‘No choice’: Ex-prisoners paying exorbitant debit card fees almost no one else pays

© Jason Reed
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is under pressure to protect a kind of debit card consumer it currently ignores: just-released prisoners. A debit card program that they have “no choice” but to use is charging them exorbitant fees.

Eighteen senators, led by Senator Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) wrote a letter to the CFRB demanding protections for ex-prisoners who are given a debit card upon release with their prison wages or family gifts on them. Checks or cash are out of the question, forcing the formerly jailed to deal with for-profit companies that they had never agreed to do business with.

“The letter by the 18 senators was actually preceded by comments we submitted to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau along with 68 other organizations that are concerned about these issues, and that was back in March,” Alex Friedmann, managing editor of Prison Legal News, told RT.

“[The jails] claim as a matter of convenience that they don’t have to deal with the check writing. They don’t have to provide [prisoners] with cash upon their release and by contracting with these companies, it doesn’t cost the corrections agency anything,” Friedmann said.

Friedmann explained that the corrections facilities don’t pay for the debit card program. Rather, the financial companies, which include JPay, Rapid Financial Security, Keefe Group, and Numi Financial, simply make money by charging fees to the card holders. He said 630,000 people get out of jail every year. JP Morgan is the sole contractor for such programs for federal prisons.

“These companies compete not by offering the best product to the people who use them, but by offering the biggest commission to [the agencies] that sign the contracts,” American Civil Liberties Union staff attorney Carl Takei said in an interview with Al Jazeera.

“The big issue here is the prisoners have no choice,” Friedmann told RT, continuing “In no other context that we can think of does that exist.”

One former prisoner, Gregg Cavaluzzi, described his experience to Al Jazeera.

“I called Chase and they said there’s an administrative fee and a fee every time you use it at an ATM,” he said. “There were fees for transferring the money to a bank and closing the account. There was even an inactivity fee if you didn’t use the card for 90 days. I left prison with $120. Because of the fees I was only able to use about $70 of it.”

An Al Jazeera survey revealed ATM withdrawal fees of nearly $3, balance inquiry fees of $1.50, weekly maintenance fees as costly as $2.50, and transfer or closing fees to the tune of $30.