Studying the Impact of U.S. Penal System ‘Pay-to-Stay’ Policies

NC State

“Pay-to-stay” statutes administered by state and local governments across the United States saddle millions of incarcerated individuals – past and present – with the bill for some or all of the cost of their imprisonment. But little research has been done on the impact these policies have on incarcerated people, their families, and their communities – until now.

Boosted by a $1.5 million grant from Arnold Ventures, April Fernandes, an associate professor of sociology at North Carolina State University, is co-leading a new research team called the Captive Money Lab, which will analyze the relationship between the prison system, politics and state finances.

Fernandes and her collaborators note that “pay-to-stay” is a controversial practice; research suggests that it contributes to widening inequalities in American society, with the outstanding balances for current and former incarcerated people approaching six-figure amounts. What’s more, because state and local government efforts to collect these fees are civil suits, defendants are not entitled to an attorney.

The nonprofit organization Arnold Ventures has awarded the $1.5 million grant to launch the Captive Money Lab to Fernandes, Brittany Friedman of the University of Southern California and Gabriela Kirk-Werner of Syracuse University. The five-year funding pledge supports the research lab’s mission to advance research, policy and advocacy around the political economy of punishment, as well as the links between the prison system, politics and state finances.

Understanding pay-to-stay

Fernandes, Friedman and Kirk first began working on pay-to-stay policies in 2016, launching the first in-depth study of states’ pay-to-stay policies, focusing on the use of civil lawsuits to recoup money.

The researchers witnessed cash-strapped states using pay-to-stay laws, a practice first employed during the Great Depression, to seize stimulus checks during the COVID-19 pandemic. The researchers found that when using civil lawsuits to recoup money, states effectively limit protections for defendants by freezing assets, impacting their ability to find legal representation and to appeal.

Civil lawsuits also increase the potential length of time incarcerated defendants can be subject to collection efforts. Some states extend the pay-to-stay collection period by as much as 20 years beyond an individual’s release.

Looking for solutions

As Fernandes and her colleagues studied the pay-to-stay issue, they began to see it as a solvable problem centered on access to justice. Fueled by Arnold Ventures’ support, the Captive Money Lab will expand the researchers’ national study of state pay-to-stay practices and recoupment strategies.

The researchers will also investigate the impact pay-to-stay policies have on incarcerated individuals and their families. This includes reentry into society, familial connections and the larger consequences for families to build wealth from generation to generation, particularly for Black and Latino communities, which make up the majority of those incarcerated in U.S. prisons.

In addition, the Captive Money Lab plans to conduct a detailed fiscal analysis of the economic costs and benefits of pay-to-stay policies, including whether the funds obtained from incarcerated individuals outweigh the costs of state agencies trying to recoup the funds.

To stimulate awareness, discussion and more informed decision-making, the Captive Money Lab has partnered with Hyperobjekt, a digital agency specializing in academic and nonprofit public interest projects, to build a website housing the lab’s public-facing data, policy briefs and academic papers.

“As nearly every state has a pay-to-stay statute on its books, we think it is important to consider the various dimensions of these measures, which can apply to as many as one million individuals currently incarcerated in state prisons,” Fernandes says.

The public can learn more about the research project, and track its progress, at

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