Inmate families paying price for billionaire’s ballot measure

Women, children swamped by state money grab 

Shellie, who asked that we not use her last name, took a second job to provide for her two daughters and send what’s left to her husband, who is serving time in Ely State Prison. (Courtesy photo)

The few bucks Shellie is able to send her husband, an inmate at Ely State Prison, won’t lend comfort to his four- to ten-year sentence. But it buys him a cup of coffee now and then, the kind of thing his wife says keeps him human. 

Shellie took a second job after her husband’s incarceration to support herself, their two children, and still afford to deposit a little money in his prison account.  

“It’s enough to keep him with the basic needs I know he’s not getting from the prison — enough toilet paper, soap,” she says. 

Family members, some of whom asked not to be identified, met with the Current via Zoom to discuss their challenges.

“It was hard enough on the good days,” she says of single parenting while a partner is in prison. “Then you toss in a pandemic. Kids no longer have school, I’m an essential worker, and this huge day care expense. A lot in the last couple months has crashed really hard.” 

Just when Shellie confronted the reality that virtual school doesn’t come with virtual child care, another financial blow came out of nowhere — a policy shift allowing the state to seize up to all of the money families and friends send to prison inmates. 

“… the Nevada Department of Corrections (NDOC) has been working diligently to implement the constitutional amendment that expands the rights guaranteed to victims of crime, commonly known as ‘Marsy’s Law,’” wrote John Borrowman, Deputy Director of Support Services for the NDOC, in a memo addressed to all inmates.  

The new policy allows the state to deduct 100 percent of an inmate’s funds to pay restitution. Marsy’s Law guarantees victims “the right to full and timely restitution” and says “all monetary payments, money and property collected from any person who has been ordered to make restitution be first applied to pay the amounts ordered as restitution…” 

“Restitution is not for you to pay,” Shellie’s husband told her during a recent call. “You’re not the one in here.”

But Shellie and millions of women in the U.S shoulder not only the emotional burden of a loved one’s imprisonment, but the financial toll as well, characterized by a seemingly endless stream of penalties assessed by the court and penal systems.

A 2015 report “Who Pays? The True Cost of Incarceration on Families” says in 62 percent of cases, family members on the outside “were primarily responsible for court-related costs associated with conviction. Of the family members primarily responsible for these costs, 83% were Women.”

“The toilet paper they give out is not enough. The food is not enough,” says Nicole, whose husband is serving time at High Desert State Prison, north of Las Vegas. 

An Intensive Care Unit nurse in Las Vegas, where she’s treated “nothing but COVID patients since March,” Nicole has taken on extra shifts to pay off her husband’s $4,000 medical bill for a broken neck he suffered while playing basketball in prison. It took almost two years.

Nicole says her husband previously received about $90 of every $300 she sent. 

“The fact they are going to take from already limited resources of many families who are struggling because of the pandemic on top of that — it’s honestly a slap in the face,” she says. “And they don’t seem to understand the gravity of the policies they’ve instituted.” 

Nevada law gives the director of the Department of Corrections the ability to establish “reasonable” amounts for deductions from inmate funds deposited with the state.  

Debtors’ prison

Most other states where Marsy’s Law or similar measures have passed limit the percentage of inmate funds that can be deducted.

Those limits can range from 10 percent in Florida to 50 percent in California to 80 percent in Oklahoma.

Other states, however — Illinois, Ohio and North Dakota, for instance — give corrections departments wide leeway to determine how much an inmate may keep, as Nevada does.

“The way Marsy’s Law has been put into effect is as punitive to families as it is to our loved ones who are incarcerated,” says Jodi Hocking of Return Strong Families United for Justice for the Incarcerated. “Their punishment is their loss of freedom, not their loss of dignity and humanity.”

Meg Garvin, Executive Director of the National Crime Victims Law Institute, testified in 2015 that Marsy’s Law “simply affords the order for restitution. If defendants cannot pay, they cannot be forced to do so. There cannot be debtors’ prisons in this Country.” 

But debtors’ prison is what Nevada’s Department of Corrections has created, says ACLU of Nevada attorney Holly Welborn. 

“I don’t think it can be considered reasonable,” Welborn said of DOC’s deduction schedule.  “Courts have yet to weigh in on what ‘full and timely’ means. They have to consider their ability to pay. I don’t think it’s been done and it has to be done on an individual basis.” 

The ACLU is researching practices in other states and exploring potential legislative fixes.  

During a 2017 committee hearing on Marsy’s Law, Assemblyman Richard Daly noted the measure gave victims “standing to come and say, ‘I need my money or my restitution. I want my pound of flesh.’ I do not know if that is going to mesh very well with the corrections and rehabilitation part that we are trying to do with that language.” 

The drain Marsy’s Law places on inmates and government is no surprise but it remains unknown.   

“Because the State and local governments will not receive revenue from these sources until full and timely restitution is paid, certain state and local governmental budgets or programs funded by these sources may be affected by a reduction in revenue,” Legislative Counsel Bureau fiscal analysts wrote in 2018. “However, the potential reduction in revenue received by the State and local governments cannot be determined because the amount of restitution that will be ordered and the amount of restitution that ultimately will be paid cannot be estimated with any reasonable degree of certainty.”

Nevada officials did not immediately provide an amount of restitution owed by inmates, nor an amount distributed to victims since Marsy’s Law became part of the constitution.  

Assemblyman John Piro, a Clark County public defender, testified in 2017 that Marsy’s Law was “a Trojan horse of problematic and costly constitutional changes that dramatically alter the criminal justice policy in Nevada … It changes the Nevada Constitution, which cannot easily be tweaked when the billionaire behind this bill leaves us here in Nevada to deal with the consequences of this law.”

“How this bill does not have a large fiscal note is rather surprising,” Piro said at the time. 

Lawmakers allocated $10 million in 2019 to cover the costs of implementing and carrying out the provisions of the new law, but that funding evaporated this summer when legislators in a special session cut about one-quarter of the state budget to offset revenue lost to the pandemic.  

Audrie Locke, assistant to Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson, says the office was “already doing the things that Marsy’s Law required,” and made only minor changes.  

Due to budget restrictions, we have not added any staff to specifically handle work related to Marsy’s Law,” Locke says. “While we would like to have additional advocates available to work with the victims in our very large caseload, we have been able to manage the workload at our current staffing levels.”

Washoe County District Attorney Christopher Hicks did not respond to requests for comment. 

Nevada prisons provide inmates with bare necessities but charge for many goods and services. Only indigents — inmates with $10 or less in their accounts — are entitled to medical and other services without cost.   

“I think it’s going to cost the state more money because more people will be defined as indigent,” says Welborn. “If you are indigent, you are going to be more reliant on the services.”

“The food has mold on it. He’s very careful what he eats,” says Peggy Welk of her son, who was 24 when he entered prison. He’s earned two degrees at Great Basin College during nine years of incarceration and is eligible for parole next year.  

“What the government provides is very bad so I try to help him out by buying some good stuff. The prison used to take ten percent out of my deposits to go into his savings,” she says. “Now, I sent him $50 and they gave him $10.” 

She’s heard that the billionaire behind Marsy’s Law, Henry Nicholas, and his girlfriend Ashley Fargo pleaded their way out of drug charges in Las Vegas by paying $1 million to charities, a defense strategy unavailable to most.  

“I’m livid about the way they’ve done this,” Welk says of the increased deductions during the pandemic. “They know we are still going to nurture our loved ones.” 

Some inmates are using their savings — so-called “gate money” — to pay restitution, which could pose obstacles upon release. 

“For the people with no family support, that gate money is all they have,” says Jodi. “They have no way to get on their feet, no way to buy clothes for a job interview.” 

Paradoxically, NDOC increased inmates’ savings limit from $400 to $550 when it increased the percentage the department is deducting from offenders’ accounts.  

The state also eliminated a program that allowed family and friends to deposit up to $500 twice a year, exempt from deductions.  

oh henry and friend
Ashley Fargo and Henry Nicholas in court in Las Vegas, October 2, 2019. (Photo: Dana Gentry)

Cindy, a school bus driver in Silver Springs in Lyon County, says she typically sent $150 to $200 a month to her husband in the Lovelock Correctional Center for “toilet paper, soap, toothpaste, and food.”

“I have not sent him any money since we found out they have been taking these amounts,” she says. “We’re going to do a small test and see exactly what they take out.” 

Shellie says most families have lost the ability to do the “little bit we can do for our loved ones.  And it’s unfair because it’s our choice.”

Dana Gentry
Reporter | Dana Gentry is a native Las Vegan and award-winning investigative journalist. She is a graduate of Bishop Gorman High School and holds a Bachelor's degree in Communications from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Gentry began her career in broadcasting as an intern at Channel 8, KLAS-TV. She later became a reporter at Channel 8, working with Las Vegas TV news legends Bob Stoldal and the late Ned Day. Gentry left her reporting job in 1985 to focus on motherhood. She returned to TV news in 2001 to launch "Face to Face with Jon Ralston" and the weekly business programs In Business Las Vegas and Vegas Inc, which she co-anchored with Jeff Gillan. Dana has four adult children, a grandson, three dogs, three cats and a cockatoo named Casper.