Going to Prison Is Really Expensive—for You and Your Family

David J. Phillip/AP

Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.


For felons, a stint behind bars is financially costly. But, as a new report suggests, those costs often extend to the families they leave behind. 

Roughly two-thirds of families of convicts had trouble meeting their basic needs as a result of their relatives’ time behind bars, according to a new national survey of 1,080 family members and former inmates. The survey was conducted by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, an Oakland-based nonprofit focused on racial and economic justice issues, along with a coalition of advocacy groups. 

Incarceration, the report states, “reinforces economic stress on impoverished families and limits the economic mobility of both formerly incarcerated people and their families.”

Families of convicts spent an average of $13,607 on court-related costs.

It turns out that the financial burden of incarceration disproportionately falls on women in the family—from spouses to grandmothers. Nearly half of the people surveyed who went to prison contributed at least half of the total household income before their conviction. What’s more, the report found that household incomes generally didn’t return to their previous levels once the family member returned home. Ex-convicts often have trouble finding work, leaving them to resort to low-paying jobs to support families. At least 60 percent of former inmates remained jobless a year after their release, and 26 percent could not find work five years after their release.

Former inmates often struggle to find housing, since a criminal record bars them from government-subdsidized housing, forcing them to rely on family members. And while 67 percent of former inmates surveyed hoped to return to school after their release, only 27 percent actually did.

The high costs associated with the legal system put a considerable strain on low-income families, especially those of color. Forty-four percent of black women are related to someone in prison, and black men are more than six times as likely as white men to be imprisoned. Families on average spent $13,607 on court-related costs, such as attorney fees and court fees—one-third of the median household income nationwide and just above the poverty line threshold for a single person. That doesn’t account for the costs of maintaining contact with the family members behind bars, whether through phone calls or visits. All told, the report found, these costs helped drive more than one-third of the families surveyed into debt. 

Survey respondents also reported experiencing “negative health impacts” because of their family member’s incarceration and described moments of “depression, anxiety, chronic stress, and other chronic health issues,” according to the report.

“One interaction with the criminal justice system can snowball into leaving you in debt that you can’t get out of,” said Azadeh Zohrabi, a national campaigner with the Baker Center. “Everything just keeps adding on and adding on.”

TIME IS RUNNING OUT!

We have an ambitious $350,000 online fundraising goal this month and it's truly crunch time: About 15 percent of our yearly online giving usually comes in during the final week of the year, and in "No Cute Headlines or Manipulative BS," we explain why we simply can't afford to come up short right now.

The bottom line: Corporations and powerful people with deep pockets will never sustain the type of journalism Mother Jones exists to do. And advertising or profit-driven ownership groups will never make time-intensive, in-depth reporting viable.

That's why donations big and small make up 74 percent of our budget this year. There is no backup to keep us going, no alternate revenue source, no secret benefactor. If readers don’t donate, we won’t be here. It's that simple.

And if you can help us out with a donation right now, all online gifts will be matched thanks to an incredibly generous matching gift pledge.

payment methods

TIME IS RUNNING OUT!

We have an ambitious $350,000 online fundraising goal this month and it's truly crunch time: About 15 percent of our yearly online giving usually comes in during the final week of the year, and in "No Cute Headlines or Manipulative BS," we explain why we simply can't afford to come up short right now.

The bottom line: Corporations and powerful people with deep pockets will never sustain the type of journalism Mother Jones exists to do. And advertising or profit-driven ownership groups will never make time-intensive, in-depth reporting viable.

That's why donations big and small make up 74 percent of our budget this year. There is no backup to keep us going, no alternate revenue source, no secret benefactor. If readers don’t donate, we won’t be here. It's that simple.

And if you can help us out with a donation right now, all online gifts will be matched thanks to an incredibly generous matching gift pledge.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate