A year and a half ago, after a grand jury declined to indict police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, protests swept the nation. Portland, Oregon, was no exception. More than 2,000 people rallied outside the Multnomah County Justice Center the day after the decision was announced. Danica Brown, 48, joined hundreds who swarmed the streets, blocking traffic and bridges. A PhD candidate at Portland State University and a seasoned activist, Brown was one of seven protesters arrested that day.
Brown recalls the experience as unpleasant: As she knelt on the ground in handcuffs, one officer took a trophy photo. She was shuttled to a local police station, for a brief interrogation, then taken back to the Justice Center, where she was charged with disorderly conduct and interfering with a police officer.
Brown was released at 2:30 am on November 26, 2014, at a loss about how to get home, nine miles away. Her wallet, cellphone, and keys were in her backpack at the first police station. The $30.97 she had in her pocket was taken by the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office, which operates the Justice Center jail. Until May of that year, correctional officers would have simply handed her the money back, and she’d have been able to grab a taxi home. Instead, says Brown, an officer handed her a sheaf of papers and a piece of plastic—a Numi Prestige Prepaid MasterCard—that held her cash.
The materials included a densely worded brochure explaining the terms and fees associated with the debit card, and a list of nearby ATMs. But Brown had left her glasses at home and the type was too small to read; the officer didn’t offer any words of explanation.
Standing on the steps of the Justice Center, after being released, “I was kind of freaking out,” Brown says. “It’s not a safe area. I had no money, no phone, there’s no train that time of night.” Brown lucked out when her partner showed up, hoping to find her. “I was so relieved he was there,” she says.
Over the next week Brown used the Numi card to purchase coffee and groceries. Five days later, she was charged $5.95 for a monthly service fee and then 95 cents for a declined service charge. The criminal charges against Brown were eventually dismissed, but according to transaction records, she lost 22 percent of her money to fees.
Numi Financial describes itself as a “leader in stored value card solutions for the criminal justice and corrections industry.” Its parent company, Stored Value Cards, based in Carlsbad, California, provides debit-card services to jails in 44 states through Numi Financial and Futura Card Services, issued by banks. The terms for the card used in Multnomah County lists 11 possible fees—the $5.95 monthly fee, a $2.95 fee for ATM withdrawals, $0.95 for a declined transaction, $1 to check the balance, and $9.95 to have the balance refunded by check. Some cards have as many as 19 fees, a maintenance fee as high as $15 a month, and higher fees for international transactions. As for the banks that issue prepaid cards like these, they spent, on average, only 10.3 cents per transaction in 2013, including processing and third-party fees, according to the Federal Reserve Bank.