Taxing the Poor: Incarceration, Poverty Governance, and the Seizure of Family Resources


 55 percent of debtors turn to family and friends to help secure money to pay for their debts.

To finance its carceral system, the United States government levies taxes on the country’s most impoverished strata. Although those involved in the justice system are typically low-income individuals, they are piled with financial obligations they cannot afford and often lean on family and friends to avoid additional incarceration and to meet their basic needs while incarcerated. Families and friends who are already contributing to taxes are levied additional taxes to hold up the justice system every time they deposit money into their loved ones’ inmate account. The state and private corporations profit off this money for food, toiletries, collect calls, video visitations, and medical charges. This paper discusses government seizures, policies that levy a de facto taxation on low-income families during incarceration, and examines legislation and judicial cases, policy regulations, blog and chat-line postings, and survey data to analyze post-incarceration seizures. 

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Key Findings:

  • In Florida, the state’s general revenue fund garners $31-$32 million a year in commissions from commissary sales run by the private Keefe Group.
  • In Texas, Securus Technologies has contracts with 2,600 correctional facilities to provide video visitations; 70 percent of their contracts require video visitation to replace in-person visitation.
  • State prison wages average 15 cents an hour.
  • State prisoners, on average, retain 20 percent of their wages because wages are withheld for financial obligations.
  • In most states, funds deposited by family and friends in an inmate account can be redirected to pay the inmate’s financial obligations; in California, 50 percent of all deposits are withheld.
  • One-third of the country’s county jails charge room and board costs.
  • Families often spend $1,000 to $2,000 a year on collect calls.
  • 43 states allow defendants to be charged an administrative fee for using a public defender.
  • Outstanding  child support arrears total $114.5 billion; 70 percent of those who owe report no earnings or earning less than $10,000 a year.
Mary Fainsod Katzenstein and Maureen R. Waller
Perspectives on Politics