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KERA's One Crisis Away project focuses on North Texans living on the financial edge.

Calculating The Price Of Prison: How Time Behind Bars Erodes Wealth

Allison V. Smith
KERA news special contributor
Marc Wilson spent seven years in prison for drug trafficking. He lost his savings, his house and his nursing license.

Incarceration decimates wealth. That's the central theme KERA's Courtney Collins explored for the last month in the series, One Crisis Away: The Price of Prison.

She dug into that price for a guilty man who lost everything, a convicted womanwho couldn't find a decent job for years after prison and a man who spent two decades behind bars for a murder he says he didn't commit.

Collins talked with KERA's vice president of news, Rick Holter, about the people who shared their stories for the series and the challenges they're facing.


Marc Wilson was featured in the series. What kind of life did he have before prison?

"He was a nurse. He owned a car and a home. He had about $20,000 in savings. And then he drove cocaine across state lines, and was convicted of drug trafficking. He ended up serving seven years in a Missouri prison and lost pretty much everything when he was inside. All his savings went to pay attorneys. His house was foreclosed on. He also lost his nursing license. What I didn't know is that when someone is convicted of a felony, some professional licenses are temporarily suspended, others are permanently revoked, and that really affects that person's ability to earn in prison."

Being incarcerated also meant Wilson couldn't pay child support. How much did that stack up while he was in prison?

"When he got out, his child support bill hit $40,000. Last month, the payments that stacked up while he was in prison were forgiven. He's still behind, though, and a lot of interest was tacked on. So now he's trying to chip away at the $16,000 he still owes."

Ed Ates maintains his innocence. What would he be entitled to if exonerated?

"All along, he said he had nothing to do with the murder that landed him in prison [for 20 years]. A lot of people believe him. A podcast devoted dozens of episodes to his case, and the Innocence Project of Texas is fighting for his exoneration. Now, if he gets what's known as a finding of actual innocence, he'll be paid $80,000 per year of wrongful conviction. That’s $1.6 million. That lump sum is not taxed, and Ed would also get an annuity and money for higher education. No doubt that's life changing money, but this is a man who had a 3 year-old daughter and a pregnant wife when he went to prison. All those years, 20, are gone, and it's just about impossible to put a price on that."