Last year, the Oregon Legislature came up with a way to collect debts from its prisoners. Yet, an exception was made where they forbade the Oregon Department of Corrections (ORDOC) from collecting any money from its veterans’ disability checks.
Oregon DOC Disobeys Laws Forbidding Them to Collect Money from Disabled Veterans’ Benefits
Despite the exception made by the law for disabled veterans, Oregon prison officials worked their way around that legislation. They devised a way to ensure veterans pay for court fines before they are able to purchase anything else while behind bars. This includes commissary, such as snacks, food and hygiene care items.
Prison advocates and loved ones say this is an unfair and illegal procedure. Complaints about the issue were made. But for months, they fell on deaf ears as ORDOC and Oregon Department of Justice ignored them.
It was only recently that Governor Kate Brown demanded change to be made on that policy. The order went to Oregon prison officials and the justice department. Some say these demands are coming in now because Brown is in the race for reelection.
Oregon Wants Debts Owed to Them Paid
The highest percentage of the debts owed to the State of Oregon comes from:
- Unpaid court-ordered fees
This is why the officials are collecting as much money as they can from prisoners.
Oregon has around 14,876 inmates and on average, each of the inmates owes the state $120.
According to statistics, in 2017 half of debts owed to Oregon came from the money owed by inmates. Most of the other part of the debt was unpaid taxes.
The state is doing all it can to collect on these debts. This includes taking money from its disabled veteran prison inmates.
Solution to the Oregon’s Debt
A bill was passed in 2017 that gives ORDOC permission to collect 10-15% of money put in inmates’ accounts to pay off prisoners’ debts.
Some of this money was nonetheless out of bounds. The lawmakers created a ‘protected accounts’ section. This is money ORDOC cannot touch. It included the disability benefits for veterans in Oregon prisons.
ORDOC: Breaking the Law
Oregon prison officials, however, have come up with ways to maneuver around this law and get to this restricted money. They manage to do this when the money is moved from one account to another.
The DOC claims that more than $90,000 is in the protected accounts.
Lawyers and directors of the Veterans Defense Resource Centre located in Eugene, OR have argued that the money is being extracted when it changes accounts. They argue that this is just a scheme to get to the money.
Oregon’s DOC rejected all accusations in a letter written by Mathew Lysne, the senior assistant attorney general. The DOJ argued that when inmates leave their money in the protected accounts, they are consenting to pay their debts.
Mathew Lysne said:
The DOJ argued that because inmates can leave the money in the protected accounts, they consent to paying it toward their court-ordered debts when they transfer it to spend in the commissary.
ORDOC Goes Under Investigation
Jesse Barton, a prisoners advocate and lawyer in Salem, told the inspector general for the DOC that he had to step down from the case because the bill predates him.
He, however, found an ally in Governor Brown. The Oregon governor ordered investigations to be started immediately after she was filled in about the case by Barton.
The DOC has now changed how it handles this matter of illegally taking money from disabled veteran inmates.
As from July, it started taking out 5% from the inmates’ accounts. This money is then transferred to a ‘transitional savings account.’ The inmates will be able to access these accounts once they are freed from prisons.
ORDOC spokeswoman, Jennifer Black, said that once Governor Brown is satisfied that protected funds remain protected, the DOC will rewrite its rules and policies.
The inmate veterans’ families are not happy about how money was taken from their incarcerated loved ones. This is money the veterans worked hard for and the DOC taking it away is an insult and a violation of their rights.