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Out Of Prison, But Not Money

July 7, 2007
By KATIE MELONE, Courant Staff Writer

The door of the prison van swung open on Sept. 18, 2002, and Linda Anthony emerged in a prison sweat shirt and pants, the only clothes she owned. Her 90 days in jail were now behind her, and she stood on Lafayette Street in Hartford, free.

But free from what? She still craved crack. And she had no money. So even if she wanted to change, to stop using, how would she fund such a life?

"They just drop you off, and you're on your own," said Anthony, a Hartford resident who for years battled drug addiction and worked the streets to fuel her habit. "You go your own way."

A new law that took effect July 1 aims to prevent current inmates from facing a similar fate: It mandates savings and establishes a savings account for each inmate to build up a nest egg to take upon release.

Battling recidivism rates and grappling with preparing thousands of inmates for release, several states have set up similar "discharge accounts" for inmates. The hope is that such a reserve, along with other measures, will facilitate a quicker transition to a law-abiding life, and, in turn, stop the recycling of inmates through the court and prison systems.

Under the law, the state will automatically deduct 10 percent of any funds that come into an inmate's commissary account - which includes earnings from prison jobs and money from family - and deposit it into a separate savings account. But there is a limit - once an inmate's savings account hits $1,000, the forced savings end and the state will instead deduct 10 percent of all new deposits into an inmate's commissary account to reimburse itself for the cost of the inmate's incarceration. The state's deduction is dictated by state law; it took in $1.9 million from inmates in the 2005-06 fiscal year.

Department of Correction Commissioner Theresa Lantz, who tried four previous times to push the law through the legislature, hopes mandatory savings will impress upon the system's roughly 18,800 inmates the importance of setting aside money for re-entry, instead of "spending money on honey buns" in the prison commissary.

"At least it will get the offender some pocket change," Lantz said. "Hopefully they'll use it for the right reasons."

As it stands, inmates receive the balance of their commissary accounts upon release, but few inmates have enough money for a security deposit on an apartment or to pay for other necessities. Connecticut wardens have the discretion to hand certain inmates up to $50 on the day of release, but officials say "gate money" is rarely distributed because of tight budgets.

After being dropped off at the courthouse in 2002, Anthony, sick of the street life, landed that night at a hotel, then shelters, then in her own apartment with the help of Community Partners in Action, a Hartford nonprofit. With the exception of one relapse, she has stayed clean.

There is no way of knowing whether a cache of money would have smoothed Anthony's transition to the outside world in 2002 or years earlier. In 1997, when a friend picked her up from jail, she got high almost immediately after arriving in Hartford. Her life at that point stood in stark contrast to her late teens and early 20s, when Anthony had attended the University of Hartford for two years and studied early childhood education in the hopes of becoming a teacher.

Anthony likes the idea of a savings account but knows that newly released inmates armed with a pile of cash will be tempted to squander the money on drugs. "Am I going to stay out of trouble? That's basically the thing," she says. "Will I go back to this lifestyle? Can I deal with this? It's not the easiest when it's what you've done for the last few years."

The law eventually won the endorsement of legislators of both parties and, in its final version, sailed through committees with few objections. Gov. M. Jodi Rell signed the bill into law June 25.

"The savings account is a great idea because the re-entry phase is very important," said state Rep. Michael Lawlor, D-East Haven, a co-chairman of the judiciary committee. "Obviously, the vast majority of people are leaving prison with nothing."

As a general concept, inmate savings accounts are praised by social service providers and former inmates. But the two groups point out some practical problems with the law.

They wonder if the challenges of setting up a bank account will make it tough for the newly free to find a safe place to keep and maintain funds saved while in prison. They also question the provision that allows the DOC to keep a portion of an inmate's commissary account - once the savings account hits $1,000 - to reimburse the state for the costs of incarceration.

But if the savings account law hadn't passed, inmates might have faced a more draconian situation when it comes to deductions. The correction department was prepared to start enforcing a state statute that directed the DOC to take 10 percent of an inmate's commissary account and divert it to the state's general fund. The DOC and Department of Administrative Services already monitor inmates who receive "windfalls" and try to recoup the cost of that inmate's prison stay.

State Rep. Minnie Gonzalez, D-Hartford, who has a 25-year-old son in prison, said she stepped in to propose that the department allow inmates the cushion of hitting $1,000 in the savings account before any deductions from the state kick in. She points out that inmates already pay fees for certain services, such as doctor's visits, and saving $1,000 would take a long time in prison, so most inmates will never see deductions.

"They have inmates who only get a few dollars a month, and they have to pay for their expenses. And on top of that they have to take the 10 percent?" she said. "No way."

Still, some former inmates see any deductions as unfair.

"Ten percent?" said Janette Rodriguez, another former inmate, who for years bounced in and out of jail but is now drug-free. "I think that's crazy. Some people in jail, they make $5.35 a week." Pay in the facilities can range from 75 cents a day to $1.75 an hour or slightly more, depending on the position.

Without any outside help, inmates with shorter jail or prison terms, like Anthony, would have trouble earning enough to make a significant difference in quality of life, some former inmates say. The savings accounts will not bear interest, said Brian Garnett, a Department of Correction spokesman.

"If you could come out for $1,000, it just sounds like you'd have to be in there for years," Rodriguez said.

Even if an inmate walked out of the prison with a check in hand, setting up an outside bank account can be difficult for discharged inmates because many do not have proper identification, said Deborah Rogalla, resettlement program manager at Community Partners in Action, which, among other things, assists prisoners in "living honorably," according to its website.

The department is close to working out an arrangement with the state Department of Motor Vehicles to provide inmates with some sort of state identification at the prison gate, Lantz said. "We know that a lack of an ID is a major issue, and we've worked on that to ensure that folks going out the door do have an ID," Garnett said.

Rogalla suggests that the DOC could make an even greater impact by allowing inmates to keep their actual savings accounts when they are released. It would eliminate the problems the released inmates face with obtaining identification and "would be significant in having them develop budgeting skills," she said.

Lantz said that the department is still working on logistics of the savings accounts but that a portable account is something the department could look into trying to arrange for inmates. "We've still got a ways to go," she said.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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