Prisoners’ Families In Oklahoma Are Losing Huge Amounts Of Money To Private Bankers

CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK
CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK

Two private banking vendors are charging people hefty fees for sending money to incarcerated family members — and making millions in the process. What’s more, the same vendors also figured out how to profit off of prisoners who have been released.

In order to purchase items in prison, including bedding and toiletries, inmates typically rely on family and friends to transfer money into “trust fund” accounts. According to Oklahoma Watch, the two vendors that oversee the money transfers in Oklahoma, JPay Inc. and Access Secure Deposits, require senders to pay 3.7 to 40 percent in transfer fees. To make a deposit online, senders are charged $3.95 to $10.95. Phone transfers cost a dollar more, and if money is deposited at a walk-in retailer, fees range from $5 to $8.95.

By contrast, of the $30 million deposited into Oklahoma offenders’ accounts between 2012–2014, only $203,350 went to the state corrections department.

Terri Watkins, a representative for the department, argues that the fees fund the vendors, who helped to organize the money transferring system. Prisons previously relied on correctional staff to handle the transactions.

Under the Prisoners Public Work Act, contractors are allowed to hire inmates for “developing lands pursuant to a public works program; providing improvement and beautification.” But prison labor pays well below minimum wage. The national average for one day’s work is $4.73 per person. In Oklahoma, individual offenders make no more than $14.35 per month, but spend an average of $1,784 per year. As a result, deposits from loved ones — and the hefty costs that come with those deposits — are often their only way to meet their costs at the commissary.

And the financially cumbersome system continues after an inmates’ release. When a person leaves prison, he or she is given a debit card with the remaining money, which JPay activates for a $3 fee. To use the card, former inmates must also pay a $6 monthly fee. For individuals who already have a difficult time finding employment upon re-entry, due to lack job training, criminal background checks, health, or other extenuating circumstances, those fees can add up.

Oklahoma’s prisoners incur numerous fees during and after their prison sentence for the crimes they actually committed. They are also charged for lab analysis, mental health services, bond filing, fingerprinting, and jail booking.