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Sending money to jail, managing it while in prison pose challenges

Restrictions abound, rules vary and jails are their own mini-economies

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Have a loved one in jail and need to get money to an inmate? Jails and prisons across the country have different rules about how much and how often you can send, but several services and options are available.

Special report: Money and prison
SPECIAL REPORT: MONEY AND PRISON

Experts advise first contacting the correctional facility to find out what restrictions may apply and what information you will need to provide, such as the inmate's prison-identification or booking number and the sender's name, address and identification. Some facilities allow only people on the inmate's approved visitation list to send money. Some limit the amount of money that can be sent at any one time to $200 to $300.

"Every facility will allow cash that you have on your person at the time you're detained to be deposited into an inmate trust account, also called their commissary account," says Cheri Tuccelli, vice president of operations for EZ Card and Kiosk, a service that allows family members to deposit money or use credit cards at kiosks placed in the lobby of correctional facilities to transfer funds into an inmate's account.

EZ is one of several services, including JPay, that allow inmates to receive money while in jail or prison or use credit cards to bail themselves out when they are arrested.

2.4 million incarcerated, needing cash
With 2.4 million people behind bars in local, county, state and federal prisons across the United States as of June 30, 2009, transferring money to and from the incarcerated is becoming a common occurrence for more Americans. Says Tuccelli: "It's a growing industry."

Whether using money orders, automatic monthly debit card withdrawals, money transfers or a credit card transfer, the prison money transfer services are not free. Western Union and MoneyGram offer traditional money transfer services.

Fees for sending money vary by money transfer service and are based on how much is sent and whether it is sent online, via telephone or wired. For example, sending $200 online can cost $10 with one of the jail-based services such as EZ Card or JPay. The same amount by telephone is about $2 more. When sending larger amounts of money, the service may charge fees based on a percentage of the amount transferred, such as 8 percent to 10 percent of any amount over $1,000.

Many jails and prisons provide inmates with a welcome packet that may contain the bare minimum: prison clothing, a tooth brush, tooth paste, a bar of soap, comb or brush. If prisoners require additional toiletries and extras -- such as special shampoos, lotions, stationary for personal notes or candy bars, snacks and additional food -- they must purchase them from the prison commissary.

The question of sending money
Spouses and family members of inmates differ on whether they should send money to prison and how much. Some don't send any, saying the basic toiletries and food provided by the prison system is enough. Others say they are struggling to pay the bills and don't have money to send to prison. Those who send funds say they want to make sure their loved ones are comfortable behind bars, and they would expect the inmate to do the same for them if their circumstances were reversed.

The reality behind bars is that inmates with a lot of money in their accounts may become targets of extortion or physical threat from other inmates.

Bill Habern, a Houston criminal defense attorney who specializes in representing the incarcerated, conducts lectures on how to prepare for prison. He recommends inmates have a limited amount of money in jail.

"We recommend around $150 to $200," Habern writes in his primer on preparing for jail in Texas. "Keep that much on your inmate account at the county jail. When you go to prison, the money will go with you and will be available a week or two after you arrive."

Don't send cash in the mail
Another tip from Habern: "If paying through the U. S. Postal Service, be sure all incoming monies, both in jail and in prison, are sent by certified funds." Sending cash through the mail is the least secure way to transfer money. Check with the correctional facility to find out if they require any special forms -- such as a deposit slip listing the inmate's ID number -- to accompany the money order.

Tuccelli, from EZ Card, says some inmates are booked into jail carrying several thousand dollars in cash in their wallets or purses. "We've seen people coming in who have just cashed their paycheck and they've got thousands of dollars on them," she says. "We've seen someone with $10,000, especially in Las Vegas, where they may have come from a casino and been arrested. But what's common is what you and I would carry in our wallet today, maybe $10 or $20."

No matter how much is in the inmate trust account, inmates may be limited in what they can spend.

Every facility will allow cash that you have on your person at the time you're detained to be deposited into an inmate trust account.

-- Cheri Tuccelli    
EZ Card and Kiosk    

"Jails do limit the spending, sometimes to $40 a week or limit the number of times a week" prisoners can access the commissary, Tuccelli says.

"You might have $100,000 in your inmate trust account, but when you go to the commissary, there is a very limited amount of money that the prison will allow you to purchase per week," says Habern, the Houston criminal defense attorney.

State corrections departments may also deduct money from trust accounts to cover the cost of an inmate's boarding costs, court fines or restitution payments. In Texas, "the district clerks of the various counties will engage in a pretty aggressive collection process. They can get 20 percent of the first deposit [into a trust account]," says Habern.

Ed Ross, a spokesman for the Federal Bureau of Prisons, says up to 10 percent of the money inmates earn from prison jobs can be deducted from their accounts for restitution.

Inmates can also send prison earnings home to their spouse or family. Tuccelli says inmates can request that money be released from their trust accounts to their spouses. In the case of someone who has just cashed their paycheck and now has the family's rent money held in the account, "Jails do allow you to release money that you have on your books to a family member or friend," Tuccelli says. "They'll let you give $1,500 to your wife because she's got to pay the rent."

Cashing out when released
The EZ Card service also allows inmates who are being released from jail to put any money left in their inmate accounts onto non-reloadable debit cards. Having the debit cards, rather than a paper check, gives the released inmate immediate access to the money, Tuccelli says.

Many prisons still issue checks to prisoners when they are released. "Some of these people need to catch a bus right away and where are they going to cash a check?" says Tuccelli, noting that many prisons are in isolated, rural areas. In a few places, private check cashing stores have opened for business across the street from correctional facilities, giving inmates a way to cash their prison-issued checks. However, these businesses typically charge high check cashing fees.

"If they get put out onto the street, they receive a debit card from our company," Tuccelli says, adding the average amount on those exit cards is about $38.

See related: Bail yourself out of jail

Published: October 15, 2010


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