When Elizabeth Sims entered Pulaski State Prison in 2012, she was given a bar of soap and a toothbrush. The rest of what she needed — toothpaste, hair products, clothing — came out of her family’s pocket because she didn’t have any money.
Over the next seven years, Sims learned the harsh economics of prison life: almost everything she needed she had to buy at the prison commissary, and price shopping wasn’t an option. Even sending and receiving email cost money.
Her out-of-pocket costs didn’t end when she was released in May after serving her time for voluntary manslaughter. Prison officials gave her a debit card — loaded with her own money — that charged her a fee for every transaction.
“It’s just very overwhelming and frustrating,” Sims said.
Georgia convicts such as Sims rarely enter prison with much money and many come out with barely enough, or not enough, to help them navigate the even harder task of landing a job as an ex-con.
“It was so disheartening, and I had such a good spirit about things whenever I first got out,” said Sims, who landed a welding job in northeast Georgia after two months of looking. “It can really break somebody if you don’t have a strong enough spirit to handle it.”
Officials with Georgia’s Department of Corrections did not respond to questions about the out-of pocket costs of being an inmate, but said that debit cards for paroled inmates are the securest, most efficient way to transfer money to individuals who usually don’t have a bank account or a permanent address when they return to society.
Advocates for prisoners, meanwhile, say that the financial cost of being a convict makes it harder for those who get out to find a job and become productive citizens.
“Sending someone to prison can’t help but have an effect on their ability to get a job after they’re released. That’s one of the reasons why people leaving prison need as much support as they can get,” said Wanda Bertram, communications strategist for the Prison Policy Initiative. “The more people we send (to prison), the more problems we’re creating on the back end during re-entry.”
Ethan Ybabes, who finished a 12-year sentence in 2018, said he still struggles to afford daily costs.
He worked at a Huddle House making $7.25 an hour while living at a transitional facility, commonly known as a halfway house. Then, he got a welding job making $12 an hour, less than his coworkers who were not previously incarcerated.
The transitional center offered housing and transportation to and from work, but at a price: $100 a week for transportation and $100 a week for rent. He made $240 a week working at Huddle House.
Once he left the transitional center, his credit score was zero — and he needed a car. He also had to start paying his parole fines.
“Now I’m killing myself trying to make car payments every month,” Ybabes said.
‘Convenient’ service or monopoly?
Some prison advocates have taken aim at pre-paid debit cards in class action suits that have accused the card companies of failing to disclose the fees they charge in violation of consumer protection laws. The AJC interviewed a half-dozen former inmates and all of them directed much of their frustration at the fees associated with pre-paid debit cards and the company that issues them.
Georgia’s prison system contracts with one pre-paid debit card company, JPay, and also uses the company to manage the email communications of inmates, a service inmates pay for, along with the online system for inmates to pay parole and probation fees.
The company operates in 38 states and issues cards for newly released inmates in half of them. Its website touts customer service.
“By providing convenient, relevant services and building strong customer relationships, we hope we can make this process both easier and faster,” the website says.
Sims learned about JPay’s fees one transaction at a time.
While in prison, JPay charged her $.35 cents for every email she sent and received on the shared tablets and laptops the company provided for inmates’ use. Phone calls cost $.13 cents per minute, or $1.95 for the maximum 15 minutes.
She paid $1.53 to $11.44 to download music, and $.99 cents for downloading a book. She’s still upset over the $.99 cent fee she never got back for a book that failed to download.
Inmates don’t have a choice of how the prison system reimburses money left on their commissary account, so when Sims was released the balance was loaded onto a pre-paid MasterCard backed by JPay.
But when she went online to activate her card, she learned she needed an email address that worked outside of prison.
“I just got out of prison,” she said. “I don’t have an email address.”
Once activated, she went to JPay’s website to pay her first parole payment of $32 — only to receive an error message that the system would not accept the card. (A JPay spokesperson said the system is supposed to accept JPay-issued cards.)
When Sims succeeded in paying the parole charge with a newly created bank account card, she said she found out that JPay tacked on a $6.50 transaction fee. (Families of prisoners also pay a $6.50 fee to send money to an inmate on transactions between $20 and $300.)
Later, when Sims went to renew her driver’s license, the card was not accepted as a form of payment.
“JPay has monopolized the whole system,” Sims said.
JPay’s spokesperson told the AJC that the company incurs costs providing financial services, and it charges fees to cover those costs. JPay’s spokesperson also said the cardholder, within seven days of activating the card, can request the remaining balance in the form of a check at no cost.
Fees add up
A nine-page cardholder agreement is supposed to accompany their pre-paid debit card from JPay.
But while the printed cardholder agreement, in small font, lists a dozen fees that an inmate can be charged for, it doesn’t say how much the fees are.
Derwin Caldwell, 56, who was released from Dooly State Prison in May, said he rang up $12 in fees in no time.
“It affects you,” said Caldwell. “Twelve dollars may not seem like a lot to some people, but down the road it can add up.”
Spokespersons with the Fulton, Gwinnett and DeKalb County jails all said the prepaid debit cards are issued as a convenience to inmates as most don’t have a checking account. They also said the cards prevent risks of fraud or theft, speed up the release process and reduce the amount of returned checks.
Matthew Dooley, an attorney who has sued pre-paid debit card companies that contract with prisons, said the card companies tell prison officials that debit cards will save them time and money. But the savings come at the expense of the inmate, he said.
The fees are “enough to cannibalize the balance” of an inmate relatively quickly, he said.
“These are folks that $20 is a meaningful amount of money,” Dooley said.
Tiffany Callahan, a former inmate of the Henry County Jail, said she was given a pamphlet for the prepaid card she received, but the jailers didn’t tell her anything about it, she said.
“I don’t agree with the fees,” said Callahan. “It’s my money that I saved up, and … that’s just another way for them to make more money.”