The United States Bureau of Prisons (BOP) allows prisoners to hold large sums of money – in some cases up to $200,000 – in government-run accounts that face little scrutiny and are shielded from most court orders, according to a report by the Washington Post published Wednesday.
There “are more than 20 inmate accounts holding more than $100,000 each for a total exceeding” $3m, a person with knowledge of the accounts who spoke on the condition of anonymity told the Post.
These accounts effectively allow inmates to skirt child support, alimony and other debts to which they are subjected.
“Inmates are using this banking system to shelter this money,” Jason Wojdylo, a recent retiree from the US Marshals Service, told the Post.
He said the funds are not subject to US Treasury oversight and the BOP rarely enforces a law passed by Congress that requires criminals to pay their debts.
Wojdylo said he unsuccessfully spent years trying to convince BOP to change its stance before he retired.
Many inmates from impoverished backgrounds and most inmates make little-to-no money inside of prisons. Work programmes inside prisons pay inmates as little as $.20 an hour for labour and top out at approximately $5.
Inmates can use the funds to buy goods from a prison’s commissary, or to make phone calls, the cost of which are capped at $0.21 a minute, and send emails, though the prison system has faced criticism for the cost of communication services.
Thus, most of the accounts have little money in them.
Still, inmates can be charged with making payments of restitution when they are convicted. These can range from sums of a few thousand to hundreds of thousands – and even millions – of dollars.
Give that reality, inmates are required to pay little, a minimum amount, towards restitution. The minimum is about $25 a month, Wojdylo said.
Those “with thousands, sometimes tens of thousands of dollars on deposit in their trust account, yet they are contributing only the minimum amount of restitution and fines required”, he continued.
BOP officials are often reluctant to encourage inmates to use their accounts to fully pay restitution, according to documents cited by the Post.
Jerry Anthony Bowman, a man from Tennessee convicted of bank robbery, said a BOP staffer encouraged him to pay only $100 a month while he was behind bars, the Post reported. By the time he left, he would have only paid half what was owed.
Bowman attempted to pay $16,000 he owed using the BOP account, but was forced to ask a judge to order the money be taken from his account.
The request was granted. However, there is no need to seek a judge’s order to have the money transferred from a prisoner’s account.
A 2008 decision from a federal appeals court said the BOP “does not need judicial permission to remit money from a prisoner’s account, with or without the prisoner’s assent.”
Federal prosecutors worry the money in these accounts could promote illegal activity both outside and inside prisons.
The coronavirus pandemic virtually stopped in-person visitation for prisoners and the outside world, which some believed would curtail the flow of drugs inside correctional institutions on the state level.
But drugs remained, according to numerous reports, in part thanks to corrupt prison guards who brought in drugs and other contraband.
They also worry about stimulus cheques delivered to prisoners, both inside BOP prisons and on the state and local levels.
The Post reported that 37,852 cheques exceeding $38m were delivered to federal inmates, though it remains unclear exactly how many made it to prisoners in BOP custody, which sits at about 129,000.
A BOP spokesperson told the Post that it “recognizes the importance of victim compensation and encourages all inmates to meet his or her financial obligations through participation in the Inmate Financial Responsibility Program”.
However, it cannot compel inmates to pay alimony or child support ordered by state courts.
Wojdylo told the Post the BOP’s stance towards inmate accounts is “incredibly frustrating”.
First published on: Al Jazeera