Inmates leaving York County Prison to receive debit cards instead of checks

Lindsey O'Laughlin
York Dispatch

Inmates released from York County Prison may soon be given a debit card instead of a check to access whatever funds remain in their prison account upon release, a move that could save the county about $18,600 a year.

The York County Prison Board approved an agreement Wednesday, Aug. 14, to implement Secure Release, a program managed by Access Corrections, to provide preloaded debit cards to people leaving prison.

"The benefit to the person is that we can give them that card and they can use it right away," said Warden Clair Doll, as opposed to finding a bank to cash a check.

The change would free staff from having to reconcile inmate accounts and eliminate the costs of distributing paper checks, Doll said.

The time, labor and printing costs amount to about $7.75 for each check, said Tyler Chronister, deputy controller for the county.

And with about 200 inmates being released each month receiving checks, the costs add up to approximately $1,550 per month to distribute checks.

The debit cards would cost only 49 cents a piece, amounting to about $95 per month.

Costs to inmates: Once an inmate is released and given a debit card, the individual  would have the option to immediately withdraw some or all of the balance at an ATM at the prison. Or they could transfer their balance to another bank account for free.

The debit cards could also be used to pay directly for goods and services anywhere credit and debit cards are accepted.

Inmates would have 30 days from their release to either use or withdraw the funds from the card. After the 30 days, a weekly maintenance fee of $2.50 would be deducted from the balance.

If the released inmates choose to keep the balance on the card and use it to withdraw money periodically from ATMs, Secure Release will charge a $2.95 fee for each ATM transaction, and the cardholder would also have to pay any fee charged by the ATM provider.

The practice of issuing debit cards to released prisoners has drawn criticism from prison reform activism groups such as the Prison Policy Initiative and investigative reporters at the Center for Public Integrity, with reports claiming the associated card fees are exploitative and unfair.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania hasn't taken a position on the agreement at York County Prison.

Because the fees wouldn't accumulate while the inmates were incarcerated, and because the inmates would have the option of withdrawing all of their money as soon as they were released, there doesn't appear to be an issue with the Secure Release program, said ACLU spokesman Andy Hoover.

How it works: The funds on the cards would consist of any money the inmates had when they entered the prison, as well as employment income earned by working at the prison and money deposited by friends and family.

The system should be up and running by late fall if the county's Board of Commissioners approves the agreement at its next meeting, Doll said.

Common Pleas Judge Craig T. Trebilcock said the debit cards are a good idea but that a small number of inmates with extreme mental impairment, or foreign nationals who have a language barrier, would likely need help withdrawing their money from the ATM.

"The prison will just have to prepare to have somebody to maybe walk them to the machine and show them how to take out their cash," Trebilcock said.

The county is still negotiating the fee structure for the Fulton Bank ATMs that will be placed at the prison, Chronister said.

The next Board of Commissioners meeting is at 10 a.m. Wednesday, Aug. 21, at the York County Administrative Center.

More:Contraband concerns prompt York County Prison move to digital mail

More:ACLU accuses York County of trampling inmates' rights

More:ACLU: Tentative deal reached with York County over jail mail