Proposed Bureau of Prisons rule would make federal inmates pay restitution first A proposed Bureau of Prisons rule would put the majority of money sent to an incarcerated person from outside toward restitution or other fines.

Federal prisons want inmates to pay victims, before making phone calls or buying shoes

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The Federal Bureau of Prisons is considering sweeping changes to the way people in prison can be given spending money. The idea is to make sure wealthy prisoners aren't using these funds as a way to hide large sums, so a cut would need to go to court fees or victims before the inmate would have access to it. For those with very little money, it comes at a cost. NPR's Tilda Wilson has the story.

TILDA WILSON, BYLINE: Renee Hoolan's son has been in federal prison for the last six years.

RENEE HOOLAN: I've always sent him money. You know, they buy their toiletries and things like that from the commissary.

WILSON: It's been hard having a son in prison, but she wants to stay close to him, so she helps him out.

HOOLAN: I usually send him $75 a month. Sometimes his brother will send some, and occasionally, his father will. But that's all he gets.

WILSON: Her son, Bailey Sanders, can use that $75 for things like over-the-counter medications, shoes for his job and minutes on the phone or with the email system. But under a new rule the Bureau of Prisons has proposed, three quarters of the money that's sent from outside prison would go to pay restitution and fines, meaning that Sanders would only be able to access $19 out of the 75 his mom sends him each month.

BAILEY SANDERS: My mother is all that I have, and she can only do so much. You know, I'm 38 years old, and I hate that I have to ask for financial support. But, you know, the bottom line is I don't feel that it's her responsibility to pay my restitution.

WILSON: Sagan Soto-Stanton helps to support her husband while he's in prison. He's been incarcerated for the last 10 years for a nonviolent drug crime, and he still has $9,000 worth of court fees to pay off. Seeing the proposed rule was difficult for her.

SAGAN SOTO-STANTON: It's already an impact to families like myself that are supporting their loved ones. But then to do something like this, it's only making it more challenging.

WILSON: The bureau is considering the change after a Washington Post investigation looked into the prison accounts of high-profile people like R. Kelly. The Post found that some wealthy inmates were keeping large sums of money in their commissary accounts rather than paying restitution to their victims. Legislators from both parties were outraged. Here's Republican Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa at a hearing on Capitol Hill last September.

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CHUCK GRASSLEY: Inmates such as the Boston bomber Larry Nassar have thousands of dollars to spend on cigarettes and candy that's stationed at the Bureau of Prisons.

WILSON: But lawyers and advocates for people in prison say this proposed rule would have dire consequences for most inmates, who aren't as well off.

SHANNA RIFKIN: This proposal - it's really like a sledgehammer when you could bring a tool that was much smaller to address the problem.

WILSON: Shanna Rifkin is deputy general counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, which is an organization for prison reform. She agrees that the Bureau of Prisons should not let wealthy people like R. Kelly avoid restitution, but she also thinks the proposed rule is too broad.

RIFKIN: It targets everyone for the sake of a few bad actors.

WILSON: Other advocates argue this is a problem the courts should address by setting payment plans individually without involving the prison system at all. And even advocates for people who are owed restitution are wary. Bridgette Stumpf works as executive director at the nonprofit Network for Victim Recovery of D.C.

BRIDGETTE STUMPF: Will it ultimately potentially get victims more restitution more quickly? Sure. Is it worth evaluating the consequences and the balance of that from an overarching systemic issue? I think so.

WILSON: The Bureau of Prisons declined NPR's request for an interview. In a statement, a spokesperson said that commissary accounts are a privilege and that the bureau remains committed to assisting inmates in paying their financial obligations. There is no official deadline for when a decision on the rule will be made. Tilda Wilson, NPR News, Washington.

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