Arizona's Department of Corrections has enacted a $25 fee on adults who wish to visit inmates at any of its 15 facilities, a move that is believed to be the first of its kind in the nation.
Originally billed as a background check fee, the Department of Corrections now says the one-time fee --which only applies to those who are over 18-years-old, although it was originally intended for everyone --will be used to keep prison facilities safer for both its inmates and visitors.
Wendy Baldo, the chief of staff for the Arizona Senate, told The New York Times that fees are intended to help bridge a $1.6 billion deficit the state at the beginning of the year.
We were trying to cut the budget and think of ways that could help get some services for the Department of Corrections, she said.
Baldo added that the department is in need of about $150 million worth of building renewal and maintenance funds, a project that was previously shuffled aside due to budget woes.
Although Barret Marson, a spokesman for the Corrections Department, told the newspaper there have no complaints from inmates regarding the new policy at this point, some prisoner rights groups are speaking out against what they say is an exorbitant charge.
David C. Fathi, the director of the National Prison Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, called the fee mind-boggling and said it could potentially have a negative impact on public safety if it prevents some inmates from receiving visitors.
We know that one of the best things you can do if you want people to go straight and lead a law-abiding life when they get out of prison is to continue family contact while they're in prison, he told the source.
Middle Ground Prison Reform, a group based in Tempe, filed a lawsuit against the Corrections Department last month, claiming the $25 fee is a ploy to raise money for general purposes. The group also alleged that the fee is unconstitutional because it is essentially a special tax on a single group of people.
There may also be some snags in the system that can cause people to spend outrageous amounts of money for visitor clearance. One woman, who asked to have her name omitted, said she paid the fee -- $100 for 4 different visitors -- through Western Union, but was unable to get the system to work. Although the United Parcel Service confirmed that her order had been delivered, the Correction's Department never received it, resulting in her sending additional $100 payment months after beginning the application process.
Arizona is far from the only state facing budget shortfalls in its prison system. Once a staple of the corrections system, the Religious News Service reports that prison chaplains are becoming a huge casualty in budget and staff reductions as various states look for ways to save their pennies. States such as North Carolina, California and Indiana have been forced to lay off or freeze chaplain hires to save money for other services.
In the 2009-2010 fiscal year California -- which houses one of the largest inmate populations in the nation -- was forced to cut $250 million from its Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, resulting in major reductions to its education, vocational and substance abuse programs.
Some prisoners are even lacking supplies as basic as clean clothing. The John Howard Association, a prison watchdog group, reports that a visit to the Taylorville Correctional Center in Illinois earlier this year found that inmates are forced to wear the same used underwear for several days in a row because of a clothing shortage. In addition, the report said prisoners at the facility donned dirty, threadbare clothing that are only washed twice a week.