Illinois Wants Inmate's Prison Wages

Prisoner made $11,000, but state says it cost $456,000 to house him

Tuesday, Mar 15, 2011  |  Updated 9:00 PM CDT
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If a prisoner earns money while incarcerated, should they be able to keep it?

The Illinois Supreme Court is hearing arguments this week about a prisoner from Joliet who earned $11,000 over the last 21 years from an inmate work program.  The Illinois Department of Corrections wants him to fork it over to help pay for the cost of housing him.

Inmate Kensley Hawkins, 60, said he puts away the $75 he earns every month as a furniture assembler.

Under state law, the IDOC can move to recover housing and other costs from inmates who report assets of more than $10,000, said David Simonton, an attorney for Hawkins. But those assets typically come from inheritances, pensions or some other windfall -- not the wages the inmates have earned in prison, and the source of Hawkins' money is what makes his case unique, Simonton said.

If the state is allowed to take the income that inmates earn, they'll be less inclined to get jobs in prison and gain the kinds of work experience that would help them upon their release from custody, Simonton said.

"I don't think that either the department (of corrections) or the state have thought out the consequences of this," he said. "Hopefully, the Supreme Court will look from a common-sense, public policy perspective and will realize that the legislature did not intend this result when they drafted the reimbursement statute."

A corrections spokeswoman said the department can't comment on pending cases.

State law also allows the IDOC to collect three percent of inmates' wages, and Hawkins' attorneys say the department isn't entitled to more. About $751 was taken out of Hawkins' income to cover the three percent.

The corrections department says the cost of Hawkins' incarceration from July 1, 1983, to March 17, 2005, was $456,000.

Hawkins is serving 60 years for murder, attempted murder and burglary, among other charges. His projected parole date is 2028.

In 2009, the trial court awarded the state a judgment against Hawkins for $455,000 but denied the request to access his prison income to pay it. The appeals court reversed that decision in June, saying the state can take the money from his bank account. Simonton said he's hoping the Supreme Court will overturn both the judgment against Hawkins and the attempt to take his wages.

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