Andrew Ross in the Boston Review:
The carceral system has become a vast debt machine. It creates a dizzying array of financial obligations for those unfortunate enough to be caught in its dragnet. The lowest hanging fruits are the traffic fines extracted from motorists who fall foul of a speed trap, carefully laid by officers assigned to do “revenue policing” to help fund law enforcement budgets. Judges are also under pressure from county and municipal managers to pass down ever higher fines and court fees to pay for salaries and other local government operations. For those too poor to pay, penalties and surcharges are added to the debt load every step of the way.
At the other end of the system, formerly incarcerated people typically re-enter society with large debt burdens on their backs, accumulated while serving their sentences. A recent NYU study showed that individuals have to pay more than $3,700 annually just to cover basic needs (food, clothing, phone calls) during a prison stay in New York’s prisons. The numbers are much higher in states where the cost of room and board are directly borne by detainees. Wherever for-profit companies are allowed to operate, these sums are further inflated.