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The Literal Cost of Solitary Confinement

Why are prisoners forced to pay fines when they are put in isolation?

Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty

Damian Jackson weighed two pounds when he was born. The doctors told his mother, Veronica Worley, that he’d have to stay in the hospital for 90 days, inside a tiny incubator, until his body was ready to fend for itself in the world. So each day, for 90 days, Worley went to visit her son. She’d put her hand inside the incubator to feel his impossibly small stomach, his little baby head, and his doll-size hands. But she wasn’t allowed to hold him. She missed him, even though she didn’t know him yet.

On the 90th day, Worley finally brought him home. Even then, he was only five pounds and she remembers her own mother scolding her for cradling him in the palm of her hand. “He wouldn’t fit in my arms,” Worley laughed. “He would have fallen out.”

Worley believes that her son’s premature birth set his course in life. He was always slightly undersized. That’s what got him into trouble, got him sent jail at age 12. She said he was carrying around a box cutter in the park after curfew. “Trying to prove he wasn’t a little kid, that he was a man,” Worley said. Later he joined the TBO gang—True Bosses Only aka Team Bang Out—based in Brooklyn. Jackson is 20 now, and he’s been at New York City’s Rikers Island jail for more than two years, awaiting sentencing on two counts of robbery, one count of assault, and two counts of attempted assault. Most of the charges are gang-related.

During his time at Rikers, Jackson said he’s spent a total of more than 200 days in solitary confinement. Almost every time he has been sentenced to solitary, his mother said, it’s been for a stint of 90 days. “That number alone just makes it crazy,” Worley told me.

On top of all the solitary time, Jackson has been forced to pay a $25 fine each time he’s been put in the box. That’s in addition to the thousands in fines Worley said he’s racked up from rule violations where he wasn’t sent solitary, restitution fees for property he’s damaged, and court fees.

Worley, a single mom with four children including Jackson, says she, had to take on a second job and cut expenses way back in order to pay all his jail debt. “It’s so much money I’ve spent,” she said. “At first I thought he was lying about the fines. I’m like, there’s no way this boy is going to have to pay $25 and be locked up in the box.”

The United Nations has determined that solitary confinement may amount to torture: It can destroy the mind, sometimes the spirit. And yet many jails and prisons around the country have decided that this punishment alone is not harsh enough. It’s not widely known, but inmates who are determined to have committed a disciplinary infraction are regularly subjected to fines that can range into the hundreds of dollars on top of weeks or months-long solitary sentences. Both the psychological damage caused by extreme isolation and the financial burden of the jail debt can hang over these people once they’re released, often making re-entry into society nearly impossible. 

“When the system is built on punishment, you find every chance you get to damage people more,” said Glenn Martin, who spent six years in New York state prisons and founded the criminal justice reform group JustLeadershipUSA. “Unfortunately, prisons in America have evolved into places that are devoid of values such as rehabilitation, fairness and human dignity.” 

Prison officials in at least six state systems have the authority to impose fines in addition to solitary for a single rule violation. Wyoming charges up to $50, Georgia up to $100, Oregon as much as to $200. Fees in the states of New York, Kansas, and South Dakota range between $5 and $20. (Wyoming, New York State, Georgia, and Kansas dismiss fines once an inmate is released or put them on hold in case the person returns. South Dakota said it doesn’t use solitary confinement, but the ACLU contends that the state’s isolation policies fit the definition.)

Rikers will put inmates in extreme isolation and charge them a $25 fee for disciplinary infractions including fighting and destruction of jail property, but also for things like disrupting “special activities,” or delaying a guard’s daily inmate count. (The city recently limited extreme isolation to 30 days at a time, and no more than 60 days per year, but the Department of Correction can override these limits in certain cases.) Disciplinary policies in other local jails around the country are hard to track, but the practice of assessing both a monetary fine and solitary is common nationwide, according to David Fathi, the director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project.

New York City’s DOC said that access to a combination of punishments helps it reduce violence and maintain order. Oregon and South Dakota’s corrections departments say much the same. Spokesmen for Oregon and Wyoming’s DOCs told New Republic that the disciplinary process within correctional facilities parallels the broader legal system: judges often impose a fine in conjunction with incarceration, probation, or community service. 

But that comparison is not really apt because disciplinary hearings in prisons and jails are more like “kangaroo courts,” Martin said. “You don’t really have to do anything wrong to find yourself getting a disciplinary ticket.” In August of 2013, correction officers savagely beat Jackson and three other inmates with radios, broomsticks, and batons—an incident that the Justice Department included in its report last year on Rikers’ adolescent facility. Jackson said he was sentenced to solitary and fined $25, as if he had been the one doing the beating. In New York State, inmates can be put in extreme isolation for yelling or for being slow to respond to a guard’s order or for not picking up their fork in the mess hall.

While some of the state disciplinary fees may sound insignificant, small fines can pile up fast. They pile up on people who often were homeless or unemployed before they were incarcerated and will face the same situations upon release. The ACLU of Kansas said inmates could easily rack up thousands of dollars of debt just from disciplinary fines. Worley said she handed over a total of roughly $3,000 to New York City to pay off Jackson’s disciplinary fines and restitution fees for property damage.

The massive debt forced Worley and her other three kids to cut back sharply. She turned off the cable, has the kids scrape free wifi from where they can, and washes the laundry every two weeks instead of every week like she used to. They don’t go to the movies or out for dinner anymore. The food stamps barely take them through the month. “She's broke right now,” Jackson told me over the jailhouse phone in July. “I could hear it in her voice—she's really hurt.”

For many inmates and their families, disciplinary fines accumulate on top of court and attorney fees, court-ordered restitution, and child support. And around the country, inmates may be obligated to pay for a seemingly infinite number of additional charges. Some of those costs: drug and alcohol abuse treatment; medical, dental, and psychiatric services; vocational training; toilet paper, laundry, and clothing; phone and video calls, food from the jail store, booking fees, drug testing, and fingerprinting. In some jurisdictions, inmates pay “room and board” for the time they spend in jail awaiting trial. Ninety percent of local jails collect revenue from incarcerated people. Those inmates pay an average of $1,259 per person per year to local facilities, according to a recent study by the Vera Institute of Justice.

Prisoners can even be charged for trying to kill themselves. “I’ve seen it multiple times,” said Elisabeth Owen, the managing director of the Prisoners’ Justice League of Colorado. “Someone hangs themselves and then they get a medical bill for thousands of dollars.”

Not everyone has a mother like Worley who is willing and able—even if barely—to take on all that jail debt. If she hadn’t paid, the debt would have followed Jackson out of Rikers. For some prisoners, the owed money hangs over them not just behind bars, but forever—as does the trauma of solitary—a combination that can make it near impossible to live.

Five Mualimm-ak, now the director of the anti-solitary confinement group Incarcerated Nation, was released in 2012 after over a decade spent in New York State prison and at Rikers. He said he racked up hundreds of dollars in disciplinary fines over the years in both facilities. Correctional facilities will automatically deduct those fees from inmates’ accounts—even if they don’t have family depositing money in there. If inmates work a prison job, like Mualimm-ak did, they will often be earning pennies an hour. New York State prisoners make an average of $1.50 a day. “If you have debt of thousands or several hundred, you’ll never pay that off,” he said.

As soon as he set foot into freedom, Mualimm-ak said he was still about $1,600 in the hole from restitution. Plus, he said he owed $100,000 in child support payments. He lived in the street and in shelters for two years and now shares a studio in the Bronx with his three children. Mualimm-ak supports his kids with food stamps and his monthly disability check—he has bipolar disorder and claims it was aggravated by the five years he spent solitary upstate. How does he pay his prison debts? “I don’t pay. I’m poor.”

Newly released people often also have to pay monthly fees for parole supervision or drug program costs. Meanwhile you’re trying to find an employer and a landlord who will take a chance on someone who just got out of prison. “It’s like walking around with a giant anvil hanging over your head,” Mualimm-ak said.

Many get crushed. Mualimm-ak said he’s always hearing about people who are released and end up committing suicide because the financial and psychic toll of re-entry is too much. “This guy did 15 years. He came home and ended up killing himself,” Mualimm-ak said. “He was just smashed. What can he do? He can’t get apartment, he can’t live.”

“You’d think that after a person serves their time, that shit is over,” said Johnny Perez, who spent 13 years in New York state prison and is now a re-entry advocate with the Urban Justice Center. “But every sentence is a life sentence.”

Worley hopes that won’t be the case for her son, but she is worried he won’t know how to be in the world after all that time in jail, and all that time in solitary.

The last few times he’s come back from jail or prison, he seemed to pick up where he left off—at age 12, before he was arrested the very first time. When he was released at age 14, he wanted to go to Sesame Place, a theme park based on Sesame Street. To this day, he still likes to color in coloring books. And every time he comes home, he’ll run and jump onto his mom’s bed in the mornings with his younger siblings and beg her to let them watch movies together.

But it’s more than just that Jackson seems both robbed of and stuck in childhood. Worley said he’s more withdrawn. When he came home four years ago, she remembers him sitting at the dinner table and eyeing his family suspiciously, as if they were about to pounce on him and eat his food. “He’s looking out the side of his eye like he’s still in jail,” she said. When Worley talks to him on the phone, she said he sometimes speaks of himself in the third person. He said he’s on psych meds, but Worley doesn’t know what the diagnosis is because she hasn’t seen his medical records.

When I met Jackson in June, at Rikers’ George R. Vierno Center, he was jammed as far back into his chair as possible, his spine curled into the bend of the seat, his knees and face angled away from me, arms crossed. He said hello without making eye contact, and when he did look at me, his whole demeanor seemed to be trying to disappear the encounter. But he quickly opened up. Pretty soon, he was telling me all about the beating, and his court case, and his time in the box, and asking for advice about girls. 

Worley is determined to help him adjust when he gets out, which could be as soon as this fall. She’ll help him find a job as a dishwasher or something. “Where he’s behind the scenes,” she said, and won’t get too overwhelmed. And then hopefully, she said, they’ll move out of Brooklyn, to a quiet neighborhood in Queens—where there won’t be any gang problems and where they can start over, all five of them together.