Johnny Melton was convicted on a drug charge and subsequently served 15 months in prison for his crime. Prior to being released, he was sued by the Illinois Department of Corrections to recover the cost of his incarceration. The State won the suit and collected some $20,000 from the $31,690 Milton had received from a lawsuit settlement involving the death of his mother.
With the State’s successful suit, instead of having sufficient funds to make a secure start on the outside after he was paroled early in 2015, Melton was faced with financial distress: he was immediately rendered homeless and started receiving food stamps.
In June, 2015, Melton died in a totally destitute condition. The Chicago Tribune reported that Denise Melton, a sister, said that the family had to “scuffle up money to cremate him.”
The Melton case is one of a small but growing number of such cases. According to the N.Y. University Law School’s Brennan Center for Justice, in addition to Illinois, at least 42 other states have laws that permit the state to collect what is commonly called “room-and-board” fees from prisoners. In addition to this cost, some states may charge inmates for medical services. The “pay-to-stay” concept is reportedly designed to reduce the prison system’s large financial burden on taxpayers.
“The problem with all of this is that we’re supporting the justice system by charging the poorest members of our society. That’s just not a cost-efficient way [to operate the system], and some would argue it’s not a moral way,” so stated Lauren-Brooke Eisen, a Brennan Center researcher. “How much is it costing to do this? There are clerks and lawyers and judges involved in all this. It doesn’t seem cost-efficient,” she redundantly declared.