In Michigan, A Prisoner Forced to Pay for His Own Incarceration

An image of a prison window
"From Jail to Prison" by cogdogblog is licensed under CC BY 2.0 (via Wikimedia Commons)

In the state of Michigan, Curtis Dawkins, prisoner and recent book author, could be forced to pay his dues of incarceration from the money received from his literary work.

Dawkins has been incarcerated for almost 12 years for murdering a man and has been writing a collection of short stories to pass the time. Before Dawkins was incarcerated, he was a writer earning his Master of Fine Arts degree. Most of the short stories in Dawkins’ The Graybar Hotel tell the life story of a prisoner, narrated in first person. The Graybar Hotel caught the attention of one of the top literary publishers in the United States, and offered Dawkins $150,000 to publish the collection of short stories.

But the offer has raised some serious questions. Some wonder if it is acceptable to support a person who was once involved in such an evil crime. Should inmates be allowed to receive money from stories about their prison life, which is a place intended for punishment?

However, Mr. Dawkins has described in his book’s acknowledgements the amount of guilt and sorrow he has lived with after the murder. Should remorse and accountability be taken into consideration when prisoners are offered a profit for their work related to life in prison?

The surprising literary sensation also caught the attention of Michigan’s attorney general, who seeks to have Dawkins use his financial winnings to pay for his incarceration . According to the state of Michigan, Dawkins’ cost of imprisonment since 2005 is over $372,000. Michigan is one of 43 states that can force inmates to pay for their room and board. In Arizona, friends and family may even be charged upwards of $25 to visit. However, the majority of prison inmates are impoverished, so acquiring a substantial amount of money from room and board is abnormal. Prisons have often sought money from inmates through prison work programs, inheritance, or legal settlements. However, these modes of income are typically not enough to alleviate the prisoners’ accruing debt.

Conversely, if states are receiving a minimal amount of money from imprisonment fees, should states even be charging inmates? Some argue that society should bear the collective cost of feeding, housing, and providing medical attention to inmates. Incarcerated individuals are deprived of their liberties from the state, therefore it is unjust to make them pay for the multitude of services as well as their stay. According to Lauren-Brooke Eisen, senior counsel in the Brennan Center justice program, “you’re not only going to be deprived of your liberty, you’re then going to have to pay for the separation from society, that raises cruel and unusual punishment issues.” Another notable reason not to charge inmates is the burden it places on the families. In most cases, the inmates’ families end up paying off the fees, which makes it difficult for a family that has lost an income with a family member in prison.

In spite of these issues, both lawmakers and taxpayers support charges for incarceration. One of the leading arguments for inmate fees is the potential to offset the rapid growth of the incarceration budget. Some states have noted that the budget is far greater than the collected jail fees can cover. Lastly, some might even think that making inmates pay for their stay “teaches them a lesson” and promotes discipline.

Furthermore, Lauren-Brooke Eisen states that charging inmates may violate the Eighth Amendment. For years now, inmates have challenged prison fees, arguing that these practices violate the cruel excessive fines clause stated in the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits the federal government from imposing excessive bail, excessive fines or cruel or unusual punishment. However, advocates that oppose the fees are neglecting a significant piece of information: the reasoning behind some of the charges. There may be instances where inmates’ fees may seem unreasonable to their crime, which could be considered a violation of the Eighth Amendment. However, in most circumstances, the fine is proportional to the committed crime.

On the contrary, if an official’s mindset is to “teach the inmate a lesson,” this could be seen as punitive, which is a violation of the Eighth Amendment. In all, it is overly demanding of the inmate to be charged additional fees if the inmate has already been deprived of liberty and separation from society.

Given that so many prisoners are impoverished, charging inmates for housing, feeding, and provided medical attention is essentially a lose-lose situation. Poor inmates will become burdened with debt while incarcerated, and the states will typically not raise enough money by charging inmates for their own incarceration. Perhaps inmate fees may not be the most ideal approach to accumulate funds to maintain detention services.