The Price of Incarceration


On Saturday, I had the opportunity to attend a local meeting for the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. Have you heard yet about this campaign? If not yet, my assumption is that it will be in the news quite a bit this summer. I recommend learning more, and if interested, please consider plugging in yourself.

The Rev. Dr. William Barber II and the Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis are Co-Chairs of the Poor People’s Campaign, a renewed, second chapter of the campaign the Rev. Martin Luther King initiated just before he was assassinated. This campaign seeks to challenge the evils of systemic racism, poverty, the war economy, and ecological devastation through conversation and direct action.

Each meeting of the Poor People’s Campaign seeks to center the voices, stories, and experiences of people who are directly impacted by these systemic forces. On Saturday, one of our speakers was a person who was formally incarcerated. He said that he speaks openly about his experience as often as possible because he wants to uplift the challenges that incarcerated people and their families carry while reducing the stigma that so many experience.

He mentioned the deep, economic costs to incarcerated people and their families. An experience of poverty increases the odds of incarceration, and undoubtedly, incarceration can solidify poverty in the life of individuals and their families.

When a person is arrested, the first hurdle is cash bail. A judge sets a dollar amount for that bail. Those who can pay are permitted to return home and await trial, but those who are poor languish in jail. In addition to not being able to pay, poor, incarcerated people are not able to return to their workplaces. This can compound the challenge for an individual or a family.

Once incarcerated, phone calls with loved ones — including children who need parental contact — cost $15 per phone call. The family ends up paying that.

Many jails and prisons, including where I live in Washtenaw County, Michigan, are moving away from in-person visitation. Instead, they only permit “visitation” via video, and families also have to pay for each usage of that video service.

Incarcerated individuals and families have to pay for attorneys, and these services can cost thousands of dollars. The speaker on Saturday mentioned that he had to pay $10,000 for his attorney.

Prison food is notoriously bad. Because of this, incarcerated individuals often need funds to buy things at the commissary. They can earn small amounts of money through work (a whole other, necessary conversation should be raised about this) or their families can send money along.

Some prisons, including here in my state of Michigan, charge incarcerated people a rate per day to stay in prison. Can you imagine? There is no choice to leave, but there is also a fee to stay. “They are charging us for the privilege to stay in prison,” our speaker said.

And then, of course, when people leave an experience of incarceration, stigma makes it virtually impossible to find employment. Our speaker has a Master’s Degree, but he couldn’t even find a job waiting tables. “And we wonder why recidivism is high?” he asked.

Think about the enormous economic costs to individuals, families, and entire communities. . . Our incarcerated neighbors are our neighbors, but sadly, they are often out of view. Certainly, some have made mistakes they deeply regret, but isn’t it possible that the system is doing violence as well?

Renee Roederer

A very important fundraiser is underway to raise funds for cash bail where I live. No one should have to stay in jail entirely because they cannot pay. If you’d like to donate $10 or more to that today, I know that many would appreciate it. I’ll leave the link below:

Poverty is Not a Crime: Bail, Legal, and Support Fund

This post is a part of a series. Feel free to check out the other pieces too:

The Deeper Questions
Connections Matter
Providing Support to Immigrant Families
To Be a Part of the Very Prayers We Make



4 thoughts on “The Price of Incarceration

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