Children Detained in America's Prisons are Charged for Underwear, Food, Books, Even Family Visits. This Has to Stop | Opinion

I teach minors who are incarcerated in the adult jail in Pima County, Arizona.

A few weeks ago, a 17-year-old-girl arrived. As introduced myself, I noticed that she did not seem comfortable in her fluorescent green smock and pants. Though they were probably two sizes too big for her, she seemed to be holding them close to her small frame. She's not the first female student we've had, so I knew I had to ask an uncomfortable question: "Do you have underwear?" I spoke low, trying not to let my voice carry to the rest of the unit; its current occupants: 37 teenage boys.

"No," she whispered, "I don't have a bra, either." The police took it when she was arrested because it had an underwire. It and her underwear went into storage with the rest of her property. This county jail does not issue bras or underwear for free, not even to minors.

Assuming someone would put money on her account, she'd be able to order both—underwear cost $3.25 a pair and a bra costs $13.50. Once the money was credited to her account, it would take three to five days to order them and another four to get them.

Luckily for her, I found a sports bra and some too-big underwear in a pile of items I had in my office, but this no solution for the minors who have to pay for items like bras, socks and even for video visits with their friends or families. A single 25 minute visit costs $7.50 or $16.50 for 55 minutes.

States like California passed a ban for-profit, private prison and detention centers to reduce the amount of money private companies make from housing prisoners. Yet, child (and adult) inmates across the country are, along with their families, bearing more and more of the costs of incarceration—even when it comes to bare necessities like toilet paper or feminine hygiene supplies.

The U.S. charges 250,000 U.S. youth a year as adults. Their cases are processed in adult court and they often await adjudication in an adult jail. Juvenile offenders charged as adults in Pima County are held in a separate housing unit from the adults, but they are still held in adult jail and treated like adults in almost all respects. Which cases are transferred out of the juvenile system for which charges varies by jurisdiction. Often it's based on a determination made by a prosecutor coupled with the type of charge (typically higher classes of felonies, though not always.)

I'm a high school teacher, certified to teach anywhere in Arizona, but I teach minors in an adult jail. Some of my students are as young as 14. Some are held on bonds as low as $500 and most are here for crimes that will result in probation rather than prison. Some have been granted release by a judge or a probation officer, but can't leave because they don't have an approved place to go.

These kids bear the financial and psychological costs of jail. Not yet convicted, though likely already traumatized, they face all of the punitive aspects of incarceration, with little access to rehabilitative programs or to even relatively basic amenities at a reasonable cost.

For the families of kids in jail the monetary costs add up fast. The psychological ones may last a lifetime. Imagine what happens to a kid—maybe your kid—for whom the cost of communication with family or other support is prohibitively expensive?

My students and their families pay for commissary—food and hygiene items above and beyond the extremely limited allotments the jail provides. They get hot trays for lunch, instead of the single sandwich, milk and fruit the adults usually get. But being teenagers, they are still hungry all the time.

Commissary items are paid for with money added to an inmate's account, but it typically costs $4 per transaction to do it. If a family member puts $40 on an inmate's books, the inmate gets to spend $36. Commissary also includes things like sweatshirts ($12.99) or socks ($2.75/pair) or boxers ($4.25/pair)—for the times when it is cold in the housing unit (and it often is.)

Commissary companies alone bring in an estimated annual profit of $1.6 billion per year.

The list of things that are considered optional, including clothes thick enough to stay warm, is long. The prices inflated. A litany that includes a single "soup" ($1.25 for a ramen packet I can pick up at Walmart for $0.22), phone time (a pre-paid account at about $0.20/minute, if you don't include the fees paid to load money on the account). In some places, inmates pay as much as $0.05 a minute to read eBooks that they don't own once they're done! The company that provides inmate tablets—and reaps the profits from their use—is GTL. A nationwide telecom service.

Occasionally, we'll have a student or two who has people on the outside who will put a lot of money on their books so they can buy what they need. Mostly, though, these kids get sporadic support, and it usually comes in small amounts. These kids, on the whole, don't come from affluent backgrounds and they are used to going without—it has been the story of their entire lives.

Our school is inside one of the best publicly run facilities in the country. It's clean, staffed by the finest law enforcement officers in all the land and run by a sheriff supportive of our program and our kids. We have the backing of an outstanding county School Superintendent—he even comes to play basketball with them once a month. Our jail and our school are, outside of pre-trial release or dropped charges, the best case scenario for a minor charged as an adult.

My county, like many around the country, is cash strapped. Voters, politicians and taxpayers are reluctant to pay the astronomical costs of incarceration—according to a recent report totaling upward of $182 billion a year in the U.S. Faced with lean budgets, counties turn to private enterprise to subsidize these costs. Private enterprise is happy to help—eager to provide inmates with items counties can't (or choose not to) afford. It sounds like a win-win.

The problem is this: private companies provide things inmates need at an often steep mark-up and already struggling families are left to foot the bill. Kids in my class who don't have families to pay up? They are left, literally, out in the cold.

As the Trump administration sues to prevent California from enacting a bill that ends the use of private prisons and detention centers in the state, let us consider the idea that California is taking an important first step toward the crucial goal of ending private prisons, but private prisons are not the only problem.

In Arizona and many other states, the next step would be to reconsider the profit margins allowed private companies who provide goods and services to inmates in public facilities as well as the gaping holes in funding these counties are trying to fill while still providing clean, safe and secure detention of inmates.

As we consider much needed reforms to the criminal justice system along with ways to move from a punitive system toward a rehabilitative one, we must reevaluate the relationship between cash strapped states and the fiscal realities of mass incarceration. We must also consider the toll incarceration and disconnection from family and community has on recidivism and on already disadvantaged families and kids.

Jonna Mastropasqua is a Secondary Teacher in Arizona and a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​

Editor's Picks

Newsweek cover
  • Newsweek magazine delivered to your door
  • Unlimited access to
  • Ad free experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts
Newsweek cover
  • Unlimited access to
  • Ad free experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts