A now vacant block at Osborn Correctional Institute in Somers

Two state residents have filed a federal class-action lawsuit representing more than 30,000 current and former inmates to get Gov. Ned Lamont and Attorney General William Tong to stop charging incarcerated people for each day spent in prison.

Theresa Beatty, a Stamford resident who was incarcerated for two years nearly two decades ago was issued a bill for $83,762.26 after her mother passed away in 2020. She’s now afraid to sell her mother’s home since it will mean the state will take either half of the inheritance or the $83,762, whichever is less.

“I’m speaking out because I don’t want anyone else to go through what I’m going through,” Beatty said in a statement Monday. “It’s not just about me, it’s about the tens of thousands of people coming out after me.”

Michael Llorens, of New Britain, has racked up a $272,655 bill for his three-year sentence on a burglary conviction that attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Connecticut contend can be charged to him at any time.

“The state is charging $90,000 a year,” said ACLU CT attorney Dan Barrett who is representing Llorens and Beatty in the lawsuit along with attorneys from Hurwitz, Sagarin, Slossberg and Knuff, LLC. “It’s appalling that they are charging that amount of debt just for one year. In the case of Mr. Llorens, that’s $270,000 for three years. Most people who are in prison are destitute.”

The lawsuit claims that the cost of incarceration legislation that has billed inmates and former inmates since 1997 is unconstitutional and violates the 8th Amendment, which includes that no excessive fines be issued in connection with convictions.

A spokesman for Lamont said the administration had no comment on the lawsuit.

“We are reviewing the lawsuit and cannot comment on the specific claims,” said Elizabeth Benton, spokeswoman for Tong’s office. “State statutes currently require the state to recover the cost of incarceration, and these liens typically originate directly from DAS (Department of Administrative Services). The Office of the Attorney General becomes involved in certain contested cases, but has had no involvement in the specific cases involving Ms. Beatty or Mr. Llorens. There is a proposal before the legislature currently to repeal the cost of incarceration statute.”

A coalition of advocates who are trying to get the law repealed during the current legislative session called the practice of charging for the cost of incarceration a barrier to families building intergenerational wealth that disproportionately impacts communities of color.

“I view this as perpetuating intergenerational poverty,” Quinnipiac Law Professor Sarah Russell, who is the director of the school’s legal clinic, said in October. “If you were incarcerated and leaving money to a child, that child has already suffered from your absence and from the absence of your income. But if you want to leave money to them within 20 years of your release, 50% of that will be taken. It also impacts you if you receive an inheritance that could be used to help you get back on your feet. People who have been incarcerated already have challenges.”

The law mostly impacts people of color since they make up between 70 to 80% of the prison population, Russell said. “It certainly has a racial and ethnic disparate impact,” she said. “It’s continuing the cycle of poverty because the look back is such a long time.”

That bill, HB 5072, was referred to the Judiciary Committee on Feb. 14 but so far no other action has been taken.

a green button that says support and red button that says oppose

The state has collected $18.4 million in the past three years from formerly or currently incarcerated individuals who have gained “windfalls” such as an inheritance or a legal victory in a lawsuit, according to DAS which collects the money.

Although the debt is referred to as the cost of incarceration, the funds don’t go to the state Department of Correction, Barrett said in the lawsuit. The money goes into the state’s General Fund, he said.

The lawsuit also alleges that Tong often uses the cost of incarceration law to shield the DOC from the financial consequences of its own wrongdoing. “For example, during a recent lawsuit brought by an incarcerated woman forced to give birth to her baby in her cell after being denied medical care, Tong’s employees frequently reminded the plaintiff that if she went to trial, they would claw back at least 50% of anything a jury were to award her,” the lawsuit said. “According to her attorney, in light of this, she ultimately decided to settle for a much smaller amount.”

The state is currently charging $249 a day for incarceration which amounts to more than $90,000 a year, the lawsuit said.

When Beatty was held on pre-trial detention for 452 days in 2000 and 2001 she generated a $55,000 bill for being incarcerated without a conviction, the lawsuit said. She was also charged $33,517 for the time she spent incarcerated on a drug conviction in 2001 and 2002.

At the time of her conviction, a judge did not impose a $10,000 fine which was permitted as part of her sentence, the lawsuit.

Beatty, 58, is now a certified nursing assistant who helps care for her older brother who is disabled, the court documents said. She also cared for her mother up until her death in 2020. Beatty will inherit 40% of the $590,000 value of her parents home when it is sold.

Her share will likely be about $230,000 before probate administrative expenses, the lawsuit said. But if the home is sold, she’ll need money to find a new place to live, Barrett said.

“Though Ms. Beatty was briefly incarcerated nearly two decades ago, like many people, she had no idea that she apparently owed thousands of dollars for her stay in prison,” the lawsuit said.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The original version of this story misstated the year the state started billing inmates and former inmates for the cost of their incarceration. The correct year the practice began is 1997.