This editorial was first published in the Nevada Current

The Nevada Department of Corrections is garnishing as much as 80 percent of some inmate accounts funds, and Nevada families are paying the price.

While more and more incarcerated individuals are trying to avoid chow halls because of the pandemic, many families are trying to keep their loved ones safe in an environment ripe for the spread of COVID-19 by sending extra money for commissary items.

But with NDOC taking up to 80 percent of account funds, families would need to send just under $15 to buy a 4- ounce can of tuna for someone affected by this garnishment policy.

In April of this year, right before my birthday, my only uncle went to prison, likely for life. I remember playing basketball with him on our front yard basketball hoop. At 6 feet, 7 inches, he towered over my younger brother and I and would block all our shots without having to move.

Now that he’s in prison, I believe I’ll never see him again with COVID-19 ravaging prison communities across the country. Thinking of my uncle is just one reason why hearing of inmate trust accounts being garnished up to 80 percent makes me so furious.

For an individual who is unable to work while they are incarcerated, like my uncle, all of the money in their trust account would come from the pockets of their family and friends. Families just want to provide essential items for their loved ones, but based on our estimates, families will have to put much more money on the books to secure them. As much as:

  • $23 for 7 ounces of diced ham
  • $18 for 20 ounces of strawberry or grape jelly
  • $39 for denture grip paste
  • $18 for four rolls of toils paper
  • $92 for three pairs of cotton boxer briefs

The reason for raiding 80 cents on the dollar from trust accounts? A misleading law approved by voters in 2018 known as “Marsy’s Law.” The ACLU of Nevada and other defenders of the paramount constitutional rights of the accused fought to prevent Marsy’s Law from reaching the ballot, but the billionaire-backed initiative ultimately passed.

Not only does this misleading law fail to actually protect victims of crime, it is also vague and convoluted. The Department of Corrections’ conclusion that they must raid trust accounts at this high level demonstrates how vague the law really is. Marsy’s Law states that a victim is entitled to “full and timely restitution.” But even the proponents of Marsy’s Law made it clear in legislative testimony that if a person lacks the ability to pay, they cannot be forced to do so.

It is wholly unreasonable to conclude that the NDOC can raid almost all of an incarcerated person’s books without an individualized determination of ability to pay.

The ACLU of Nevada is hearing from affected families and individuals throughout the state, and we’re going to keep fighting for fairness and justice.

There must be clear guidelines regarding the determination of an incarcerated individual’s ability to pay. If legislation is required to put a cap on deductions or to ensure there is a public process for determining deduction levels, then the Legislature needs to act with urgency in the upcoming session.