Edward E. Reicin on Indigent Prisoners

In the United States, indigent prisoners comprise just under half of all inmate populations and, in some areas, have become the overwhelming majority of convicts. In order to qualify as an indigent prisoner, an individual must have little money—the exact amount varies by institution—in their prisoner accounts. This is often the result of familial nonchalance or lack of relatives with supportive resources. Many indigent prisoners attempt to obtain prison jobs in order to buy items from the commissary, making competition fierce and pay low. Generally, prisoners make only a dollar a day, if that. Indigent prisoners receive the basic necessities from their correctional facility, but these staples never last long.

Until recently, the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) charged indigent prisoners for their healthcare. Although the co-payment was only two dollars, this small amount still placed an undue burden on thousands of inmates who were unable to pay. If the inmate had no money, the charge remained on the books to be collected if and when he or she earned money or a family member deposited money into the prisoner account.

Only a few years ago, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled in Hadley v. IDOC that this charge is unconstitutional according to the language of the law requiring healthcare co-payments. According to the court, the law makes indigent prisoners exempt. This, however, is only a small victory in an ongoing battle. Indigent prisoners increasingly have access to assistance outside of their correctional facilities. For examples, the University of Illinois College of Law operates a Prisoners’ Rights Research Project, through which indigent prisoners may ask questions about their legal problems. Students then conduct the necessary research, sharpening their legal skills and augmenting their knowledge of the American corrections system while providing indigent prisoners with an invaluable pro bono resource.