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Prisoners: When it Comes to Debtor-Creditor Issues, They’re Just Like Us

posted by Nathalie Martin

Once or twice a year, students from the University of New Mexico School of Law Clinic visit a women’s prison to provide brief legal services to those incarcerated there. We always assumed most of  inmates’ questions dealt with family law, so my group, the Business and Tax Clinic (the “B & T Clinic”), never went. This year, our Qualified Tax Expert, Professor Pamelya Herndon wanted to attend, and three of our students joined her. Professor Herndon suspected that at least a few of the women would have tax or consumer issues that we might be able to assist with. When our posse got to the prison, they were amazed by the demand for our services. Our mini-group was at least as busy as the groups answering questions about guardianships, divorces and parenting plans. Sixteen of the 64 women that were served that day had questions about taxes and debt. 

The students were also surprised by the variety of questions the inmates had. By and large they had all of the same tax and consumer issues that we see in the clinic on a regular basis. Certainly these women face many additional obstacles in accessing answers and assistance while incarcerated, but their actual questions were very similar to issues we see in the general population. The women asked about bankruptcy, student loans, payday loans, public benefits, identity theft, foreclosures, mortgages, tax debt, filing taxes, gross receipts tax, setting up bank accounts, checking their credit, and repairing their credit. At least one had her identity stolen while in prison. Another, realizing she’d fall behind on her mortgage during incarceration, retuned the keys to her home to her lender by mail, only to receive a cryptic letter back from the lender apologizing for the “confusion.” The most interesting story of the day relates to fees incurred through an on-line company that offers to help consumers find payday loans. The details of this fascinating story are contained in my next post.

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