PHOENIX – Bank of America Corp. will repay tens of thousands of released Arizona prison inmates for what advocacy groups say were excessive charges to access money on debit cards they received when they got out of prison under a lawsuit settlement announced Tuesday.
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The settlement of the class-action lawsuit brought by inmates includes an agreement that the bank stop charging the fees, which it did in April. The bank has contracted to provide the debit card services since 2012. About $168,000 will be repaid if all inmates are located.
The bank was charging inmates $15 to withdraw cash from a teller and other fees regular customers weren't charged. The inmates receive the cards loaded with cash they earned at prison jobs or was confiscated when they were arrested when they are released.
Bank of America spokesman Will Wilson called the terms standard for pre-paid cards and said the settlement was in everyone's best interests.
The settlement in a lawsuit brought by a Philadelphia legal firm that specializes in class-action cases is the second involving bank card fees charged to inmates in the past year. The same firm, Golomb & Honik, P.C., settled a case against JP Morgan Chase & Co. last year brought by inmates released from federal prisons. The bank agreed to pay nearly $450,000 to released inmates charged the fees.
The Arizona Justice Alliance and Reinventing Reentry are the two advocacy groups that helped enlist the law firm. Sue Ellen Allen of Reinventing Reentry said released inmates have a hard enough time reintegrating into society, and prison systems and banks should try to assist them and not gouge them of cash they need to get back to work.
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"This is a message to departments of corrections and to banks that charging exorbitant fees to people who are getting out and desperately want to be members of the community again is really not the message we want," Allen said.
Former Arizona prison inmate Daria Brill said she had about $2,000 on the books when she was released in 2016 after serving five years for a drug sales offense. She said she was shocked when Bank of America charged her a fee to withdraw cash on her card at a teller window, since she had previously been a customer and knew that a card issued by the bank normally carries no withdraw fees. She also said the teller could not tell her how much was son her card, so she had to guess and return a second time, which cost her another $15 fee.
"It's just amazing to me that institutions can rally think that it's OK to take a population that's trying to succeed and do the right thing and turn around and take advantage of them," Brill said. "It feels really good to be part of justice and hold people accountable. I was held accountable for my crime. I did my time, and it's nice to see that there's justice beyond that."