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Prison UK: An Insider's View: Prison Debt or the Bank of the Con Next Door

Even reading, sleeping, watching TV, playing chess etc can only go so far. Surely it would drive you mad. Or do you just get used to it. Any comments are appreciated. We live in an era of controversy over credit. Inevitably these predatory practices are aimed at the most risky end of the credit market: Prison debt is a massive problem that often goes unnoticed and under the radar of the authorities until something really nasty happens on a wing. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds nought and six, result misery. The latter is where the problems arise. The Prison Rules are very clear that any form of selling, trading, lending or borrowing between prisoners or between prisoners and staff, for that matter is strictly prohibited and a disciplinary infraction that can end up in a 'nicking' charge.

However, as I pointed out in a recent blog entitled Basic Economics for Prisoners , a significant number of inmates supplement their meagre prison pay by running little businesses on the side: And so can the dodgy loan sharks and tobacco barons who underpin the whole covert prison economy.


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Some prisoners really are on their uppers. Those who have absolutely no kind of financial support from family or friends outside face a pretty miserable existence, particularly in those establishments that seem to have stopped handing out basic toiletries and hygiene items, such as toothpaste or even toilet paper.

Costly prison fees are putting inmates deep in debt

Genuine hunger can also be a factor in an era of plummeting catering budgets, particularly for young prisoners — some still teenagers — who have big appetites, as any parent knows. Incidentally, it never ceases to amaze me how many inmates torture themselves by watching endless cooking shows on television. Nevertheless, satisfying your craving for food also costs money and there are no special deals or multi-buys on offer on the canteen sheets.

It's full price up front or nothing. The situation can be even worse for cons who are in prisons where there is significant overcrowding and little or no paid work available. Of course, as with many popular stereotypes, you can always find a minority of idle lumps in every prison. However, they tend to be the lads who either have plenty of cash available in their prison accounts, or those who boost their income by wheeling and dealing among their fellow cons.

Occasionally a nick's Prisoner Monies department will mess up the weekly accounts and people won't get paid at all, thus fuelling the spiral of debt across the wings. For most cons, the weekly tobacco purchase from the canteen sheet is the main expenditure.

Of course, if you run out midweek, then it can be several agonisingly slow days until the next canteen delivery, since most public sector prisons only have one weekly canteen day, although some private nicks are reported to have two. The key question is: It means interest in prison slang.

Repayment is strictly scheduled to coincide with canteen delivery day. So borrow a half ounce So what happens when repayment is not forthcoming? Well, the usual pattern is that the debtor pays off the initial loan on the due date but asks for the interest to be deferred until next canteen day. Most loan sharks are, in fact, delighted with this turn of events because they already have their outlay covered. Eventually, the debt can spiral out of control and the debtor is royally screwed. So what are the options?

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Well, Big Dave has a wide range of possible courses open to him. Maybe the defaulting con will have a heavy steel cell door slammed shut on his fingers, breaking his hand. Another option is to turn the debtor into a sort of slave: Joeys can also be forced to act as mules to smuggle incoming drugs during visits from their families or friends. It's a sad fact that debt in prisons can impact on whole families who may get dragged into couriering drugs to save their loved one from a beating or worse.

Very occasionally, interest on a debt can be paid off through the provision of sexual services. Some cons can be surprisingly broad-minded.

Jeremy Barrett remembers very little of the assault that would change his life.

Alternatively, the debtor will have to beg family or friends to help him get out from under the mountain of debt he has incurred. Some of these charges can be taken directly out of a prisoner's commissary account while the person is still incarcerated. In some cases, the commissary account itself is subject to fees.

While charging such fees is nothing new, the amount that inmates and other defendants can be charged and the total number of fees they can incur have grown significantly, said Lauren-Brooke Eisen, senior counsel at the Brennan Center. Such fees have increasingly become the norm as the costs of running the nation's criminal justice system have "skyrocketed," said Eisen.

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The fines and fees vary across the country. Typically, judges decide whether to charge the fee, a decision that often depends on that inmate's ability to pay, said Tim Doney, the Springfield police chief. Indeed, a report conducted by the American Civil Liberties Union in Ohio found that state facilities that charged inmates for their stay often failed to collect on debts after the prisoner had been released -- even after employing aggressive collection tactics to do so.

The county ended the program in Alexes Harris, an expert in the field of correctional fines and fees at the University of Washington said such charges can have severe economic consequences, particularly for the majority of inmates who are low income or indigent. Yet, nearly half of the families surveyed in the report said they could not afford the charges.