A federal appeals court ruled Monday there’s nothing illegal about the state taking money from an inmate’s wages for them to have when they’re released.
And the fact that the prisoner is going to die behind bars doesn’t change that.
In a unanimous decision, the judges rejected challenges by Timothy Lee Ward to a state law which requires officials at the Department of Corrections to withhold part of his wages until the total in the account reaches $50. They said Ward doesn’t have the legal interest in the money which permits him to sue.
State law requires that inmates be paid for their work at a rate determined by the state corrections director. Those funds can be used for buying items at an inmate store or for long-distance phone calls.
Ward said he should have access to all of those funds, including that $50 set aside for “gate money.’’
He argued he will never see those funds because he’s virtually uncertain to get released: Ward is serving a 197-year term after being convicted in Pima County Superior Court of various charges of child molesting. That, he said, amounts to an unconstitutional taking of his property.
Appellate Judge Richard Clifton said inmates do have a “protected property right’’ in their wages. But the judge said those rights are not absolute.
For example, he said Arizona law has deductions not only for that “gate money’’ but also for court costs, room and board and court-ordered dependent care. And the corrections director has specific authority to limit how an inmate can spend his or her money.
What that means, Clifton wrote, is that while the money at issue is, in fact, Ward’s property, state law does not give him the ability to spend it how and when he wants.
As to that issue of the fact that Ward is effectively serving a life sentence, the appellate judges noted that there are circumstances where people do get out, ranging from appeals and sentences being commuted to changes in law.
And even if he does not, the judges were unswayed: They noted any money left in an inmate account go to cremation or burial costs, with anything left after that given to his survivors.