A three-star hotel in New Haven will cost you around $174 per night. A night in a Connecticut prison will cost you $229.
The most expensive hotel in New Haven offers rooms from $219 a night, and boasts a variety of amentities: featherbeds, glass showers with marble flooring, flat screen TVs, a fitness center, and art gallery, to name a few. Connecticut’s prisons boast no such amenities.
What the state can claim is the highest per day rate for incarceration in the country, a rate higher than any hotel in New Haven —a rate of $229 per day, $90,885 for each year in prison.
The Liman Center at Yale Law School’s research into the incarceration lien led us to people across the state effected by the policy and what we learned was not surprising: this debt is insurmountable.
One man we spoke to left prison with a debt of over $1.3 million. Under the current incarceration lien law, this debt can follow him long after his time in prison—lasting for 20 years after release for certain assets, like legal settlements and inheritances. For this man, and thousands like him, Connecticut’s high per day costs of incarceration and the state’s accompanying lien, creates hurdles to re-entry, fosters intergenerational debt, and harms the physical and mental health of formerly incarcerated people at one of their most vulnerable moments – when they are leaving prison.
In addition, the lien raises significant constitutional concerns and fails to achieve its articulated purposes. Simply put, it burdens those least able to bear its impact and undermines the goals of our state. It is time to repeal Connecticut’s Cost of Incarceration Lien.
The lien is contrary to Connecticut’s larger goals of successful re-entry after incarceration. Saddled with debt, those leaving prison are forced to use funds that might allow them to access housing, education, and employment to pay off their incarceration lien.
We spoke with a man who said he had hoped to use his mother’s life insurance money to create a small business when he was released from prison. Before he could launch his business, the state seized that money to pay for the cost of his incarceration. He was left to struggle without the money his mother had hoped would serve as a safety net for him upon his release.
Taking away critical lifelines like this makes rehabilitation and successful re-entry challenging. Research shows these liens may incentivize recidivism: individuals may return to crime in an attempt to make quick money to repay the crushing debt, or they may choose illegal activities in the hopes of obtaining assets that the state cannot see or access.
Research also suggests that those burdened by unaffordable debt have worse outcomes economically, physically, and emotionally. The effects are not limited to those returning from prison. Connecticut’s incarceration lien promotes intergenerational poverty, penalizing children who have already suffered economic and emotional hardship from having an incarcerated parent. These conseuqences of the lien strain increase community instability among the most vulnerable in Connecticut.
Connecticut’s incarceration lien also raises constitutional questions about its lack of notice and absence of due process. Documents from Connecticut trial courts describing the consequences of conviction never mention the incarceration lien. As a result, people are often unaware of Connecticut’s incarceration lien until they are notified that the state will be seizing their assets. Those who are aware of it, often rely on sparse and unreliable information obtained through informal networks. Without adequate notice surrounding the lien, they live in constant fear that the state will garner their wages or seize their home or property. They worry that the lien will last beyond their lifetime – creating a legacy of incarceration debt. And they make significant life decisions based on these fears.
Ultimately, this lien has strayed from its original purpose. When passed in 1995, proponents of the lien promised that it would help teach incarcerated individuals financial skills and responsibility The lien’s advocates equated it to paying an owed bill. This equation, however, ignores the economy of a modern prison. The incarcerated in Connecticut often work full time jobs paid a rate of $.75 to $1.75 a day and pay significantly more for goods than in the free world.
As a result, incarcerated individuals are already paying the costs of their incarceration through their undercompensated labor and the inflated costs imposed on them. They learn to budget and save in this economy. Upon release, the lien teaches them a new lesson, though not the one originally intended: that the state will impose unjust financial burdens even after a sentence is served. One man we spoke with echoed what others said when he wondered how the state expects him to move on with his life when he is being punished twice.
This lien does not benefit our state. The collections do not go into a victims’ fund and do not affect restitution. Instead, collected funds go into the Connecticut state general fund where they constitute approximately .003% of the state budget. While the benefit to the state is minute, the funds collected represent collections from thousands of people who rely on that money to survive and provide for their families.
This law must be repealed. And this is the time to do it: HB 5390, a bill repealing the costs of incarceration, has been voted out of the Judiciary Committee. We urge Connecticut lawmakers to raise this bill on the House and Senate floors. The injustice of the lien has gone on long enough. The incarceration lien targets the most vulnerable among us. It locks families into cycles of debt and poverty. It prevents successful re-entry into society.
Connecticut has the opportunity to be a leader in criminal justice reform by ending the practice of carceral debt in the 2022 session.
Mila Reed Guevara and Ryanne Bamieh are law students at Yale Law School working with the Arthur Liman Center for Public Interest Law. Jenny Carroll is the Director of the Arthur Liman Center and a Visiting Professor of Law at Yale Law School.