PHILADELPHIA TRIBUNE: Proposed restitution has penal advocates upset

Wednesday, July 8, 2015 

A controversial bill has prisons advocates and reformers outraged and ready for action. House Bill 1089 which would require incarcerated persons to pay restitution from any funds on their prison accounts or sent to them by friends, family members and loved ones has been reintroduced by state representative Todd Stephenson (R-Montgomery County).

“Very simply, if someone steals your TV, they should not be able to buy themselves a TV in prison before paying you for the TV they stole,” Stephens said. “This bill would put victims ahead of the criminals.”

Access to television and cable to those incarcerated seemed to be the area focused on by Stephens.

In Harrisburg, Stephens testified that prisoners in Graterford Correctional facility not only were able to buy televisions from the prison’s commissary, but that they also had other activities such as board games, volley ball, basketball and softball leagues and other forms of leisure to keep them occupied.

Stephen’s bill would require 25 percent of an inmate’s wages and up to 50 percent of money deposited into their accounts from outside sources to be subject to paying of restitution.

“It seems like there are an awful lot of activity for these inmates to participate in to keep them out of trouble that maybe we don’t need to have them buy the TV and then have them pay for cable instead of paying our victims restitution,” he said.

Prison advocates disagree with the measure.

Theresa Shoates is an organizer and prison activist whose father Russell “Maroon” Shoates is incarcerated. Shoates said she would like to address the issue with Stephenson himself.

“I don’t think that the representative gets it, they don’t think about the sacrifices that families make in order to maintain a sane prisoner,” Shoates said.

She stated that not only are families devastated by the initial incarceration of their loved one but that they also go on to suffer multiple sacrifices and hardships thereafter.

“We try with everything that we have to make sure that that prisoner is safe behind bars and therefore whatever money we have, whatever money it takes to make sure that that prisoner is ok, we give,” Shoates said.

She said such a bill punishes the family and loved ones who sacrifice to provide for the incarcerated as much as it would hurt the incarcerated.

Sarah Morris is a member of the group Decarcerate PA and also opposes the bill.

“I believe people are rightly outraged just as Decarcerate PA is outraged because the bill further financially exploits people in prison and their family members who are already exploited,” Morris said.

The friends, family members and loved ones of the incarcerated already face significant burdens paying phone bills, visiting and otherwise maintaining contacts with imprisoned loved ones.

This bill, if passed, would increase those burdens, according to Morris.