Monday, September 5, 2011

Arizona DOC's New Fundraising Gambit

We must always be attentive to the financial aspects of incarceration, on both the institutional and personal registers. Over the next few months, I am going to be sharing a series of posts about prison and political economies, on topics including the trend to privatization, prisoners’ labor, and the rhetorical pitfalls and possibilities of using economic rationales to advocate for prison and legal reforms.

Miles, guards, and cell doors aren’t the only barriers separating people who are incarcerated from their families and friends. The cost of visiting—whether wages lost by taking off work, or the price of travel—can be prohibitive for many.

Arizona has just added to the financial toll by instituting a $25 “background check fee” for anyone over 18 who wants to visit someone incarcerated in the state. (The New York Times article is here: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/05/us/05prison.html?_r=1&ref=us)

To summarize, the state passed legislation allowing the Department of Corrections to issue this charge (and to charge a 1% fee on money deposited into prisoners’ spending accounts). The DOC requires visitors to pay the $25 via Western Union or to send a money order, and when payment is made the applications for visitation will be processed. The DOC is authorized to charge the fee one time per visitor.

These “background check fees” aren’t for background checks. All visitors already had to provide personal identification information, and Arizona’s Department of Public Safety already offers free background checks for people who submit their fingerprints. The fees are a ‘creative’ way to raise funds for prison maintenance and repairs. The state of Arizona has a $1.6 billion budget deficit this year, and according to Wendy Baldo, chief of staff for the state Senate, the DOC “needs about $150 million” that the state can’t provide.

The Times reports that an Arizona prison advocacy group called Middle Ground Prison Reform (www.middlegroundprisonreform.org) has filed suit against the DOC on the grounds that this fee is tantamount to a discriminatory tax on a single group, because it’s intended generate revenue “for general public purposes” but only takes money from people who are directly impacted by incarceration.

Barrett Marson, an AZDOC spokesman, claims that “no complaints [about the fees] have been reported from inmates.” Marson also claims that the fee “helps to ensure our prisons remain safe environments for staff, inmates, and visitors.” There are two important rhetorical themes that frequently recurr in discourse about prisons evident in Marson’s comments: silence and safety.

Construing the absence of complaints as an indicator of acceptance, or even endorsement, is a false and misleading supposition. It glosses over the ways in which prisons actively silence the people who are held within—the implicit threat of retribution for complaints is real, and the lack of access to communication channels is real. (Bryan recently posted about Facebook’s decision to shut down inmates’ pages, and this Times article about the Arizona fees does not feature any prisoners’ voices.) “They aren’t complaining” is not an acceptable justification for imposing yet another hardship upon incarcerated people and their families and friends.

And the operational definition of “safety” that Marson uses entails containment, separation, and control. This is a rhetorical attempt to obscure the harm done to incarcerated individuals, their loved ones, the communities they are part of, and the nation as a whole by the American prison industrial complex. Marson’s remark exemplifies the idea that the condition of safety will be derived from an updated, enlarged building of cells.

A more moral and inclusive definition of safety recognizes that the condition could result from a more merciful and flexible code of drug laws, action to quell institutionalized racism in policing and sentencing, and more community integration and support for people who break the law. As David C. Fathi, the director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project, remarks in this Times article, “We know that one of the best things you can do if you want people to go straight and lead a law-abiding life when they get out of prison is to continue family contact while they’re in prison.” Making visitation harder by imposing fees like the one in Arizona is not a viable strategy for pursuing “safety.”

Middle Ground reports that this fee appears to be the first of its kind anywhere in the U.S., but given the number of states suffering from budget shortfalls and the high financial cost of incarceration, I don’t think it will be the last. As a community of activists and educators, we cannot afford be silent about such issues.

Please consider writing to the Arizona DOC and making a complaint about the fee. The Media Relations office for the AZDOC can be reached at media@azcorrections.gov and the director’s name is Charles L. Ryan.

Please consider supporting Middle Ground Prison Reform in their lawsuit against the DOC. You can join the organization or make a contribution by visiting this page: http://www.middlegroundprisonreform.org/join/index.html
Director Donna Leone Hamm can be reached here: middlegroundprisonreform@msn.com

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