By Matt Clarke
The sheriff of Dallas County, Texas had a good reason for giving prepaid debit cards to prisoners containing the balance of their trust fund accounts when they were released from jail.
“There was too much money handling,” said Sheriff Lupe Valdez.
The cards contain the funds the prisoners had with them when they were booked into the facility, plus any money they received during their incarceration, less what they spent at the jail’s commissary. But Valdez and the Dallas County Commissioners were surprised to learn that the debit cards come with fees, and that prisoners who use the cards are charged for accessing their own money.
The issue came to light when former prisoner Steve Mathis addressed the commissioners at the end of their first regular meeting in January 2013, to complain about the fees. County Judge Clay Jenkins and Commissioner John Wiley Price didn’t like the idea of released prisoners having to pay debit card fees.
“But let me just tell you, it’s his money,” Price said, noting that was the first he’d heard about any fees. “He said he didn’t give us no bank card [when he was jailed], he gave us cash. He should be able to get his money back. I got a real problem if they’re being charged a fee.”
Sheriff Valdez agreed, but said she didn’t know much about the issue since Mathis was the first to complain about it. However, she promised to look into whether an ATM or kiosk could be placed in the jail complex so the debit cards could be redeemed with no fees.
One of the few highlights in the life of an inmate in the Federal Bureau of Prisons is the once-per-week privilege of going to commissary, which is the prison equivalent of the local supermarket. Since packages from family and friends are not allowed in the BOP, the commissary is an inmate’s only opportunity to get the amenities that can make serving their time more bearable.
Who Can Shop at the Commissary?
Commissary is a privilege granted to inmates at all general population institutions in the Federal Bureau of Prisons. In general, all inmates that have money in their trust fund account (and who have nor already spent more than $320.00 that month) will be able to shop at commissary.
There are three exceptions to this rule:
Inmates that are serving a period on commissary restriction due to a disciplinary infraction;
Inmates that have refused to participate in the Inmate Financial Responsibility Program; and
Inmates that are housed outside general population (for example, the Special Housing Unit).
Inmates that fall into these categories are limited to purchasing from a very restricted list, spending a maximum of $25.00 per month, not the regular $320.00 per month.