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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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RStudr your comments wreak of the same old tired logic that started the war on drugs and perpetuates it to this day at the cost of billions of dollars and the waste of millions of lives behind bars who could have been helped instead of locked away. As far as additional taxpayer expense for prison-sponsored rehab programs-- they're cheaper than prison and reduce recidivism drastically. Not to mention the majority of "drug dealers" are in fact drug addicts themselves who need help not prison, who could be more effectively and humanely dealt with by being diverted into the mental health system like many more forward-thinking countries have begun to do with resounding success. Maybe the story of two "convicted felons" doesn't warrant much attention, but when a country systematically locks up millions of people, whatever the reason, at a huge economic cost to the country and yes- to those people's families, surely it is worth a deep look.

RStudr your comments wreak of the same old tired logic that started the war on drugs and perpetuates it to this day at the cost of billions of dollars and the waste of millions of lives behind bars who could have been helped instead of locked away. As far as additional taxpayer expense for prison-sponsored rehab programs-- they're cheaper than prison and reduce recidivism drastically. Not to mention the majority of "drug dealers" are in fact drug addicts themselves who need help not prison, who could be more effectively and humanely dealt with by being diverted into the mental health system like many more forward-thinking countries have begun to do with resounding success. Maybe the story of two "convicted felons" doesn't warrant much attention, but when a country systematically locks up millions of people, whatever the reason, at a huge economic cost to the country and yes- to those people's families, surely it is worth a deep look.

I get the lack of concern from some. Who cares about convicts or their families? But MP missed the biggest loser aspect of the war on drugs which is that every taxpayer is bearing the largest prison population in fact and per capita on the planet. We jail far more than Russia, Cuba, or North Korea. American exceptionalism indeed. If we just want to have an endless conveyor belt of prisoners/ customers to pour into jails as a state welfare jobs program I guess that's a choice our country makes. Turns out there is growth in the USA. And don't forget it's a two-fer. The great majority of the prisoners in the USA are black or hispanic and with a felony conviction they will not be able to vote. Security and voter suppression in one nice package.

Unfortunately this story is indeed Marketplace worthy. As prison populations have exploded in recent decades, stories like this have become all too common. Since the launch of the war on drugs, the number of people incarcerated in federal prisons has grown 800%, with more than half of them serving time for drug offenses. Exceedingly harsh sentences have created a devastating cycle of incarceration that has destroyed families without making communities safer. This story is definitely worthy of NPR's attention.

Is this truly Marketplace newsworthy? A story detailing the financial hardships of two convicted felon's families. How about the costs to the families of the drug users, whom these two felons supplied AND earned a surely considerable income from these drug dealings, should those costs not even warrant a mention? While we are at it, what about the additional tax payer expense for prison sponsored rehab programs the two poor felon's will undoubtedly attend (to shorten their incarceration and impress the early release parole board). I am frightened by the lean of this Op\Ed piece and expected better from Market Place and NPR.

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