Going to prison can be costly for the whole family

"Criminal" is a documentary film project chronicling the experience of having a family member in prison.

At the end of last year, the Department of Justice issued a memo stating the federal prison system is in crisis: It’s overcrowded and expensive to run. And while there’s always a lot of hand-wringing over the burdened taxpayer - it costs about $29,000 a year to keep an inmate in federal prison - it can also be expensive for the family. 

For the Hurleys in Maine, having two sons in federal prison has been surprisingly expensive.

The men were arrested for their involvement in a cocaine ring in Waldo County and sentenced to serve 30 and 56 months respectively at a federal prison camp in Florence, Colo.

"Here’s this lower middle class, working class family, our family," explains their uncle, Mike Hurley, "We’re in Maine and they take two guys and stick them in Colorado. You know, don’t look for compassion from these people."

Matt spent $10,000 on a lawyer and Chris used a public defender -- not a lot to spend on legal fees, respectively. Chris says he could have borrowed from his large family.

"They would have done it, but, I didn’t say 'Let’s sell the house and fight this.' I couldn’t ask that."

But even without fancy lawyers, the costs went into the thousands. Chris lost his job and access to his bank account – everything had to be managed, and paid for, by his family back home. There’s also no cash allowed inside prison, although some kind of alternative currency often develops, like trading cigarettes or stamps.

"Some places it’s not stamps. In New Hampshire, it was ramen," Chris, who was held briefly in that state, said. "It was a trip because people would be carrying around laundry bags full of ramen."

He says that it was possible to have your laundry done in exchange for two ramen. But bartering goods in prison isn’t legal, so as their months in the Colorado prison went on, when the brothers wanted something from the commissary: shower shoes, dental floss, sweatpants - Uncle Mike helped the family organize a fund.

"What I was trying to avoid was making these guys beg or do stuff in prison that would get you money in prison."

He made sure that every month his nephews would have $50 each, collected from the family. That adds up to about $2,500. But the biggest expense was for visits. The brother's grandmother figures it cost her $1,500 for one of her two 2,000-mile trips from Maine to Colorado. That’s a lot for Roseann Costello, who still works full-time in her mid-70s. 

"I just needed to see them," Costello said, holding a stack of the various bills she collected over the past few years on her lap. "To see that they were okay. And they needed to see me.  So it was good."

Family members made the trip 13 times over the past few years, totaling roughly $20,000.

"What we know from an analysis we did recently is that the average federal inmate is about 500 miles away from home," explained Nancy La Vigne, director of the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute. She says the federal prison system has grown sevenfold in the past 30 years, so the impact is now felt far and wide.

"Virtually every American in this country knows somebody who’s been touched by the criminal justice system."

Including this large, tight-knit family from Maine.

"Frankly, the day they got arrested taught them everything that they learned," argued the brother's aunt, Jerri Holmes. She says that the brothers’ time in federal prison has come at a great cost to everyone involved. When the family added up everything, they figure they’ve spent $60,000.

And the money has been the least of it.  

"It doesn’t heal anything, it doesn’t teach you anything," continued Holmes. "Except for how to hoard your postage stamps."

About the author

Amanda Aronczyk is a public radio reporter and producer.

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