In Illinois, the prison authorities use a combination of mandatory financial disclosures and intelligence gleaned from opening prisoners' mail and sue anyone who might have any money for rent on their cells and the cost of their prison food.
What kind of prisoners have money? There's the guy who won $50,000 from the Illinois prisons after they failed to treat his cancer (Illinois sued him for $175K). There's the guy who did a 20 year stretch and earned $75/month for his prison job, and was sued for all $11,000 (and $439,000 more besides) for the cost of locking him up for two decades. The guy who was sued for all the money he got from the wrongful death settlement for his mom, who died while he was inside, and who ended up in a homeless shelter on his release.
Illinois is just getting started. This is a popular policy and they're increasing their use of it.
In the end, the money is hardly a rounding error in the Department of Corrections' $1.5 billion annual budget, and may not cover the litigation and other costs for the attorney general's office, which files the lawsuits. But for the inmates, the money can mean everything.
"If you don't have a way to support yourself, you go to the underground economy. That's criminal, and you go back to prison," said Alan Mills, executive director of the Uptown People's Law Center, which provides legal assistance to inmates. "That's horrible public policy."
Ann Spillane, chief of staff for Attorney General Lisa Madigan, said the office accepts referrals from the corrections department and weighs whether the case is worth pursuing. It tries to balance the needs of inmates with the amount of money the department is seeking and is willing to work with inmates to reach settlements, although parolees interviewed by the Tribune said they were unaware they could negotiate the amount owed downward.
State sues prisoners to pay for their room, board
[Steve Mills and Todd Lighty/Chicago Tribune] [Only viewable with Noscript]