News Release

Get Out of Jail Broke Cards

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ARUN GUPTA, arun.indypendent[at]gmail.com, @arunindy

Gupta is an investigative journalist who has written for dozens of publications including the Washington Post, the Guardian and Salon. His most recent article was just published in The Nation.

He said today: “This 19-month investigation of a known sector of the for-profit prison industry reveals how hundreds of thousands of inmates are deprived of their money every year by shady ‘inmate banking companies.’

“The Nation went undercover at a Sheriffs conference and scoured migrant shelters in Tijuana to piece together how one company in particular is siphoning money from some 500,000 inmates a year with virtually no oversight or legal recourse.

“Reformers say the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau could easily close the loopholes that allow this predatory business to exist with simple rules changes.”

In the article, Gupta writes: “Veronica Thompson, a 31-year-old social worker, was arrested at another Justice Center protest … and was released as the sun rose the next morning. Eager for a quick bus ride home, a hot meal, and sleep, she was … handed a Numi [Prestige Prepaid MasterCard] instead of her $15.50 in cash. Thompson says the correctional officer told her, ‘It works like a debit card.’ He didn’t say, ‘Hey, there’s a bunch of fees attached.’ Among the documents Thompson received was a handout explaining that cardholders could avoid fees by getting money back from a cashier.

“Thompson attempted to get cash at a nearby convenience store, but the cashier refused her. With no money, she walked the three miles home. …

“In the following days, determined to avoid charges, Thompson used the card for no-fee purchases like groceries. But she hadn’t yet spent all her money when the monthly fee drained her balance.

“Transaction histories and bank receipts from seven people arrested in Portland over a 16-month period who received Numi cards show they lost from 7 percent to 67 percent of their money to fees. …

“At least 10 companies now offer release cards or inmate banking services to correctional systems. …

“Numi is one of many for-profit players in an increasingly privatized prison industry. State spending alone on corrections hit $52.4 billion in 2012. Hundreds of private-sector contractors now provide food, clothing, riot gear, phone service, computers, and health care, in addition to directly operating many correctional facilities. In addition, prisoners and their families pay for numerous services, including phone calls, a $1.2 billion-a-year business, according to the New York Times. …

“Leaked company emails indicate Numi’s high fees are an issue for many jails, not just Santa Clara’s. ‘The fee plans are designed to meet facility concerns over inmate fees (some locations are more concerned about this than others),’ reads one e-mail to a prison-industry vendor from Deloney. But for Numi’s corporate partners, the e-mail notes, those same fees ‘enhance the potential partner revenue share (the higher weekly fee structure naturally generates more profit for sharing).’ …

“Numi Financial has spread its products into our nation’s jails so quietly that many experts in criminal justice and the prepaid cards, even staff on the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs, were unaware of its operations until contacted by a reporter. Oversight is so minimal that, in Multnomah County, Numi routinely violates its contract. The contract stipulates that Numi charge the maintenance fee after five business days, but in all the cases we documented, the fee was deducted before the five-business day grace period ended. Hundreds, even thousands, of Numi cardholders from Multnomah County jails may have been improperly charged the $5.95 monthly fee.”