SB 474 Can Prevent Families from Struggling to Support Their Loved Ones in Prison

Sandra Johnson speaking on the California Senate floor to advocate for SB 474
Sandra Johnson speaking on the California Senate floor to advocate for SB 474

By Sandra Johnson, Fair Chance Organizer at Legal Aid at Work

As someone who was incarcerated in and out for 15 years, incarceration has impacted my family tremendously. My brother was just released after doing 44 years of time and my younger sister also did some time in prison. Every single one of us had to ask for a couple of dollars from our mother just to buy basic items at the canteen such as toothpaste, deodorant, and other essentials.

We didn’t come from money; we were basically poor. But my mother squeezed out as much as she could from her finances to support us. Could you imagine being in prison and not having anyone to support you? It made me appreciate my mother so much for what she had done for me and my siblings.

Normally, canteen items are mostly purchased from the pockets of those on the outside that are supporting their incarcerated loved ones. Currently, there’s a 65% markup where many that are incarcerated can’t afford these items since wages are so low when working inside the prison. With this markup, I wouldn’t be able to take care of myself because the money that they pay you inside is so low.

There are often cases where incarcerated people owe restitution or victim’s compensation. What this means is that the prison system takes money out of your pay number, if you’re lucky enough to have one. A pay number is a job that pays you little to nothing. For example, if I worked on doing laundry, I might make between 8 to 31 cents per hour. Once you get a pay number, they can take out 55% of your owed restitution.

During my time inside, my mother would send me money to purchase basic items and food. When I first got inside, I had to go through a long process before I could purchase items from the canteen, so I couldn’t buy anything right away. I had to go hungry on some nights because the food being served was neither sufficient nor nutritious.

That’s why it’s important for SB 474 to pass. This bill is important to me because people don’t realize that the money that is spent on canteen items is often coming from the pockets of loved ones on the outside. If this bill passes and they mark down the canteen items, families that are already struggling from living paycheck to paycheck would not have to also add that burden to support their incarcerated loved ones.

Sometimes, we often forget that incarcerated people are also workers that are exploited and earn little to no pay at all. And once they’re out, their conviction history can limit them from being employed or they can’t work at all, despite doing the same work while incarcerated. Thankfully, there’s now the California Fair Chance Act, which protects job applicants from being discriminated against due to their criminal history.

Before and after I got out, I was fortunate enough to join a program to work on healing from my trauma, grief, and loss. I then became involved and got passionate about making changes to the prison system. I’m currently a part of the California Coalition for Women’s Prisoners, previously worked for Root and Rebound, where I was their prison coordinator to help people re-enter back into society, and I’m now a Fair Chance Organizer with Legal Aid at Work to focus on policies so that impacted people will have a better future and not be burdened by their past.

SB 474 will help the communities that are most impacted by poverty and not burden families financially. The State of California should not mark up basic items because those are items people need to use every day. No family should struggle from supporting their loved ones that are inside while already living paycheck to paycheck like my mother did.

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