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Ohio Inmate Fees Add Up, Private Companies and State Benefit

Prison is a big business. Lots of money goes in, and lots of money goes out. And a good portion of the money going in, is from inmates' families, in the form of fees and surcharges for basic items and services. In the second part of a two-part series, WOSU takes a look at what inmates pay, and what the state makes off their purchases. Needless to say, Ohio prison inmates don't have a lot of cash. But they still need to buy stuff: a snack, ibuprofen, downloadable music. Inmates have jobs, they make about a dollar day. But most of the money they need comes from their families on the outside who transfer it to special accounts. The inmates use the accounts to pay for services like phone calls and items at the commissary. Families can transfer money online or by using kiosks at the prison. It's easy and convenient. But there are fees attached to most services. "I mean, you were nickeled and dimed at every corner." Betsy Trembly's boyfriend was incarcerated at a prison in eastern Ohio. She said she spent hundreds of dollars in surcharges to put money in his prison account. Trembly said there are so many charges to do basic things. "The fees were mind blowing. I'm fortunate enough that I have a full-time job that I could do that. And there were times that we couldn't do things."? Bank transfer fees are common for everyone, but the ones for inmates can be high. Kiosks charge a $3 fee per transfer. That's similar to an ATM fee, but you have to go to a prison or parole office. Online transfer fees are more expensive $12.50 for a $200 dollar transfer. Mike Brickner directs public policy at the ACLU of Ohio. He said all those fees add up. And for low-income families it can put a strain on finances. "If their family members want to maintain contact with them, ensure that they have the medication that they need and the creature comforts that they need to make their incarceration more bearable, they have to go through those companies."? There is a cheaper option. Inmates' families can mail a money order. That fee is only a $1.50. But that requires more leg work and processing time. Ohio prison deputy director Annette Chambers-Smith says the fees are reasonable. "You know, these things are not free services. But if you choose to use one that costs less, like $1.50 for a money order, you can do that. And I do know that the inmate population is very aware of that."? Once the money is transferred, inmates have limited choices when it comes to purchases. And those things can be expensive. It costs up to 33 cents for an inmate to send one e-mail. A half-hour online for face-to-face Skype video chat costs $10. MP3 downloads cost $2, close to double what Apple's iTunes charges. An 8 GB MP3 player costs $50, double what they cost on the outside. And for security reasons, inmates have to buy many items at the commissary or from approved vendors. The ACLU's Brickner said the companies that charge the prices thrive on a monopoly. "You have a captive audience, you have people who they can't leave prison or jail. They're there for a certain period of time. They really don't have any option other than to use that service."? The state of Ohio and its private vendors benefit from the fees. The private company makes a profit on each sale. The Ohio prison system gets a commission. So far this fiscal year, those commissions produced $140,000 for Ohio prisons. That's on top of the $15 million dollars in commissions Ohio gets from the company that provides inmate phone service. Deputy Director Chambers-Smith said the prisons look for ways to reduce costs. For instance, she said the department switched video visiting providers to reduce the cost by almost half. But Chambers-Smith noted providing the equipment and maintaining it has a price. "So we do always have an eye out toward being cost-effective. But on the other side of things I have to put phones in every prison, in every cell block area. And those cost money, too, and they get damaged and they have to be maintained. The infrastructure that's present has to be maintained, as well. So you have to strike a balance, and I think that we've done that."? The ACLU's Brickner worries the prison system places too much focus on profits and charges too much for phone calls, e-mails and other connections to the outside world. Those contacts, he said, are important to inmate rehabilitation. "If we're constantly trying to find new ways to fund the system, and those new ways make it harder for the inmate to be successful once he or she leaves prison, then they're going to end up right back in prison. And, again, we're going to need more money to fund our prison." Prison officials have no plans to negotiate for lower inmate fees. They say the money funds important programs, and they point out Ohio's recidivism rate is much lower than the national average.