Peggy Jo Freeman puffs her cigarette to the butt and lights up another as she talks about her four incarcerated sons. She chain-smokes when she's mad, and right now she's irate about the state penal system's latest decision.
On November 1, the Colorado Department of Corrections changed the way people can send money to prisoners. Mrs. Freeman can no longer buy a ninety-cent money order at the local post office and mail it to her boys, where it would be placed on account with the prison commissary so that they could buy such necessities as shampoo and snacks. Instead, she has to use an electronic wire-transfer system that can cost up to $11.95 to send $20. (Rates vary based on the amount sent and whether the transfer is initiated over the phone, via the Internet or at a walk-up counter.)
But while the new system may cost inmates' families more money, the Department of Corrections sees the electronic transfers as a way to save $250,000 a year and to keep a better eye on who is sending money to whom. Before the change, the department employed five full-time staffers to process the approximately $10 million a year sent to inmates in Colorado's 22 government-run prisons. That load has recently increased because the DOC is now also handling inmate banking for the five private prisons in Colorado after a state audit of those institutions found they were not docking prisoner accounts for court-ordered child support or mandatory restitution payments.
Sending money to prisoners
"It's a tax savings. First and foremost, it's budgetary," says DOC spokeswoman Cheryl Ahumada. "It's also an efficiency measure internally. The funds will post to the inmate accounts within 24 hours as opposed to the existing one- to two-week lag time. There's so many different variables of human error, too; the margin for error is a lot less in the electronic funds transfer than the way we were doing it manually."
For Mrs. Freeman, it's a huge burden on her Social Security income. The cheapest way for her to send money is from a walk-up window belonging to one of two approved vendors: Western Union, the giant money-transfer machine owned by Greenwood Village-based First Data; or Jpay, a Miami-based wire-transfer company that sends money to prisoners all over the country. This method will cost her $5 through Jpay or $9.95 with Western Union for the $100 she sends to each of her four sons, for a total of either $20 or $39.80 compared to the $3.60 she spent on money orders. If she had Web access, she could send the money online, but that method is even more expensive -- $6.95 for Jpay and $11.95 for Western Union -- or by phone, the most costly option of all at $7.95 for Jpay and $13.95 for Western Union.
"I'm just trying to do the best I can to live my life to the fullest," Freeman says. "I just wish these people would quit fuckin' with my family and other people's families."
That family started 53 years ago, when the then-sixteen-year-old birthed her first child in Oklahoma. Over the next six years, Mrs. Freeman had four more children. "All of 'em got different last names, 'cause I didn't have no birth control," she says.
In 1958, the single mother fell in love with a Korean War veteran who was stationed in Oklahoma. The couple married, had a boy and moved to Denver, the man's home town. Once here, Freeman gave birth to her last son.
Today her eldest son, Edward, is 53 and housed at the Centennial Correctional Facility. His life behind bars kicked off in 1977 with burglary charges. He got out on parole, violated it and was immediately sent back. For the next decade, he was in and out of the joint. But in 1987, he went in for good with a sentence of 35 years for burglary, thirty years for robbery and sixty years for sexual assault, according to the Department of Corrections. He isn't eligible for parole until 2026, when he will be 74.
Edward's brother Frederick was released from prison in 1977. DOC records don't indicate why he was originally arrested, but they do show that six months later, he was back inside for violating his parole. He was out again in 1979, and in 1980, he began serving a life sentence for murder. Today he's a minimum-restricted inmate at the multi-level security facility in Sterling; his next parole hearing is set for August 2006.
Mrs. Freeman's fourth son, Russell, also went to prison in 1977, spending a month there for a traffic violation, according to DOC records. He was released on probation but was arrested again for another traffic violation in 1978. He was let out again that year, and he stayed clean until 1980, when he began serving four life sentences for murder. He's at Centennial with his brother Edward and will next have a parole hearing in 2019, when he is 59.
Mrs. Freeman hustled to get her boys each one final money order before the November 1 deadline. She's not sure how -- or if -- she'll continue to send money. "My money do not belong to the State of fuckin' Colorado," she says. "My money is mine. It's not no drug money; it's not no dirty money. I pay my taxes, but they're not taking care of my kids, and they're not taking care of a whole bunch of other people's kids. Some people are afraid to speak up. Not me -- I'm not afraid to speak up."
Bob Gerle understands Mrs. Freeman's frustration. He sends money to his son, who has been in prison for ten years for assaulting a police officer, among other things. But Gerle is also a volunteer with Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants, a group of citizens that advocates for prisoner rehabilitation. The organization was founded in Texas in 1975; a Colorado chapter was formed in 1990.
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"It's a strain on the people who can less afford it than I can," he says.
Like Mrs. Freeman, Gerle sees it as a tax on the families of prisoners, people who've committed no crime. And even though DOC officials say the department isn't receiving any commissions, fees or rebates from either of the service providers, Mrs. Freeman doubts it.
"People gettin' tired out here, like me. I'm not going to be one of these women that's going to get abused anymore by the system or nobody else," she says. "Fraud, fraud, fraud. This is pure fraud, and I believe it's fraud, because anytime that you're a taxpayer and you pay taxes, you pay with your kids in the penitentiary, and then there come a time that you can't send 'em money, that you got to send it to somebody to put in they pocket -- hell, no, I ain't sending no money down there for them damn fools to put in their pockets."