How Women of Color Pay for the Hidden Costs of Prison

Of family members who cover the court fees and fines associated with a loved one's incarceration, 83 percent are women.

Montgomery Jones hugs her son, Levell Jones, whom she hadn't seen in 17 months, at California Institute for Women state prison in Chino, California. (Photo: Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

Sep 16, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

As Republicans and Democrats find common ground in the push for criminal justice reform, disturbing facts about just how much the country spends on locking up 2.4 million people in U.S. jails and prisons have increasingly come to light, galvanizing a mutual desire to ease the massive corrections costs that have wreaked havoc on budgets across the nation.

Yet, in spite of the increasing attention paid to the more than $80 billion spent every year on our prison and jail systems, these budget numbers often overlook the hidden costs paid by the families of people behind bars. Women—in particular, women of color—bear the brunt of the negative financial and emotional effects of a loved one’s incarceration, according to a new report from the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, a California-based racial and economic justice advocacy organization, and Forward Together, an Oakland, California–based grassroots social-change organization.

Nearly 65 percent of families with an incarcerated loved one surveyed struggled to meet their family’s basic food and housing needs—and 70 percent of those families included children under 18. Researchers surveyed more than 1,000 people from communities across 14 states who were either formerly incarcerated or who had an incarcerated family member. For those left behind when a family member goes to prison or jail, the legal fees, travel costs associated with visits to often remote prisons, expensive phone calls, and additional underlying costs can be financially crippling, the study found.

Beyond obvious costs such as paying for a defense attorney, court fines, and other fees, the study found that the stigma and trauma associated with having a family member behind bars caused negative health effects for half of all family members surveyed. Family members outside prison were primarily responsible for court-related costs associated with a loved one’s conviction in 63 percent of the cases, and of those cost-bearing family members, 83 percent were women. Almost one in every four women in the U.S. is related to someone in prison or jail, as are two of every five black women in the U.S., which means women of color disproportionately bear the brunt of these costs.

The costs of traveling for prison visits and expensive phone calls sent many families surveyed into debt, while others reported falling out of touch with their incarcerated loved ones because the cost of keeping in contact was too much.

Even after release, rebuilding a life outside proved challenging for most of the more than 700 former prisoners surveyed. Five years after their release, 67 percent of formerly incarcerated people surveyed were unemployed or underemployed, thanks to their criminal record. One in four of the formerly incarcerated respondents was denied or barred from taking out school loans because of the conviction.

RELATED: Why Local Jails Cost Us More Than $22 Billion a Year

This challenge, as well as the financial burden placed on the families left behind when a loved one goes to jail or prison, perpetuates the cycle of trauma and poverty, according to the report.

“Often I feel alone and incomplete, living inside of two separate worlds,” Shamika Wilson of Redwood City, California, told researchers. Her husband has been incarcerated for almost 30 years. “I go to visit my husband in an unwelcoming environment, where I too am treated like an inmate. I return home to more than $45,000 worth of college loans, court fees, and seemingly unnecessary fines, on top of rent to pay, children to support, and classwork to complete.”

This post has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: Sept. 23, 2015
An earlier version of this article didn’t identify the report’s coauthor, Forward Together.