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Jail Debit Card Hits Inmate With Fees

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Some hidden fees on a Dallas County jail inmate's debit cards surprised county commissioners and even the sheriff.  A complaint from a former jail inmate brought the fees to light.

Former inmate Steve Mathis of Garland told commissioners he was being charged monthly and individual transaction fees for using the debit card the jail gave him when he was released. Inmates now get a card for the amount of cash they surrender upon arrest and that's left in their commissary accounts if it’s more than $20.

That news about the fees did not play well with Commissioner John Wiley Price.

“But let me just tell you, it’s his money," Price said, noting this was the first he'd heard about any fees. "He said he didn’t give us no bank card, he gave us cash.  He should be able to get his money back.  I got a real problem if they’re being charged a fee.”

The card charges a $1.50 monthly maintenance fee. Plus, bank ATM fees apply, unless the card’s used at a network of credit unions – the closest on Commerce Street downtown. County Judge Clay Jenkins says if someone could walk across the street or a couple of blocks and cash in the card, that would be okay.

“But it is bothersome that people would put together money to help a loved one that’s in jail and then somebody’s making money off them six months later on the people that are unbanked," Jenkins said.  

Jail officials promised to take another look, and possibly put a credit union ATM in the jail.  The debit card program was instituted to cut down on cash at the jail. Dallas County is one of the first large jails to try the debit cards.    

Former KERA reporter BJ Austin spent more than 25 years in broadcast journalism, anchoring and reporting in Atlanta, New York, New Orleans and Dallas. Along the way, she covered Atlanta City Hall, the Georgia Legislature and the corruption trials of Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards.