Amicus Brief: In prison, a $15 fine means so much more

by Sarah Staudt, January 31, 2024

Last week, the Prison Policy Initiative filed an Amicus Curae brief in a suit filed by Rights Behind Bars, who are representing Demmerick Brown, a man incarcerated in Virginia’s Red Onion State Prison.1 In August of 2020, Mr. Brown went to the prison barbershop to get a haircut and a shave. It was the height of the pandemic, and Mr. Brown was wearing a protective mask as required. Naturally, the barber asked him to remove his mask so he could shave his face. There were guards around; none of them said anything. But the next day, he received a disciplinary ticket fining him $15 for failing to wear a mask.

This truly Kafka-esque series of events led Mr. Brown to ask for a hearing to dispute the fine. When he was denied, he sued. But the District Court found that he wasn’t entitled to a hearing. The prison could take his money without ever having to justify themselves. The court said that this was because $15 was too small an amount of money to trigger constitutional protections.

What the court failed to understand is that $15, while just being the cost of a sandwich outside prison walls, represents dozens or hundreds of hours of labor inside, and people rely on the money they make behind bars to fill their basic needs and contact their families. In our brief, we drew on our years of work studying the economics of life behind bars to help the fourth circuit understand that $15 inside doesn’t mean the same thing as $15 does on the outside. In our brief, we show that:

  • In Virginia, the minimum wage in prison is $0.27 an hour, which means it takes 33 hours of work to earn $15. A person earning Virginia minimum wage outside of prison who worked 33 hours would earn $396. In other Fourth Circuit states, the wages are even lower: In North Carolina, $15 inside is the equivalent of 375 hours worked – on the outside, that would be $2,719.
  • Taking away money from someone’s account inside means taking away their ability to pay for the basic things they need to live with dignity. In Virginia, as in prisons around the country, incarcerated people rely on commissary to supplement their diets because prison diets don’t provide the necessary calories and nutrients people need, and to buy hygiene items. $15 represents multiple weeks’ worth of soap, deodorant, and other essentials. Losing $15 could also stop people from seeking health care: it represents 3 or more visits to the doctor in states that charge medical co-pays.
  • $15 represents hours of communication with loved ones, since almost all incarcerated people must pay in order to communicate with their loved ones on the outside. High communication costs put immense pressure on incarcerated people and their families to save every penny possible to put towards paying for the basic human right of communicating with the people that they love. This makes the money charged in arbitrary disciplinary fines and fees uniquely valuable for incarcerated people.

We hope that the Fourth Circuit will make the right decision in this case to give due process rights to incarcerated people when their money is taken away from them. It is one important step in recognizing the lived experiences of people behind bars, and their constitutional rights.

Footnotes

  1. The Prison Policy Initiative is grateful to Covington and Burling LLP, who assisted us with drafting and filing the amicus brief.  ↩

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