Here’s How Much It Costs To Have A Family Member In Prison

A family in a video visitation at the Fort Bend County Jail in Texas CREDIT: AP PHOTO/DAVID J. PHILLIP
A family in a video visitation at the Fort Bend County Jail in Texas CREDIT: AP PHOTO/DAVID J. PHILLIP

Carla Gonzalez’s younger brother has been in prison for ten years, and her family has only just begun to recover from the economic blow.

First it was the lawyer fees. He was hit with five consecutive sentences for murder after the car he was driving to carry people across the Mexico border into the U.S. crashed while being chased by border patrol agents, killing the passengers. Gonzalez’s parents sprang into action. They refinanced the apartment building they owned while Gonzalez and her other brother held fundraisers and asked family members for money. They were just barely able to scrounge up the $100,000 to hire the best lawyer they could find.

“That’s a lot of money,” Gonzalez said. “But my parents knew that for sure they didn’t want my brother to spend the rest of his life in jail, nevertheless five sentences in jail. And if we left it to a public defender, then he would have.”

They lucked out to some extent: her brother was given a 30-year sentence. But the financial challenges didn’t end there. In some ways, they had only just begun.

Her brother has been moved around during the first ten years between four different facilities, all in different parts of California. But he has always been more than a two-hour drive from where Gonzalez and her family live in Los Angeles. At one point, he was a four-hour drive away, which meant his family had to leave home at 3 a.m. to make it in time for the start of visiting hours. Her parents had to buy a car to be able to visit her brother after renting them became too expensive. They have to pay for gas. And they have to pay for the food they eat while at the prison, which is pricey. A frozen hamburger warmed up in a microwave clocks in at $6. “My mom, every time we go, takes at least $125 in singles, and it all goes for food,” she said. All that for about an hour together.

On top of all that, the family spends about $400 every three months or so to send her brother a package full of toiletries and clothes. But given financial constraints, sometimes there are trade offs to be made. “Sometimes it’s truly a decision of whether to send him a package or visit him,” Gonzalez said.

She often can’t even afford to call her brother. Phone companies charge as much as $1.22 a minute, compared to the typical rate of 4 cents a minute, to talk to someone who’s incarcerated. “Honestly I can’t afford to put money on my phone,” she said. “Sometimes I’ll put $20 on, but $20 will go really fast on a phone call.”

It’s all added up to be an incredible burden. “The experience as a family member is costly on your pocket, costly on your heart,” she said. “It’s definitely taken ten years for us to get back on our feet.”

The ordeal that Gonzalez’s family has gone through is pretty common for those who have an incarcerated family member. A report released on Tuesday from Forward Together, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, and Research Action Design, the result of a yearlong survey of 712 formerly incarcerated people and 368 of their family members across 14 states, finds that the costs of incarceration extend far beyond an individual. “Families pay both the apparent and hidden costs while their loved ones serve out sentences in our jails and prisons,” the report notes. “Alongside physical separation, the financial impacts of incarceration place tremendous strain on families.”

More than two-thirds of respondents said their family’s financial stability was damaged when a member was incarcerated. Two out of three families had trouble meeting basic needs thanks to their loved one’s conviction and incarceration, including about half who struggled to afford food and another 48 percent who had trouble paying for housing.

It starts with court fees: in 63 percent of cases, family members were primarily responsible for those costs. Yet about half of families couldn’t afford them. The average debt they incurred for court fees and fines alone was $13,607, which would eat up nearly all of the $16,000 annual income earned by a family of two living at the poverty line. To cover the costs of conviction, 20 percent of families took out a loan, while 9 percent had their wages garnished or tax refunds withheld to make payments.

All of this often comes with a drop in family income. Nearly half of the formerly incarcerated people who were interviewed had contributed half or more of their families’ income before they went to prison.

The difficulties continue as families try to stay in touch with their family members: More than a third had to go into debt to pay for phone calls and visits alone.

Gonzalez’s parents have certainly struggled to cover all of the costs. When her brother was first charged, her mother began working 18-hour days and her father would work 8–4 and then pick up handy man jobs after that, both to make sure the family stayed afloat financially. They moved out of their apartment and into a cheaper one so they could rent it out and make more money to cover the mortgage payments, which went up after they refinanced their building. That moved them about 45 minutes away from their jobs, so they had to pay more to cover the gas to drive back and forth.

That all took a toll on their health. “In ten years, they’ve developed everything under the sun,” Gonzalez said. “The toll it took on them was pretty hard.” Her mother was even injured at work but refused to take time off so that she could keep her job and make sure she could keep supporting her son in prison.

The report found a similar story among respondents: about half of the family members experienced negative health impacts related to the incarceration of their loved one, including Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, depression, anxiety, nightmares, and hopelessness.

Incarceration can even interfere with a family’s ability to earn money. Twenty percent missed or lost employment opportunities when trying to support an incarcerated family member. Ten percent of the respondents said young members of the family couldn’t attend high school or go to college.

Gonzalez has experienced this problem herself. Thanks to her parents’ financial struggles, she had to push back going to college until she was 25 and financially independent. “It stopped me from pursuing my own personal goals because financially I couldn’t afford to go to school,” she said. She eventually did attend and graduate, although she still has plenty of loans to pay back.

But now she’s moved back home to live with her parents and help with their finances as they age. That’s not where she would be if her brother hadn’t been incarcerated. “I’d probably be living somewhere else,” she said. “I think they would probably be living somewhere else too.” She thinks both of her parents would have retired at this point and returned to their homeland of Mexico to relax and leave work behind. “I think if it hadn’t happened it wouldn’t have snowballed into all of the consequences that came out,” she concluded.