Detained Children Are Being Forced To Pay For Their Own Underwear And Toothpaste

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Children detained in adult jails must pay for many necessities, including underwear, toilet paper and feminine products.

Child inmates across the United States, along with their families, are increasingly bearing more of the cost of their incarceration, according to prison educator Jonna Mastropasqua — including for necessities like underwear and toothpaste.

In an op-ed for Newsweek, Mastropasqua offered the example of a 17-year-old girl who came into the prison classroom pulling her too-big smock and pants close to her body.

Mastropasqua said she knew right away that she needed to ask an uncomfortable question, particularly as every other student in the room was a boy. “‘Do you have underwear?’ I spoke low, trying not to let my voice carry to the rest of the unit,” she wrote.

The girl did not have underwear, nor did she have a bra — both of which the police had confiscated when she was arrested. Then Mastropasqua dropped an unsettling fact: “This county jail does not issue bras or underwear for free, not even to minors.”

And it is not only the Pima County in Arizona where inmates must go without items they need if they don’t have the funds to purchase from the prison commissary; this is happening all across the U.S., Mastropasqua said.

Though the issue is one that affects children and adults alike, more and more children are being swept up into the mix. Mastropasqua noted that the “U.S. charges 250,000 U.S. youth a year as adults,” adding that “their cases are processed in adult court and they often await adjudication in an adult jail.”

Teaching minors in an adult jail, where some of her students are as young as 14 years old, Mastropasqua is uniquely situated to observe the shortcomings of the system. These children “face all of the punitive aspects of incarceration, with little access to rehabilitative programs or to even relatively basic amenities at a reasonable cost,” she wrote.

Not all have families who can load up their commissary accounts with money, but even for those who can, much of the funds go toward lining the pockets of companies that service the prisons.

“Commissary items are paid for with money added to an inmate's account, but it typically costs $4 per transaction to do it. If a family member puts $40 on an inmate's books, the inmate gets to spend $36,” she wrote.

The commissary companies are doing well, however. Mastropasqua noted that most “bring in an estimated annual profit of $1.6 billion per year,” while inmates are paying “$1.25 for a ramen packet I can pick up at Walmart for $0.22,” $0.20 per minute for phone calls, and even “as much as $0.05 a minute to read eBooks that they don't own once they're done.”

Counties are increasingly less willing to cover such costs for inmates — even the children they send away to jail — often because they are cash-strapped themselves.

But by bringing in private, for-profit companies to fill in the gaps, American jails are forcing these children and their families to pay steep markups for items they need. And for children “who don't have families to pay up? They are left, literally, out in the cold.”

Mastropasqua acknowledged the important step California has taken to ban for-profit prisons in the state (a ban currently being challenged by the Trump administration), but she said that only begins to scratch the surface of the problem.

“As we consider much needed reforms to the criminal justice system along with ways to move from a punitive system toward a rehabilitative one, we must reevaluate the relationship between cash strapped states and the fiscal realities of mass incarceration,” the teacher concluded. “We must also consider the toll incarceration and disconnection from family and community has on recidivism and on already disadvantaged families and kids.”

Read the full op-ed.


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