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Washtenaw County Works to Reduce Incarceration Costs

Washtenaw County sheriff jerry clayton
Washtenaw County
Washtenaw County Sheriff Jerry Clayton

In the United States, it costs money to incarcerate people — and jails and prisons take up a chunk of federal and state funding. But when an individual enters prison, they need to pay if they want to access goods and services, like phone calls and personal items from the commissary. Because of this, state and federal governments also generate significant revenue from inmates within jails and prisons. In Wayne County, inmate phone calls cost an average of $4.20 for a 15-minute call, which earns the county around $1.75 million per year from prison telecommunications alone.

This for-profit system of incarceration is commonplace across the United States, but some local governments are making adjustments to change it. In Washtenaw County, Sheriff Jerry Clayton said he's working on reducing fines and fees for inmates in order to lower the overall cost of incarceration and prevent recidivism. According to Clayton, this is especially important because many inmates end up in jail for financially-related reasons, which often leads to a vicious circle.

“As we think about how do we break this cycle of recidivism and the lack of strong community, you know, one of the ways for us to help break the cycle is to not contribute to the financial debt of folks by adding on fees associated with their incarceration,” Clayton said.

Although inmates are buying goods and services within jails and prisons, they are not necessarily the people paying for those goods and services. Oftentimes, loved ones of incarcerated individuals will put money in the inmate’s account for things like phone calls to home.

Clayton, who worked as a corrections officer before becoming Washtenaw County Sheriff, said he recalled speaking with several families who were under financial stress from the cost of phone calls alone. He said the high price of phone calls can discourage inmates from talking with loved ones on the outside.

“I just didn't think it's the right thing, especially when we know [one way] to better position someone to reintegrate when they've been in jail for a while is to help them maintain that connection to the people in their families while they're incarcerated,” Clayton said.

While inmate rehabilitation is often the main goal of jails and prisons, preventing recidivism is also an objective. However, many inmates carry debt from previous incarcerations that can contribute to the likelihood of re-entering prison. If a former inmate that carries debt is re-incarcerated, they must pay off that debt during their sentence.

During re-incarceration, money in an inmate’s account is automatically used to pay off debt from previous incarceration, before it can go toward expenses accrued during the current incarceration. This can discourage inmates’ families from putting money in accounts, which can prevent inmates from accessing goods and services. In 2019, Washtenaw County implemented an inmate debt relief system to fight this issue and help inmates get by.

“Now, those individuals can actually use that money to purchase items to help them better navigate their time in jail,Clayton said.

The high cost of incarceration can be extremely challenging for inmates and their families, but it is often directly beneficial to the governments that profit from inmates. According to Sheriff Clayton, this model is harmful — both to inmates and government agencies.

“There's a cycle here that I think we have to find a way to break. And I think we break it as governmental entities,” Clayton said. “You know, I look at our budget and I look at our revenue. We should not try to balance our budget on the backs of people that are incarcerated. That is really important to us.”

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Anna joined Stateside as an assistant producer in August 2021. She is a recent graduate of Michigan State University's School of Journalism and previously worked for The State News as an intern and student government reporter.
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