Incarcerated Advocate Coalition Demands Biden Administration Crack Down on ‘Junk Fees’ in Criminal Justice System 

A gavel on a stack of $100 bills on a table

A gavel on a stack of $100 bills on a table

By Audrey Sawyer and Ruby Mota

WASHINGTON, DC – Incarcerated people must be included in the efforts of the Biden administration and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to crack down on “junk fees” because of their lower incomes and the distinct constraints as consumers without options, demanded a coalition of 29 organizations after President Joe Biden’s State of the Union Address.

Biden spoke about “junk fees” in the address, vowing to end them, but he referenced concert and airline tickets, and credit cards, not jail/prison fees. Generally, hidden charges, also known as “junk fees,” are attached to purchases that customers can’t opt out of, while adding no value to transactions. 

But those incarcerated cannot avoid these fees because they are captive to private companies who are awarded exclusive contracts by prisons and jails, according to the coalition.

Caroline Cohn, Equal Justice Works Fellow, sponsored by Nike Inc., at the National Consumer Law Center said, “[t]he push by the FTC and the Biden Administration to address junk fees is laudable – and long overdue…[b]ut one community suffering severe harm from junk fees is often the most overlooked – incarcerated people and their families, who are incurring excessive, unfair, and deceptive fees for essential services.”

In an 18-page joint letter, the coalition noted abusive financial practices in jails and prisons including ways incarcerated people are vulnerable to these junk fees, emphasizing incarcerated people do not have a choice whether they can use a different service or company; their ability or inability to pay junk fees may determine whether they can stay in contact with a loved one or purchase food or over-the-counter medication at the commissary. 

The coalition noted correctional facilities often award contracts to companies that will provide them with the highest “site commissions,” also known as “kickbacks.” 

“Companies pass on the cost of these kickback payments directly to incarcerated people and their loved ones, often aggressively inflating prices without fear of competition….You can’t comparison shop behind bars. So incarcerated people are either forced to pay the excessive fees or to go without essentials like hygiene products, food,  or communication with their loved ones,” said Mike Wessler of the Prison Policy Initiative. 

As a result of the backlash regarding prison and jail phone rates, companies like ViaPath or GTL, Securus, and ICSolutions are, charged the coalition, “branching out” to other services, like the usage of tablets or electronic messaging. 

But, the coalition points out these services come with unfair and unclear fees which drain money from incarcerated individuals and their families. 

The coalition charges money has increasingly become a major problem for those residing in prisons and jails because private corporations and facilities see an opportunity to exploit a “captive” segment of society.

The coalition says that fees, up to 37 percent, are being reported by families seeking to send money to incarcerated loved ones.

And, added the coalition, prepaid debit card fees clutter anything that inmates have in their account (wages behind bars, money in possession when arrested, or support from family members) existing in the debit cards.

The coalition cites “secret” charges potentially can be taken from the incarcerated from electronic monitoring or mandated probation. These fees continue, even after an individual is released.  

Ariel Nelson, staff attorney at the National Consumer Law Center, said, “Junk fees are baked into the mass incarceration economy, and the fees impact people of color disproportionately, with concern towards black women in particular, raising important equity considerations.”

Nelson added, “Any effort to address junk fees must include those most vulnerable to them and to their harmful effects—incarcerated people and their support systems that cannot escape them.” 

About The Author

Audrey is a senior at UC San Diego majoring in Political Science (Comparative Politics emphasis). After graduation, Audrey plans on attending graduate school and is considering becoming a public defender.

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