As if this was not problem enough – elderly family members struggled with the transition and some pen pals refused to send money altogether – the NCDPS director of prisons, Kenneth Lassiter, as of February 5th, 2019, made it even more difficult for friends and family to send money through JPAY. In addition to the ridiculous fees, Lassiter has restricted our access to JPAY by limiting users to people on a prisoner’s visitation list.
Not a big deal, right? It is if you have a big family with a lot of young children. There are only 18 slots on a prisoner’s approved list. This does not include attorneys and their assistants. So you have to pick which you need more—a visit from a loved one or money for hygiene products, stamps, batteries, and other basic things like food. I get what you are thinking. Three hots and a cot is all you need. Most prisoners have jobs and get paid.
The average prison job pays 40 cents per day. Some pay as much as $1 per day but these are few and far between. Also, not every prisoners is able to work. The increased use of long prison terms and obstructing politicians who block parole-eligible lifers means an aging prison population with health problems. Add into that poor health care and you get fewer able-bodied workers.
Three hots and a cot does not mention inedible or occasionally rotten food. It neglects meals that end at 5:30pm and are not served again for 14 hours. Small servings slopped onto trays by underpaid workers serving life sentences who could care less because . . . nobody cares about their lives, at least not enough to give them a second chance.
Maybe you have sensitive teeth or problems with body odor. Name brand toothpaste is $3.30. That’s nine days of work for a prison janitor. Name brand deodorant costs five days of work. Eight to ten hours per day. Nobody thanks you. Or cares if you are sick – which also costs money. $5 copay per sick call. $7 for an emergency. God forbid you get a write up for breaking a rule—like missing work because you are sick – the $10 administrative fee is charged against your account, a debt you will pay even if you have no money.
I will not go into a discourse on the Prison Industrial Complex and how it feeds off of prisoners and their families. However, it is ironic that Lassiter in his letter to regional directors and facility heads of all NC prisons stated this:
“Prisons [are] constantly exploring methods to improve safety, security and the overall operations of our facilities. As you are aware there are serious issues affecting prisons that originate from the desire for monetary gain . . .” (Restrictions of Depositors – JPAY; January 2, 2019, www.ncdps.gov)
The memo goes on to describe the new restriction is an effort to reduce or limit “illegal enterprises” in prison. A way to “follow the money” so to speak. While this may impact some of the target behaviors there are side effects.
The unintended consequences of this new policy will make it nearly impossible for random strangers to give to people in prison. Church groups, which are responsible for helping a number of my friends, periodically send a little money (about $20) for birthdays and holidays – that’s over. The new restriction will end anonymous donations and family members with felony records from helping out. It will also be a bureaucratic nightmare to have people fill out the detailed visitor application form and send it in with a photocopy of a valid ID, then await approval from the visitation office.
At the end of the day Lassiter’s new rule is another part of life in prison; not much different from any other hardship imposed on prisoners and their families. It is yet another misguided attempt to restore order in a penal system that has become increasingly violent and crowded and understaffed. Rather than reform a broken system NCDPS leadership continues to double down on rules. This slippery slope does not lead to safety and security for anyone. One would think by now the people who run the NC penal system would pay attention to the reams of data on effective corrections and listen to penologists and social scientists who collect that data. Harsher prisons are more dangerous. Negatively reinforced behaviors grow worse.
It might seem like a novel concept amidst the noise of tough-on-crime rhetoric from conservative politicians who have NC in a death grip, but reward-based systems are the most effective ways to change behavior. Maybe the NCDPS will catch up to this idea someday.