Teresa Beatty is a certified nursing assistant, a Stamford resident, a mother and grandmother, and a caretaker for her older brother, who is disabled. In 2020, her mother passed away, leaving Beatty a portion of the home where she, her brother, and her family live. Once that home is sold, Beatty will desperately need her inheritance to put a roof over her and her family’s heads. 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 for drug charges.
Unfortunately, Beatty’s experience is not unique. In the 1990s, Connecticut created a prison debt law, under which every person incarcerated by the State of Connecticut on or after October 1, 1997, owes the state hundreds of dollars for each day they spent in prison. Since that time, the state’s daily fee has skyrocketed by 280 percent, bringing us to today’s staggering charge of $249 per day, or $90,885 per year — more than what an in-state student would owe for two and a half years’ attendance at the University of Connecticut including housing, food, and books.
The human costs of this law are astronomical. Prison debt haunts formerly incarcerated people for decades, decimating inheritances from deceased loved ones, proceeds from lawsuits (even for harms done to them by the state in prison), and, ultimately, anything a person leaves upon their death. Because of current and historic systemic racism, prison debt also disproportionately falls on Black and Latinx people in Connecticut, serving as yet another wall between them and the building of intergenerational wealth.
Over the years, the state has gone after an incarcerated man after he received settlement money in a clergy abuse lawsuit, a man who was incarcerated for stealing a woman’s purse after he received an inheritance from his loved one, and members of the York Correctional Center’s writing program after their work won a writing award with prize money.
Time and again, Connecticut has even rewarded its own lawbreaking by clawing and threatening to claw back money from those injured by prison brutality and denials 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 care, for instance, lawyers with Attorney General William Tong’s office frequently reminded the plaintiff that if she went to trial, they would take at least half of anything a jury were to award her.
According to her attorney, in light of this, she ultimately decided to settle for a much smaller amount. In 2017, after a jury found that Department of Correction employees violated Rashad Williams’s rights by purposefully putting him in a cell with someone who was going to attack him, Tong’s office fought to take the money awarded to him by the jury.
This pattern goes back for years. For instance, after Bryant Wiseman died while being restrained by Department of Correction employees in 1999, his mother sued – and the state slapped his estate with a bill for the very incarceration that led to his death.
Once people return to us after incarceration, they should have the same opportunity to support themselves and their families as anyone else. Yet Connecticut’s prison debt law clocks in as one of the many collateral consequences that people face after prison, creating a lifetime of punishment no matter what the actual sentence from the court.
Like all barriers to reentering society, the state’s prison debt scheme harms not just the person trying to build a new life, but their loved ones, living and dead.
In addition to being brutal punishment, Connecticut’s prison debt laws are also unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment’s excessive fines clause. The bills levied by the state against formerly incarcerated people are wildly disproportional: the state’s current $90,000-plus yearly fee eclipses the $20,000 maximum fine for felonies and $2,000 maximum fine for misdemeanors.
Because the state calculates the cost of someone’s “debt” after their incarceration has finished, it also unconstitutionally imposes debt based on things not related to the person’s offense at all, but decisions by third parties (the state) post-conviction, based on things completely unrelated to that person at all (such as how much money the state spends on overtime for Department of Correction employees).
This week, Beatty and a man named Michael Llorens, represented by attorneys with the ACLU Foundation of Connecticut and Hurwitz, Sagarin, Slossberg, & Knuff LLC, took action to try to stop the suffering created by Connecticut’s prison debt law. In a federal class-action lawsuit on behalf of themselves and more than 30,000 people, Beatty and Llorens are suing Gov. Ned Lamont and Tong to try to eliminate the law once and for all.
“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.
Formerly incarcerated people — and their allies with organizations like Family Reentry, and legal advocates at UCONN, Quinnipiac, and the Liman Center at Yale — have made it clear for years that Connecticut’s prison debt law needs to go. It’s long past time for the state to end it.
Dan Barret is the Legal Director of the ACLU of Connecticut.