Skip to main content Accessibility help

Taxing the Poor: Incarceration, Poverty Governance, and the Seizure of Family Resources

  • Mary Fainsod Katzenstein and Maureen R. Waller

In the last decades, the American state has radically enlarged the array of policy instruments utilized in today’s governance of the poor. Most recently, through a process of outright “seizure,” the state now exacts revenue from low-income families, partners, and friends of those individuals who in very large numbers cycle in and out of the nation’s courts, jails, and prisons. In an analysis of legislation, judicial cases, policy regulations, blog, chat-line postings, and survey data, we explore this new form of taxation. In doing so, we endeavor to meet two objectives: The first is to document policies which pressure individuals (mostly men) entangled in the court and prison systems to rely on family members and others (mostly women) who serve as the safety net of last resort. Our second objective is to give voice to an argument not yet well explored in the sizeable incarceration literature: that the government is seizing resources from low-income families to help finance the state’s own coffers, including the institutions of the carceral state itself. Until now, no form of poverty governance has been depicted as so baldly drawing on family financial support under the pressure of punishment to extract cash resources from the poor. This practice of seizure constitutes the very inversion of welfare for the poor. Instead of serving as a source of support and protection for poor families, the state saps resources from indigent families of loved ones in the criminal justice system in order to fund the state’s project of poverty governance.

Hide All
ACLU and Columbia Legal Services. 2014. “Modern-Day Debtors’ Prisons: The Way Court-Imposed Debts Punish People for Being Poor.” Seattle,WA., accessed March 30, 2014.
ACLU. 2010. “‘In for a Penny: The Rise of America’s New Debtors’ Prisons.” NY: NY. October.
Balko, Radley. 2014. “How Municipalities in St. Louis County, Mo., Profit from Poverty.” Washington Post, September 3., accessed September 9, 2014.
Bannon, Alicia, Nagrecha, Mitali, and Diller, Rebekah. 2010. Criminal Justice Debt: A Barrier to Reentry. New York: Brennan Center for Justice.
Beckett, Katherine, and Harris, Alexes. 2011. “On Cash and Conviction: Money Sanctions as Misguided Policy.” Criminology & Public Policy 10(3): 509–39.
Beckett, Katherine, and Herbert, Steve. 2010. Banished: The New Social Control in Urban America. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Boggess, Jacquelyn, Price, Anne, and Rodriguez, Nino. 2014. “What We Want to Give Our Kids: How Child Support Debt Can Diminish Wealth-Building Opportunities for Struggling Black Families.” Madison, WI: Center for Family Policy and Practice and Insight Center for Community Economic Development.
Braman, Donald. 2004. Doing Time on the Outside: Incarceration and Family Life in Urban America. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Cacho, Mark S. 2003. “Prison and Jail Law Libraries: Where Do We Go from Here? “American Correctional Association Inc.: Free Library., accessed January 14, 2015.
California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Office of Victim and Survivors Rights and Services. 2014. “How Does a Victim Collect on the Restitution Order from an Inmate or a Parolee?”, accessed April 1, 2014.
Cammett, Ann. 2012–2013. “Shadow Citizens: Felony Disenfranchisement and the Criminalization of Debt.” 117 Penn St. L. Rev 349 20122013.
Carmon, Irin. 2015. “How Falling Behind on Child Support Can End in Jail.” April 9,, accessed May 11, 2015.
Center for Law and Social Policy. 2011. “Every Door Closed: Facts about Parents with Criminal Records.” In, Child Support Orders and the Incarceration of Noncustodial Parents, Meyer, Daniel R. and Warren, Emily, December, 2. Institute for Research on Poverty and School of Social Work, University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“Central Pa. County Mulls Using Prison Inmate Accounts to Pay Restitution, Fees, Fines Owed.” 2013. Daily Journal, September 12., accessed April 15, 2014.
Collins, Jane L. and Mayer, Victoria. 2010. Both Hands Tied: Welfare Reform and the Race to the Bottom of the Low-Wage Labor Market. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
“Commissioner Fischer Lowers Phone Charges.” 2010. Pro Se 20(1): 4.
Congressional Research Service. 2012. “Child Support Enforcement: Incarceration as the Last Resort Penalty for Nonpayment of Support.” A Report Prepared for Members and Committees of Congress by Carmen Solomon-Fears, Alison M. Smith and Carla Berry, March 6.
Cook, Foster. 2014. “The Burden of Criminal Justice Debt in Alabama: 2014 Participant Self-Report Survey.”, accessed February 12, 2015.
Cowan, Sarah and Reich, Adam. 2013. “Inequality in Involuntary Servitude: Wage Variation Among State Prison Inmates.” Presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, New York, NY, August 9., accessed Jan. 7, 2014.
Dannenberg, John E. 2011. “Nationwide PLN Survey Examines Prison Phone Contracts, Kickbacks.” Prison Legal News 1: 45.
Downes, David and Hansen, Kristine. 2006. “Welfare and Punishment: The Relationship between Welfare Spending and Imprisonment.” Briefing 2, November, Crime and Society Foundation.
Edsall, Thomas B. 2014. “The Expanding World of Poverty Capitalism.” New York Times, August 26.
Ehrenfreund, Max. 2014. “How Segregation Led to Speed Traps, Traffic Tickets, and Distrust outside St. Louis.” Wonkblog, Washington Post, November 26.
Evans, Douglas N. 2014. “The Debt Penalty: Exposing the Financial Barriers to Offender Reintegration.” Research & Evaluation Center, John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Ewald, Alec. 2012. “Collateral Consequences in the American States.” 93(1) Social Science Quarterly 211–247 March.
Ewald, Alec. 2011. “Collateral Consequences and the Perils of Categorical Ambiguity.” In Law as Punishment / Law as Regulation, ed. Sarat, Austin, Douglas, Lawrence, and Merrill Umphrey, Martha. Redwood City: Stanford University Press.
Ewald, Alec 2002. “‘Civil Death’: The Ideological Paradox of Criminal Disenfranchisement Law in the United States.” Wisconsin Law Review. 5: 10451138.
Ewald, Alec C. and Rottinghaus, Brandon. 2009. Criminal Disenfranchisement in an International Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Fagan, Jeffrey and Davies, Garth. 2000–2001. “Street Stops and Broken Windows: Terry, Race, and Disorder in New York City.” 28 Fordham Urb. L. J. 457.
Federal Bureau of Prisons’ Inmate Financial Responsibility Program. 2000. Report Number I-2000-023, September., accessed March 29, 2014.
Fergus, Devin. Forthcoming. Land of the Fee. [Oxford: city]: Oxford University Press.
Florida Senate. 2015. Bill Analysis and Fiscal Impact Statement. SB 540. March.
Fording, Richard C. Schram, Sanford F., and Soss, Joe. 2013. “Do Welfare Sanctions Help or Hurt the Poor? Estimating the Causal Effect of Sanctioning on Client Earnings.” Social Service Review 87(4): 641–76.
Gambos, Suzanne. 2013. “FCC Slashes What Prisoners Pay for Phone Calls.” Associated Press, USA Today, August 9.
Glaze, Lauren E. and Maruschak, Laura M.. 2008. “Parents in Prison and their Minor Children.” U.S. Bur. Justice Stat. Spec. Rep., U.S. Dep. Justice, Washington, DC.
Goffman, Alice. 2009. “On the Run: Wanted Men in a Philadelphia Ghetto.” American Sociological Review 74: 339–57.
Goffman, Alice. 2014. On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Gottschalk, Marie. 2014. Caught: Race, Neoliberalism, and the Future of the Carceral State and American Politics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Gustafson, Kaaryn. 2009. “The Criminalization of Poverty.” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 99, 3, 643716.
Hacker, Jacob S. 2008. The Great Risk Shift: The New Economic Insecurity and the Decline of the American Dream. Rev ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Harcourt, Bernard. 2011. The Illusion of Free Markets: Punishment and the Myth of Natural Order. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Harris, Alexes, Evans, Heather, and Beckett, Katherine. 2010. “Drawing Blood from Stones: Monetary Sanctions, Punishment and Inequality in the Contemporary United States.” American Journal of Sociology 115, 6, 1753–99.
Hill, Mark Lamont. 2012. “Inmates and Families Pay Price of Costly Phone Calls.” Huffington Post Live, Dec. 17.
“Inmates Pay for Jail Stay; Proposal Fails.” 2010. California News, April 20., accessed April 8, 2014.
“Is It Fair and Legal for Inmates to Foot Their Room and Board?” 2004. Christian Science Monitor, July 21.
Johnson, Kevin. 2010. “Reports: Some States Charge Poor for Public Defenders.” USA TODAY, October 3.
Katz, Michael B. 2013. The Undeserving Poor: America’s Enduring Confrontation with Poverty. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Katzenstein, Mary Fainsod. 2012. “Neoliberalism, Race, and the American Welfare State: A Discussion of Joe Soss, Richard C. Fording, and Sanford F. Schram’s Disciplining the Poor: Neoliberal Paternalism and the Persistent Power of Race. Perspectives on Politics 10(4): 989–92.
Katzenstein, Mary Fainsod, and Nagrecha, Mitali. 2011. “A New Punishment Regime.” Policy Essay: Monetary Sanctions as Misguided Policy. Criminology and Public Policy 10(3): 555–68.
King, Desmond. 1999. In the Name of Liberalism: Illiberal Social Policy in the USA and Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kohler-Hausmann, Julilly. 2010. “Forging a Punishing State: The Punitive Turn in United States Criminal and Social Policy.” Ph.D. diss., University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign.
Kriminal Forsorgen. n.d. “Prison and Probation Service, Denmark.”
Kukorowski, Drew, Wagner, Peter and Sakala, Leah. 2014. “Please Deposit all of your Money: kickbacks, Rates, and Hidden Fees in the Jail Phone Industry.” accessed February 1, 2015.
Lane, Stephanie. N.d. “The New Bill Collector Tactic: Jail Time.”, accessed February 1, 2015.
Larson, Doran. 2013. “Why Scandinavian Prisons Are Superior.” The Atlantic, September, 14.
Lerman, Amy E., and Weaver, Vesla M.. 2014. Arresting Citizenship: The Democratic Consequences of American Crime Control. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Lipsky, Michael. 2010. “Street Level Bureaucrats.” United States Studies Centre, University of Sydney, Australia. February 24. video, accessed August 5, 2012.
Mai-Duc, Christine. 2013. “FCC to Consider Costs of Limiting Prison Phone Calls.” Los Angeles Times, August 8.
Mahon, , Ed. 2013. “Other Counties Inform York County’s Decision on Inmate Account Deductions.” Daily Record/Sunday News, October 6., accessed April 8, 2014.
Markowitz, Eric. 2015. “Video Chats Are Replacing In-Person Jail Visits, While One Tech Company Profits.” International Business Times, April 8., accessed May 14, 2015.
Massachusetts Department of Corrections. 2001. “A Statistical Description of Releases from Institutions and the Jurisdiction of the Massachusetts Department of Correction during 2000.” November. (accessed June 16, 2015).
Mead, Lawrence M. 2012. “Neoliberalism, Race and the American Welfare State; A Discussion of Joe Soss, Richard C. Fording, and Sanford F. Schram’s Disciplining the Poor: Neoliberal Paternalism and the Persistent Power of Race. Perspectives on Politics 10(4): 979981.
Mead, Lawrence M 2011. Expanding Work Programs for Poor Men. Washington, D.C: American Enterprise Institute.
Mead, Lawrence M, 1997. The New Paternalism: Supervisory Approaches to Poverty. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution.
Mettler, Suzanne. 2011. The Submerged State: How Invisible Government Policies Underlie American Democracy. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Meyer, David R., and Warren, Emily. 2011. “Child Support Orders and the Incarceration of Non-Custodial Parents.” December. Institute for Research on Poverty and School of Social Work, University of Wisconsin, Madison.
Miletich, Steve. 1997. “Inmates Fight a State Bite on their Gifts.” Prison Legal News, April 7., accessed April 17, 2014.
Miller, Daniel P., and Mincy, Ronald B.. 2012. “Falling Further Behind? Child Support Arrears and Fathers’ Labor Force Participation.” Social Service Review 86(4): 604–35.
Miller, Lisa L. 2008. The Perils of Federalism: Race, Poverty and the Politics of Crime Control. New York: Oxford University Press.
Nagrecha, Mitali and Katzenstein, Mary Fainsod. 2015. When All Else Fails, Fining the Family; First Person Accounts of Criminal Justice Debt. Center For Community Alternatives. Syracuse, New York. accessed July 28, 2015.
Natapoff, Alexandra. 2011–2012. “Misdemeanors.” 85 S. Cal. L. Rev 1313.
Naseer, Rebecca L., and LaVigne, Nancy G.. 2006. “Family Support in the Prisoner Reentry Process: Expectations and Realities.” Journal of Offender and Rehabilitation 42(1): 93106.
National Center for Victims of Crime. 2011. “Collection from Inmates.”, accessed April 1, 2014.
“The New Debtors’ Prisons.” 2013. The Economist, November 16.
Noyes, Jennifer L., Cancian, Maria, and Cuesta, Laura. 2012. “Holding Child Support Orders of Incarcerated Payers in Abeyance: Final Evaluation Report.” September. Institute for Research on Poverty, University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Office of Justice Programs. Bureau of Justice Statistics 2004. “Bureau of Justice Statistics Survey of Inmates in State Correctional Facilities.” accessed March 31, 2014.
“Our View, Debt to Society.” 2009. Herald News, October 2.
Petro, Lee G. 2013. “FCC Lowers Rates for Interstate Phone Calls from Jails and Prisons.” Vera Institute Blog, August 13.
Pew Research Center for People and the Press. 2012. “Partisan Polarization Surges in Bush, Obama Years,” Section 3, June 4.
Pinaire, Brian, Heumann, Milton, and Bilotta, Laura. 2002. “Barred from the Vote: Public Attitudes Toward the Disenfranchisement of Felons.” Fordham Urban Law Journal 30: 5.
Piven, Frances Fox, and Cloward, Richard. 1971. Regulating the Poor. New York: Pantheon Books.
“Poor People Can Pay Twice After Committing A Crime.” 2014. WAMC Northeast Public Radio., accessed May 25.
Prison Policy Initiative. 2014. “Dallas County Approves Video Visitation Contract.” November 12., accessed February 2.
Prison Policy Initiative. 2015. “Securus Ends Its Ban on In–Person Visits, Shifts Responsibility to Sheriffs.” Press Release, May 6.
Rabuy, Bernadette, and Wagner, Peter. 2015. “Screening Out Family Time: The For-Profit Video Visitation Industry in Prisons and Jails.” Prison Policy Initiative., accessed May 9, 2015.
Reutter, David M. 2009. “Florida DOC and Keefe Gouge Prisoners on Commissary Sales.”, accessed April 8, 2014.
Roach, Janet 2014. “Fight over who should collect millions in unpaid court fines heats up.”, Hampton, Virginia., accessed May 25, 2014.
Roberts, Paula. 2001. “An Ounce of Prevention and a Pound of Cure: Developing State Policy on the Payment of Child Support Arrears by Low-Income Parents.” Washington, DC: Center for Law and Social Policy.
Rosen, Rebecca J. 2012. “Stupid and Unjust: The Highway Robbery of Prison Phone Rates.” The Atlantic, Dec. 4., accessed December 9, 2013.
Rosen, Rebecca J. 2013. “Finally, Prisoners and Their Families Won’t Have to Pay Crazy Phone Rates.” The Atlantic, August 12.’t-have-to-pay-crazy-phone-rates/278594, accessed December 15, 2013.
Rosenthal, Alan, and Weissman, Marsha. 2007. “Sentencing for Dollars: The Financial Consequences of a Criminal Conviction.” Syracuse, NY: Center for Community Alternatives, Justice Strategies.
Sacks, Glenn. 2007. “20 Years in Prison for Failing to Pay Child Support.” Blogger News Network, November 13., accessed Dec. 17, 2013.
Sasso, Brendan. 2014. “Court Blocks FCC Bid to Lower Prison Phone Rates.” National Journal, January 13., accessed, March 31, 2014.
Shapiro, Joseph. 2014. “As Court Fees Rise, the Poor Are Paying the Price.” All Things Considered, NPR, May 19.
Sorensen, Elaine, Sousa, Liliana, and Schaner, Simone. 2007. “Assessing Child Support Arrears in Nine Large States and the Nation.” The Urban Institute., accessed January 27, 2009.
Soss, Joe, Fording, Richard C., and Schram, Sanford F., 2011. Disciplining the Poor: Neoliberal Paternalism and The Persistent Power of Race. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
State ex. rel. Mickey Phillips v. Gwen Knox . 2001. Court of Appeals of Tennessee at Knoxville, August 30 session. (accessed May 11, 2014).
State of New York, Department of Corrections and Community Supervision. 2013. “Collection & Repayment of Inmate Advances & Obligations No. 2788.” April 19.
Texas Family Code. N.d. Section 157.008. “Affirmative Defense to Motion for Enforcement of Child Support.”
Thoennes, Nancy, 2002. “Child Support Profile: Massachusetts Incarcerated and Paroled Parents.” Center for Policy Research.
Trimble, Mandie. 2014. “Ohio Inmate Fees Add Up, Private Companies and State Benefit.” NPR News 89.7, WOSU, March 18.
Turney, Kristin, Schnittker, Jason, and Wildeman, Christopher. 2012. “Those They Leave Behind: Paternal Incarceration and Maternal Instrumental Support.” Journal of Marriage and Family 74(5): 1149–65.
U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division. 2015. “Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department.” March 4.
Visher, Christy A. and Courtney, Shannon M. E.. 2006. Cleveland Prisoners’ Experiences Returning Home. Washington, DC: Urban Institute.
Wacquant, Loïc. 2001. “Deadly Symbiosis: When Ghetto and Prison Meet and Mesh.” Punishment and Society 3(1): 95133.
Wacquant, Loïc. 2009. Punishing the Poor: The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Wagner, Daniel. 2014. “Prison Bankers Cash in on Captive Customers.” The Center for Public Integrity., accessed December 6, 2014.
Washingjton State, Department of Corrections. N.d. “Prison Life-Trust Account.” RCW 72.09.480,, accessed March 31, 2014.
Weisburd, David, Einat, Tomer, and Kowalski, Matt. 2008. “The Miracle of the Cells: An Experimental Study of Interventions to Increase Payment of Court-Ordered Financial Obligations.” Criminology and Public Policy 7(1): 936.
West, Micah. 2013. “Financial Conflicts of Interest and the Funding of New Orleans’ Criminal Courts.” California Law Review101 Calif L. Rev. 521.
Western, Bruce, Braga, Anthony, David, Jaclyn, and Sirois, Catherine. 2014. “Leaving Prison as a Transition to Poverty.” Unpublished manuscript, Harvard University.
Bearden v. Georgia 461 U. S. 660. 1983.
Byrd v. Goord United States District Court, S. D. 2007. September 26. accessed June 21, 2015.
“Inmate Welfare Fund.” Grand Jury of Orange County. California, 1999–2000,, accessed January 18, 2015.
“Matter of Walton v. New York State Department of Correctional Services.” 2009. New York State Law Reporting Journal November 23. New York State Court of Appeals. accessed June 21, 2015.
State ex. rel. Mickey Phillips v. Gwen Knox. 2001. Court of Appeals of Tennessee at Knoxville, August 30 session. (accessed May 11, 2014).
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Perspectives on Politics
  • ISSN: 1537-5927
  • EISSN: 1541-0986
  • URL: /core/journals/perspectives-on-politics
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed