Some Michigan prisoners who planned to spend their stimulus checks on things like personal hygiene items and phone calls are learning that the state is trying to seize most of their money.

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State law allows the Attorney General’s office to go after 90% of a prisoner’s assets as reimbursement for the “cost of care,” such as housing, medical and other living expenses within the Michigan Department of Corrections. Stimulus funds have triggered the Attorney General’s office to take action against about 50 prisoners, a spokeswoman said in late March. The process starts with a complaint filed in circuit court to freeze a prisoner’s assets, followed by proceedings in front of a judge. 

Some prisoners and attorneys say it’s counterproductive and a waste of resources for the state to try to seize money for the cost of incarceration from people with relatively minimal assets from stimulus checks and prison wages. Incarcerated people said they have seen the state take money from prisoners before, but only from those with pensions or real estate. One man on parole said he resorted to panhandling after the state asked a court to freeze his money, most of which was left to him by his mother who died while he was in prison.



a man standing next to a fence: Michael Ware of Ann Arbor in downtown Ann Arbor, Friday, April 2, 2021.


© Junfu Han, Detroit Free Press
Michael Ware of Ann Arbor in downtown Ann Arbor, Friday, April 2, 2021.

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Phil Brown said he had about $1,800 in his MDOC account — money from stimulus checks, wages from earning $1.20 a day as a janitor in prison, and deposits from loved ones — when the state moved to freeze his funds in February. The 42-year-old, who is housed at Muskegon Correctional Facility, said he had no other assets. 

“The amount of money that they’re going after in my case is like peanuts,” said Brown, who added: “It’s not like I’m holding money in the Cayman Islands.”

In an email, Courtney Covington Watkins, a spokeswoman for the Attorney General’s office, said “like any collection action or any other enforcement matter brought by the office, there are always individual circumstances that are considered in pursuing the case and reaching a resolution.” 

But attorney Kristina Dunne said she thinks the state is taking action indiscriminately. One of her clients fighting the state’s attempt to seize his money works two jobs in prison and earns less than $1,000 a year, she said. Beyond paying for needs like toiletries, Dunne said stimulus funds could benefit prisoners’ families — who often shoulder the costs of a loved one’s incarceration — or go toward someone’s eventual return home.

“That money will give them money to put a down payment on an apartment or help their families,” she said. 

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In 2020, the Attorney General’s office initiated 95 cases under the State Correctional Facility Reimbursement Act. The state collected $2.1 million last year, though that total may include cases filed prior to 2020. Money recouped under the law is credited to the state’s general fund. 

A prisoner’s home with a value of up to $50,000 and wages earned in prison are not considered assets under the law. 

Last fall, a class-action lawsuit won prisoners the right to stimulus checks from the Internal Revenue Service.

Funds issued to prisoners under the first and third round of stimulus payments — from the CARES Act and the American Rescue Plan Act — are subject to collection. The state Attorney General’s office said funds issued to prisoners under the second round of payments, from the Consolidated Appropriations Act, are not being sought. Those checks were protected from debt collection by states and prisons.

Under MDOC policy, prison officials notify the Attorney General’s office when a prisoner has assets of $1,500 or more or is receiving regular deposits in large amounts. Chris Gautz, an MDOC spokesman, said the Attorney General’s office has asked the department to send scanned copies of all stimulus checks that prisoners receive. 

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Separate from the cost of their incarceration, people in prison are used to seeing 50% of deposits of more than $50 per month collected from their accounts if they owe restitution, court fines, fees or child support.

Michael Hills, 33, said he expected to hold onto all of his stimulus payments because he doesn’t owe restitution, fines or court costs. But he learned in March that the Attorney General’s office, representing the state treasurer, was trying to seize his assets. A circuit court judge will decide if he should pay the state for the cost of his incarceration. 

Hills has $2,662 in his prison account, and all but $1,000 of that was frozen. He earns an average of $79 of month from his jobs training dogs to guide the blind and doing yard maintenance at Oaks Correctional Facility in Manistee. He said people “don’t understand how much it actually costs to live in prison,” estimating that he spends between $60 and $80 a month on postage, phone calls, emails, food from commissary and toiletries.  

“Everything in here cost us money to be able to survive,” Hills said. “The MDOC doesn’t supply us with everything that we need. It took a pandemic for them to pass out soap and it’s still like pulling teeth from a crocodile to try to get soap.”

Dunne, who represents Hills, said she hopes to convince a judge to throw out the state’s complaint against him. She argued in court filings that under the law, the Attorney General may only seek reimbursement if the prisoner has enough assets to cover either 10% of their estimated cost of care or 10% of their care for two years, whichever is less. Hills’ assets are “far less” than that, she wrote. 

It cost an average of $42,123 to incarcerate a single person in the 2020 fiscal year, according to the House Fiscal Agency

“I think they’re hoping that people will just roll over,” Dunne said. 

Inheritance triggers state action

People on parole can also be on the hook for the cost of their incarceration. 

Michael Ware, 50, was able to cash two stimulus checks after he was released from prison in December, but the rest of his money is tied up in court while the state tries to seize 90% of his assets to pay for his care by MDOC. 

Ware has about $14,000 in an unclaimed property account with the state Department of Treasury that he tried to access when he left prison. He inherited most of the money from his mother, who knew he would have a hard time with housing after prison and left him funds to get on his feet, he said. A judge ordered his assets frozen in early March.

Unable to pull from his savings, Ware said he resorted to panhandling in Ann Arbor, making about $50 a day while he looked for a job. He said he wished the state had given him a chance to set up a payment arrangement of some sort before moving to freeze and take his money. 

“They know that a parolee goes through a lot trying to get his life back together. There’s a lot of rejection he has to go through,” said Ware, who is also being represented by Dunne. “All this is supposed to be designed to help us get back on our feet and have the right start, but it seems like it’s doing everything to stop that.”

Ware was homeless for several days in early April after he was kicked out of his MDOC-funded transitional housing. Ware had used his stimulus payments to buy a used car in anticipation of starting training at a truck driving school. He said when he told his parole agent about the purchase, his agent said he was supposed to save money for a permanent place to live. 

Brianna Brugel, an MDOC spokeswoman, initially told the Free Press that Ware was removed from the home because his vehicle purchase had violated his housing agreement that prohibited him from purchasing a vehicle. 

Brugel later said that there had been a “misunderstanding” about Ware’s housing agreement and that the department had discovered he was not prohibited from buying a car. Ware was allowed to return to the transitional home after the Free Press inquired about his situation. 

Sandra Girard, a retired attorney who ran Prison Legal Services, a nonprofit that operated inside some Michigan prisons and employed prisoners as paralegals, said the law that allows for reimbursement of incarceration is “draconian.”

“Very rarely an extremely wealthy person has been incarcerated,” she said. “It might make a little bit of sense then, but when people have these modest incomes or estates that they inherit, it’s just cruel.”

Angie Jackson covers the challenges of formerly incarcerated citizens as a corps member with Report for America. Her work is supported by The GroundTruth Project and the Hudson-Webber Foundation. Click here to make a tax-deductible contribution to support her work.

Contact Angie: ajackson@freepress.com; 313-222-1850. Follow her on Twitter: @AngieJackson23

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Why Michigan is trying to take some prisoners’ stimulus checks

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