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Criminal Justice

Getting Out Of Prison? Here's $200. A New Bill Says That's Not Nearly Enough

A California state prison.
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Think about how much money you spend in a month. We all know $200 wouldn’t go very far.

But that’s the amount of money someone getting out of prison is handed — and it hasn’t changed in nearly 50 years.

Calling the practice “economic violence,” State Sen. Sydney Kamlager has introduced a bill to sharply increase the amount of “gate money” released prisons receive to $2,589.

“The stress and the anxiety and the fear that people face upon immediate release, trying to figure out how to live and to not make the mistake that will send them back to prison is enormous,” she said. “Two hundred dollars won’t get you anything.”

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The new amount Kamlager is seeking is the average cost of living for one month in California for a single adult with no children, according to the Living Wage Calculator at MIT.

“We know that when folks are released from prison, they may have to settle debts on their books, they might have to deal with transportation … they have to purchase clothes” and even replacement ID cards, she said.

The state prison system hasn’t adjusted the amount for inflation since 1973, according to Kamlager.

That’s remarkable, she said, when you consider the cost of living in an increasingly expensive state like California. Gas was around 36 cents a gallon in 1973, today it’s more than $5.

Dolores Canales with The Bail Project was incarcerated as a teenager on charges stemming from a heroin addiction. She was given $200 when she was paroled in 1980, and when she was paroled again nearly 30 years later after going back to prison, she was handed $200 again.

Canales was lucky — she had friends who picked her up and offered to buy her whatever she needed to start over.

“Just from the few items I purchased, it was like almost $1,000,” she said. “And that was just with basic needs to get me through the month. We should have given this cost of living increase years ago.”

An 'Outdated' Sum

James Nelson with Dignity and Power Now works with people currently getting out of prison.

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“In a lot of cases, the first thing folks want to do is get a phone so they can have a lot of communication,” he said. “We all know that you can’t do those things with $200.”

He remembers leaving prison himself with $200 after serving 29 years on a murder charge — but he had family to help him out. Many people don’t.

“They needed everything that they can get,” he said, and called the current amount of gate money “outdated.”

The proposed legislation would also ask the state to adjust gate money for inflation from 2024 onwards.

A spokesperson for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said the agency does not comment on pending legislation.

Kamlager said she hadn’t heard any concerns about the proposal from the state prison system or the state’s department of finance.

“We’re just asking people to be conscious of the costs of being free, and how the state can help,” she said.

There’s incredible stress on people coming out of prison to make a fresh start, and “it’s really hard to ask someone to do that with only $200 in their pockets, and without access to resources that we know they need and deserve,” Kamlager said.

I want recidivism to come down. I don’t want to see nobody go back to prison.
— MArk Sutton, gang interventionist

Pasadena gang interventionist Mark Sutton spent 26 years in prison on a murder charge. He said sometimes people don’t even get their gate money right away.

“They released me from the courthouse with a paper jumpsuit on and no money,” he said. He got the money months later from his parole officer. “That’s a flaw in the system right there.”

Sutton agrees with raising the gate money amount. He works with people coming back from prison and said he knows that a Greyhound ticket from a far-flung prison along with food and other basic costs over the course of a day could cost a total of $150.

But Sutton thinks gate money should be given to people after they attend crucial reentry training.

“They’re gonna go into the program and get that $2,600, trust me. Even if they’re going through the motions, something’s gonna land,” he said. “I want recidivism to come down. I don’t want to see nobody go back to prison.”

What questions do you have about criminal justice in Southern California? 
Emily Elena Dugdale covers smaller police departments around Southern California, school safety officers, jails and prisons, and juvenile justice issues. She also covers the LAPD and the L.A. Sheriff’s Department.