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Former inmates sue over Connecticut's prison debt law

View of an empty prison corridor
WIN-Initiative/Neleman/Getty Images
View of an empty prison corridor

Former inmates say they’re unfairly penalized by Connecticut’s prison debt, the highest in the nation. Two new plaintiffs have joined a lawsuit to end the practice, including the mother of a man shot by Bridgeport police.

Connecticut charges incarcerated people about $250 a day — that’s more than $90,000 a year.

Elana Bildner is with the Connecticut ACLU. “That’s a pretty egregious amount in our view," Bildner said. "That’s more than students at UCONN pay, it’s the price of a midrange hotel. But more importantly, it punishes people who’ve been in prison after they’ve already served their sentence, and traps families in cycles of poverty.”

Last year the state tightened its rules around prison debt, reducing the number of people who are liable to pay. Incarcerated people can still be charged if they were convicted of a serious offense, but the state can’t collect money people have won through a lawsuit or some other sources. State Senator John Kissel (R- Enfield) is a ranking member of the Judiciary Committee. He opposed the change.

“I think it’s worthwhile to try to make sure that there is some compensation, and for no other reason than managing money and knowing that there are some debts that you incur that you have to pay back over time," Kissel said.

Under the new rules, the state can still collect an inheritance. That’s what led Natasha Tosado to join an ongoing lawsuit. She’s the mother of Jayson Negron. A Bridgeport police officer shot Negron in 2017. His death drew headlines and protests. A state’s attorney ruled the officer was justified. The city agreed to settle a civil wrongful death suit with Negron’s estate last year.

“And really the only form of acknowledgement of their wrongdoing," Tosado said.

Natasha was incarcerated when her son died. She’s out now. And the Connecticut ACLU said the state wants to withhold part of the settlement to cover the cost of her prison stay. They consider the money from the suit part of an inheritance, since it comes from her son’s estate.

“We fought so hard to get some form of justice for Jason's killing," Tosado said. "And I'm sorry, I have to say it again. At no time was I told that this was going to be considered an inheritance. This was a wrongful death suit. This was a long hard fight trying to prove that he was wrongfully killed.”

Natasha’s one of two new plaintiffs who joined the lawsuit this week. The other is Doug Johnson. He spent two years in prison from 2002 to 2004. Johnson said he didn’t know while he was there that he was being billed for his sentence.

“To my understanding, somebody who breaks the law and receives a sentence like, you know, that's how you pay your debt to society," Johnson said. "I mean, you do the crime, you do the time. Nobody ever told me that at some point in time, a debt would have to be paid twice.”

Johnson adds he owes the state about $75,000 — which he said would have to come from the estate of his father, who died in 2021.

“There's a piece of land, there's a boat and there's a truck," Johnson said. "That's it. There's a few family heirlooms that my father wanted to see passed down. The only way for me to satisfy the state would be to sell some of the assets that are there.”

He said that still wouldn’t cover what he owes the state.

“I went into prison at 22," Johnson continued. "The mistakes I made, I was a teenager. I'm a father of three. I'm a husband, I have a household, full-time job. And still I have this cross, this cross to bear that I've had since I was a teenager, like when can I let this thing go? When can the state finally say, 'Mr. Johnson, your debt is paid?'”

The ACLU and the plaintiffs are suing the Connecticut Department of Correction and the Department of Administrative Services. A spokesperson for Attorney General William Tong, who represents the plaintiffs, said they had no comment on the lawsuit.

Davis Dunavin loves telling stories, whether on the radio or around the campfire. He started in Missouri and ended up in Connecticut, which, he'd like to point out, is the same geographic trajectory taken by Mark Twain.