Whistleblower: Jail is sued over debit card fees

  • Article by: ALEJANDRA MATOS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 2, 2013 - 7:23 PM

Ramsey County uses the cards to return money to inmates upon release, but the attached fees have caused a backlash.

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Erik Mickelson spent only a few hours in the Ramsey County jail last May, after he was booked on a charge of violating St. Paul’s noise ordinance.

When he left, Mickelson didn’t get the $95 in cash that had been in his pocket. Instead, he alleges in a lawsuit, the jailers gave him a prepaid debit card with a state-mandated $25 deduction and fees that would reduce its value within 36 hours.

Mickelson’s charge was dismissed, and now he’s suing Ramsey County in U.S. District Court over the fees attached to the debit cards.

“We just think that’s stealing,” said Joshua Williams, Mickelson’s attorney, who is seeking class-action status. “The policy doesn’t pass the sniff test.”

Ramsey County officials, including the sheriff’s office, the county attorney and County Commissioner Rafael Ortega, declined to comment. As of Friday, Ramsey also had not released the contract with the company that distributes the debit cards. But in a court filing, the county acknowledged that the fees existed and that $25 had been deducted from Mickelson’s funds for the mandatory booking fee, but denied most of the allegations.

Williams would not make Mickelson, who lives in St. Paul, available for comment. But his lawsuit is part of a legal backlash nationwide as more counties turn to prepaid cards to manage inmate funds.

Last year, Ramsey County decided to replace paper checks with the prepaid cards. It became the second large county in the metro to do so, after Washington County, which in 2011 signed a contract with the Keefe Commissary Network, which provides the debit cards and other services, such as commissary products.

Hennepin County spokeswoman Jennifer Johnson said the county still issues checks to departing inmates, but said they are “looking into all options.”

The Sequoyah County sheriff’s office in Oklahoma was one of the first in the country to switch to a debit card system provided by Swanson Services Corp. in 2010. Chief Deputy Roger Fuller said there have been some complaints from inmates about the debit card fees, but Fuller said, overall the move was a good decision.

He said in the past, some jail employees had embezzled. Now, he said, that can’t happen.

“It’s been really helpful, especially with the responsibility of dealing with money,” Fuller said.

Under Minnesota law, funds cannot be returned in the form of cash when an inmate is released. Williams said when Mickelson was released, the jail gave him a debit card, with a $25 deduction for his booking fees, along with a list of card fees. They fees include $2.75 ATM fee, a $1.50 fee to check the balance on the card and a $3 fee to transfer the fund to a bank, according to the lawsuit.

Mickelson was not given the option to receive a check instead of a debit card, Williams said.

Weekly fee: $1.50

The cards also have a $1.50 weekly maintenance fee, which is quadruple the amount discharged inmates in Texas’ Dallas County have to pay. There the maintenance fee is $1.50 each month.

“If this were a situation where someone, for whatever reason, decided that they wanted to get one of these preloaded debit cards, and they agreed to the fees, then that would be one thing,’ Williams said. “But they are giving the debit cards without anyone having any meaningful say in the matter.”

Earlier this year, Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez vowed to look into the issue when she learned about the fees associated with the debit cards. “They gave us this money, they should get it back,” Valdez told the Dallas Morning News in April.

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