Teresa Beatty is a certified practical nurse, Stamford resident, mother and grandmother, and caretaker for her older brother, who is disabled. In 2020, her mother passed away, leaving Beatty part of the house where she, her brother and her family live. Once this house is sold, Beatty will desperately need his inheritance to put a roof over his head and that of his family. Yet shortly after her mother’s death, the state of Connecticut came after Beatty, demanding $83,762.26 – all because, nearly 20 years ago, from 2000 to 2002, she was incarcerated on drug charges.
Unfortunately, Beatty’s experience is not unique. In the 1990s, Connecticut created a Prison Debt Act, under which anyone incarcerated by the state of Connecticut on or after October 1, 1997 owes the state hundreds of dollars for each day spent in prison. jail. Since then, the state’s daily charges have skyrocketed 280%, which brings us to today’s staggering charge of $249 per day, or $90,885 per year – more than a state student should pay for two and a half years of college attendance. University of Connecticut, including housing, food, and books.
The human cost of this law is astronomical. Prison debt haunts those formerly incarcerated for decades, decimating the legacies of deceased loved ones, the proceeds of lawsuits (even for harms done to them by the state in prison) and, ultimately, everything a person leaves when they die. Due to current and historical systemic racism, prison debt also falls disproportionately on Black and Latinx people in Connecticut, serving as a new wall between them and the building of intergenerational wealth.
Over the years, the state has gone after a man jailed after receiving settlement money in a clergy abuse lawsuit, a man who was jailed for stealing the purse of a woman after receiving an inheritance from her loved one, and members of the York Correctional Center Writing Program after their work won a writing award with a cash prize.
Time and time again Connecticut has even rewarded its own law breaking by collecting and threatening to collect money from people hurt by prison brutality and denial of medical care.
In a recent lawsuit brought by a woman forced to give birth to her baby in her cell after being denied medical treatment, for example, attorneys for Attorney General William Tong’s office frequently reminded the plaintiff that if she were to stand trial, they would take at least half of whatever a jury had to award him.
According to her lawyer, in light of this, she ultimately decided to settle for a much lower amount. In 2017, after a jury found that Department of Corrections employees violated the rights of Rashad Williams by deliberately putting him in a cell with someone who was going to attack him, Tong’s office went public. is beaten to take the money awarded to him by the jury.
This pattern goes back years. For example, after Bryant Wiseman died while restrained by Department of Correction employees in 1999, his mother sued — and the state slapped his estate with a bill for incarceration. even that led to his death.
Once people come back to us from incarceration, they should have the same opportunity to support themselves and their families as anyone else. Yet Connecticut’s prison debt law is one of the many collateral consequences people face after prison, creating a life sentence regardless of the court sentence.
Like all barriers to reintegration into society, the state prison debt program harms not only the person trying to build a new life for themselves, but also their loved ones, living and dead.
In addition to being brutal punishment, Connecticut’s prison debt laws are also unconstitutional under the excessive fines clause of the Eighth Amendment. The bills levied by the state against formerly incarcerated people are grossly disproportionate: the state’s current annual fee of more than $90,000 dwarfs the maximum fine of $20,000 for felonies and $2,000 for misdemeanors. .
Because the state calculates the cost of someone’s “debt” after their incarceration is over, it also unconstitutionally imposes a debt based on things that are not related to the person’s offense at all, but post-conviction decisions of third parties (the state) based on things completely independent of that person (like how much money the state spends on overtime for Department of Corrections employees).
This week, Beatty and a man named Michael Llorens, represented by attorneys from the ACLU Foundation of Connecticut and Hurwitz, Sagarin, Slossberg and Knuff LLC, took action in an attempt to end the suffering created by the Death Act. Connecticut prison debt. In a federal class action suit on their behalf and on behalf of more than 30,000 people, Beatty and Llorens are suing Governor Ned Lamont and Tong in an attempt to eliminate the law once and for all.
“I speak because I don’t want anyone else going 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,” said Beatty.
Formerly incarcerated people – and their allies with organizations like Family reintegrationand attorneys at UCONN, Quinnipiac, and the Liman Center at Yale — have made it clear for years that Connecticut’s prison debt law must go. It is high time for the state to put an end to it.
Dan Barret is the Chief Legal Officer of ACLU of Connecticut.