PJ Longoni has shelled out hundreds of dollars to pay for toiletries, a television and legal fees for family and friends locked up in Arizona prisons. When she learned she'd have to pay a one-time $25 background check fee to visit her son, she was angry.
Under a new state law, some adults who want to visit incarcerated inmates must pay the fee, with the money raised going toward maintaining 10 state-run prisons.
"For me, it is not the $25 fee that is an issue," she said. "It is when it is combined with the other costs of caring for an inmate, then it becomes a burden to me."
A prison reform group sued the corrections department, saying the fee was arbitrary, unconstitutional and amounted to a tax on an already vulnerable segment of residents. Corrections officials say the fees will ensure inmates are safe.
Since the law went into effect July 20, there has been confusion, with potential visitors wondering whether they would have to pay and why a fee for a background check would go toward building repairs. Some worried that the fee would reduce the number of visitors, essentially eliminating the kinds of family contact with prisoners that could improve the chances for rehabilitation.
Plaintiff Donna Hamm said families are already under budget constraints and must pay for multiple members and travel to sometimes remote prisons to reach inmates.
"So in essence, if this policy results in delaying or diminishing or eliminating prison visitation for anyone, the state is shooting themselves in the foot in terms of rehabilitation," Hamm said. "That's a very short-sighted view of public safety policy."
The Tempe, Ariz.-based Middle Ground Prison Reform filed the lawsuit last month seeking to have the fee declared a tax and any money paid so far returned to visitors.
Arizona Department of Corrections Director Charles Ryan denied allegations that the fee actually is a tax on vulnerable groups and unconstitutional, according to court documents.
Hamm said her group could not find any law similar to Arizona's in other states. The National Conference of State Legislatures and the Association of State Correctional Administrators do not track that data, the groups said.
It's too early to tell whether the fee is having an impact on visitation, said Hamm and Barrett Marson, a spokesman for the state Department of Corrections.
Processing an application and the fee can take up to 60 days, and the $25 is non-refundable. Marson said about 30,000 people apply to visit state prison inmates each year. Visitors can be on one list to see an inmate only unless they have immediate family members who are incarcerated and also want to see them.
But charging a $25 one-time fee per visitor for background checks wouldn't necessarily mean the state would generate $750,000 because the law provides some exceptions.
People who were approved for visitation prior to the law's enactment are grandfathered in. Children under 18, inmates' foster parents and those who want only for phone privileges are exempt. The original proposal in the state legislature called for everyone to pay.
The corrections department collects the fees for each of the 15 state prisons, but the money goes only toward repairs at the 10 run by the state. The five privately run facilities will not get any of the money, officials said.
Jerry Kester of Aberdeen, Wash., was uncertain about what the new law meant for him. He and his wife are planning a trip to the Florence prison next summer so that their grandchildren they are raising can visit their father, who is jailed on drug charges.
Though it appears he won't have to pay for the background checks because he was approved for visitation before July 20, the fee still irks him.
"The state has merely found a way to push their administrative costs onto me due to their lack of budget control," he said. "What about my own budget? I, too, am a victim of my son's lack of good sense."
Republican state Rep. John Kavanagh sees it differently. Charging user fees is not unconstitutional, and visitors shouldn't hold the state's previous generosity against it, said Kavanagh, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
"The bottom line is the state has been in the middle of a budget crisis for the past two years, and we've been looking everywhere to find money," he said. "This was an area whose time has come. It's a minimal amount, it's a once-in-a-lifetime amount, and it was unavoidable."
If the fee stops someone from seeing their child or spouse, "you have to question the depth of that relationship in the first place," he said.
The $25 fee is in line with what the state Department of Public Safety charges for background checks for state employees or volunteers, which include fingerprinting. The corrections check does not.
Volunteers for state agencies are charged $20 for criminal background checks, while those on the payroll of state agencies are charged $24, DPS spokesman Officer Carrick Cook said.
People who want to work in the private sector in child care or security, for example, pay $65 as a volunteer and $69 as a paid employee for fingerprint clearance cards, Cook said.
Longoni said her tax dollars already support state government.
She's been trying to come up with money to help pay for stamps for her son she has reconnected with after giving him up for adoption earlier in life. He also wants her to visit him in Yuma, a nearly three-hour drive from Phoenix, a trip she believes will help boost his morale.
"We shouldn't have to pay for helping them," she said. "And we're taxpayers, too, so we have all these additional costs and taxes that are supposed to help with the prison system. We're getting taxed, (and) we're getting penalized."
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