Two former inmates are challenging a Connecticut law that has, since 1997, allowed the state to impose a debt on inmates for each day of their incarceration.
In a putative class action lawsuit filed in a Connecticut federal court on Monday, the former inmates are asking the court to declare their prison debt invalid and the statute permitting the collection of such debt to be null and void, reported the Courthouse News Service.
As of Monday, the daily incarceration fee in Connecticut is $249, or $90,885 annually. The statue claims this fee is meant to recoup the state's expenditure in feeding and sheltering inmates, but the suit alleges it traps former inmates in an oppressive debt cycle — a second incarceration — from which there is no escape.
"For people in prison, Connecticut’s prison debt laws mean that the state can collect against nearly all their property at any time. Once a person is released, prison debt follows them for decades, decimating inheritances from deceased loved ones, proceeds from lawsuits (even for injuries sustained in prison), and, ultimately, anything a person leaves upon their death," the 21-page lawsuit state. "Even after a person serves their designated sentence, the prison debt laws punitively and arbitrarily impose an additional sentence, just in a different form."
The plaintiffs in the suit are Teresa Beatty and Michael Llorens, former Connecticut inmates representing a putative class of over 30,000 other people.
"Ms. Beatty’s case is not unique. Under Connecticut’s prison debt law, the state currently charges people $249 per day, or $90,885 per year, for the cost of their incarceration — more than what an in-state student would owe for 2.5 years’ attendance at UCONN, including housing, food, and books," a statement from the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut reads.
The suit was submitted on the plaintiffs' behalf by David A. Slossberg of Hurwitz Sagarin Slossberg & Knuff in Mitford, and Dan Barrett with the ACLU Foundation of Connecticut.
The complaint names Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont and Attorney General William Tong as defendants due to the power both individuals have over the state's Department of Corrections. It seeks to enjoin Lamont, as the state's chief executive, from enforcing the statute, and Tong from filing collection actions against people who owe prison debt.
The suit also aims to wipe out Beatty's and Llorens' current debt, which between the pair is over $356,000. As with many other states in the union, Connecticut's prison population is majority Black and Latino. The ACLU of Connecticut argues the 1997 statute is part of the United States' history of systemic racism.
“Connecticut’s prison debt laws inflict a form of extreme punishment that locks people, especially Black and Latinx people, into unbelievable debt that can haunt them and their loved ones even after their deaths," said ACLU of Connecticut Legal Director Barrett. "The law also rewards the state’s own bad behavior by collecting money from payouts in prison brutality lawsuits and funneling that money right into the general fund."
Connecticut is not the only state that profits off its inmate population. Every state in the union except Hawaii allows for the collection of daily "pay-to-stay" fees. Similarly, all states make use of prison labor programs in which inmates are compelled to work public and private jobs for mere cents an hour, if they are paid at all. The practice began after the Civil War, when southern state prisons began to lease their inmates — mostly Black men — out to private companies. This was and is allowed by the wording of the Thirteenth Amendment, which expressly forbids all forms of involuntary labor, except as punishment for a crime.
Beatty said she hopes the suit will change this system for those who come after her.
“I am speaking out because I don’t want anyone else to go through what I’m going through. It’s not just about me, it’s about the tens of thousands of people coming out after me,” Beatty said in a statement.
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