Bank of America Accused|of Preying on Prisoners


     PHOENIX (CN) — People released from Arizona prisons say in a federal class action that they are “forced” to become Bank of America customers by being given a BofA debit card, then charged “exorbitant and unusual fees” to withdraw their own money — $15 for each transaction with a teller.
     Lead plaintiff Daria Brill says Bank of America preys upon “one of the most vulnerable groups imaginable — releasees from Arizona corrections facilities.”
     “If these individuals want their own money after they are released from prison, they are forced to accept a ‘consumer relationship’ with BofA,” Brill and two other named plaintiffs say in the Nov. 3 complaint.
     And it’s a monopoly: “BofA is the exclusive provider of debit cards issued to Arizona inmates upon their release from an Arizona corrections facility.”
     Inmates may earn small amounts of money through prison work programs or get it from family or friends. The money is kept in a custodial account until the inmate is released from prison.
     In Arizona, all prisoners who are released must accept their money on a Bank of America CashPay Debit Card.
     The Arizona Department of Corrections releases 19,000 inmates per year.
     Brill et al. say they are not provided any information on fees associated with the account.
     “They get charged a fee just to walk up to a teller to find out how much money they have in their accounts,” their attorney Richard Golomb said in an interview.
     “The fees are based on a debit card contract that they never agreed to and never signed.”
     They are charged $15 fee transaction at a bank teller window, and a $2.50 fee to speak with a customer service representative over the phone, according to the lawsuit.
     To withdraw money from the account costs $1.50 per withdrawal, even if performed at a Bank of America ATM.
     The plaintiffs say they are supposed to receive a fee schedule on the activation instruction sheet for the debit card, but did not.
     A spokesman for Bank of America said it had no comment.
     Brill et al. seek class certification, restitution, rescission and reformation of contracts, and compensatory and punitive damages for fraud, conversion and unjust enrichment.
     Attorney Golomb is with Golomb & Honik of Philadelphia. Local counsel for the class is Jo Ann Niemi with Anapol Weiss, of Scottsdale.
     A similar class action was filed Tuesday in Nevada, against the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office. Lead plaintiff Justin Carl Luckett claims the sheriff’s office returns money to prisoners who were arrested carrying more than $40 in cash on a Numi Prestige Prepaid MasterCard.
     Numi has no bank branches or ATMs in Nevada, and other banks charge $3 per ATM transaction, with a limit of $300 per day, according to the complaint.
     Luckett claims the issuer of these debit cards makes “millions of dollars each year” from fees and forfeitures from prisoners released by Washoe County.
     Neither Numi nor MasterCard are parties to the complaint; only the sheriff’s office and the sheriff are.
     Luckett seeks class certification, restitution, and punitive damages for unconstitutional takings, denial of equal protection and other civil rights charges. He is represented by Mark Thierman with Thierman Buck in Reno.

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