Last week, justice was served when thousands of formerly incarcerated people prevailed in a case against banking giant JP Morgan Chase and Co. The bank will pay nearly a half million dollars to the plaintiffs to settle the federal class-action lawsuit. The 50,000 people who are eligible to split the settlement will each walk away with a paltry sum, but this is a big moral victory nonetheless.
JP Morgan—the same institution bailed out by taxpayers in 2008— won a government contract with the Federal Bureau of Prisons to provide federal parolees with prepaid, non-reloadable debit cards. The cards were intended to help the former prisoners access their earnings or the cash that family members deposited in their accounts.
Incarcerated workers in federal prisons earn 59 cents an hour. So, as you can imagine, most people do not walk out of prison with much money. But that didn’t stop JP Morgan from robbing them. Bloomberg reports that the bank charged “$10 fees to withdraw money from a teller window and $2 charges for using non-network ATMs.” One plaintiff reported leaving prison with $120 and only being able to access $70 after he paid the bank’s predatory fees. Because the Federal Bureau of Prisons does not offer checks or cash, the men and women leaving prison had no other way to access their money except with the debit cards.
The stigma, isolation and trauma associated with incarceration impact every aspect of life for someone who is reentering society. For JP Morgan, a bank responsible for the 2008 financial collapse on Wall Street, to engage in such predatory behavior is criminal. Monetizing reentry in this manner further dehumanizes formerly incarcerated people because it unfairly forces them to remain under a different, yet equally pernicious, form of supervised control and oppression. Doing so increases hardship and makes successful reentry much less likely.
Unfortunately, our prison system is designed with revolving doors. There are systems and policies in place that make it hard for the formerly incarcerated to stay out of prison. The JP Morgan debit card rip-off is only one example. When you put someone in a position where he or she cannot vote, get a job, enroll in college, apply for benefits or be eligible for public housing, society is providing individuals with few legal options for survival. The absence of opportunity to sustain oneself directly increases the likelihood that people will turn to illegal means of generating income in order to survive.
Race and socioeconomic status play a major role when it comes to the collateral consequences of a prison sentence, such as those created by JP Morgan’s debit card program. If you are White and wealthy, the collateral consequences are all but ignored and or eliminated. If you are poor and Black or brown, the collateral consequences are magnified and disproportionately harmful. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Of the good things in life, the Negro has approximately one half those of whites. Of the bad things of life, he has twice those of whites.”
We have to take the profit out of prisons and instead invest in programs that help formerly incarcerated people. While Wall Street predators such as JP Morgan won’t benefit from such programs, taxpayers will save money in the long run and communities will be stronger and safer. Isn’t it time to reform the prison system so that it works to rehabilitate rather than continue to funnel funds to greedy profiteers? Let’s invest in expanding opportunities in our communities, not expanding prisons.
Ronald Simpson-Bey is Alumni Associate with Just Leadership USA