage the department determines is reasonable for payment to victims.”
But many state prison inmates contend the DOC is taking money for charges they don’t owe. Roy J. Jones, an inmate at Stanley Correctional Institution, has records showing he paid off his assessed court costs as of September 2004. But prison officials deducted $22.56 for court costs, later explaining that an earlier deduction was wrongly applied to a different surcharge and needed to be paid again. Jones is among the petitioners seeking an outside probe.
In some cases, prison officials have acknowledged errors. A Nov. 28 information request from Matt Elliott, an inmate at New Lisbon Correctional Institution, stated: “You took 120 percent of $60 I just received!... It is extremely clear you do not know what you are doing.” A prison official responded, “This was due to a computer glitch. Your disrespectful words are not appreciated!” In a follow-up exchange, the same official told Elliott, “That money has been distributed and we cannot give it back. We were not aware this glitch was happening.”
Elliott, who provided these records to the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, expounded in an accompanying letter: “To me it seems like straight-up theft. If I were a store and I kept charging you $20 every week after you only made one purchase from me, then told me I won’t refund your money because this has already been distributed or because there was a computer glitch, are you just going to roll over and say, ‘Oh well, my loss’?”
DOC spokesman Cook says the agency “determined that 50 percent of wages and moneys held in an inmate’s trust account is reasonable for the purposes of this statutory provision.” But, he notes, “Inmates with multiple obligations may see 100 percent of their wages or moneys withheld.” A Jan. 25 memo from an official at Columbia Correctional Institution calls the notion that 50 percent represents an upper limit for deductions a “common misbelief.”
Swan says she’s heard from inmates reporting that 100 percent of money sent in for them is being confiscated: “So you send $50 to your loved one and he gets zero.” Some inmates have been informed they owe hundreds of dollars in debts and obligations going back more than 20 years.
Beverly Walker has stuck by a man who has been locked up for more than two decades. Now she’s sticking up for him as well.
Walker says the money she sent her husband, Baron, an inmate at Oakhill Correctional Institution near Madison, used to be subject to just a 10 percent deduction — to a fund set aside for his eventual release. Suddenly last fall, the prison began withholding 60 percent, including a 50 percent deduction for restitution, she says.
“If I sent him $100, he would get $40,” says Walker, a consultant on social justice issues for Wisdom and other clients. “I had to continually send in larger sums of money so he could meet his basic needs.” Baron Walker buys much of his own food because, as a Muslim, he cannot eat pork.
Walker says Baron, convicted of armed robbery more than two decades ago, “was never assessed any fees for restitution. We still have not been provided with any explanation of where these fees come from.”
Covington, in his letter to Swan, says he is “not unempathetic to victims who have suffered losses due to crime.” He believes they should get “reimbursement or restitution.” But he contends that his victim, a Madison bank he robbed in 2008, has never received any of the money deducted from his account.
Moreover, he argues, the DOC’s new policy is “sabotaging the rehabilitative efforts” of state prison inmates. They can’t win for trying, and now are pushed into criminal activity while incarcerated just to get the things they need to survive.
Shannon Ross, an inmate at Oakhill, says the new policy “just kind of chips away at morale” and “embitters” inmates, especially those who really need the money being taken. He says the change “expands the black market in here, which is not fruitful for corrections, as the word is meant.”