DETROIT (AP) — Paul Olden walked out of prison last year with $26,000 in debt.
Without knowing it, for years he racked up child support payments while he was behind bars.
Olden was shocked to learn of his debt in 2012, when his grandmother told him that she'd found some mail from Wayne County showing that he owed $20,000 in child support. Meanwhile, he was earning $1.54 a day at the prison barbershop.
"I'm like, 'You sure it don't say $2,000? How do I pay $20,000?'" Olden, 35, who was paroled in November and lives in Detroit, recalled to the Detroit Free Press. "And then also having the idea over your head that if I don't pay this money, then I could potentially go back to jail."
State law allows parents to ask the Friend of the Court to stop their monthly child support orders while they're incarcerated because they don't have a steady income. In most of these instances, prisoners' child support obligations are set to $0 for the time that they're incarcerated, Wayne County officials said. But former prisoners and attorneys in Detroit say that option isn't common knowledge among inmates. And those who try to stop their payments must navigate a complex system from behind bars.
Missed payments and court fees can snowball into tens of thousands of dollars by the time an inmate walks free. This avoidable debt adds another burden for people trying to rebuild their lives after prison, when finding housing and employment can be particularly difficult.
It's not just a problem in and around Detroit. People across the country are leaving prison weighed down by child support debt, said Lynne Haney, a sociology professor at New York University who has studied the intersection of mass incarceration and child support enforcement. National data is limited because most states haven't acknowledged the extent of the issue, she said.
"It's quite difficult to gauge the scope," Haney said, "but we do know that it's a problem everywhere."
It's tough to estimate how many Michigan inmates leave prison saddled with mounting child support debt.
It's a common issue among incarcerated clients of the Detroit Justice Center. The nonprofit law firm runs a pilot program at four prisons for inmates preparing for reentry to Wayne County. Attorneys provide free legal services that range from relieving child support debt to clearing old traffic tickets and outstanding arrest warrants.
Staff with Wayne County's Friend of the Court office, which collects and distributes child support payments, has reviewed 388 prisoners' cases through July of this year. But they don't know how many inmates they've yet to identify who are still being charged monthly.
Officials say Friend of the Court offices across the state have stepped up efforts in recent months to improve their process for identifying prisoners whose payments should be temporarily stopped.
There's no automated system to alert workers when a parent begins a prison sentence, which means cases can fall through the cracks.
"Oftentimes, what occurs is someone goes to prison and no one ever tells anybody (with Friend of the Court) that the person who owes child support is incarcerated, so the money is just cycling, cycling, cycling," said Wayne County Circuit Court Administrator Zenell Brown.
There are two ways that parents can try to clear at least part of their debt after prison. If child support payments are owed to the state as payback for their child receiving public assistance benefits, the formerly incarcerated parent can apply to have their arrears forgiven. When the money is owed to the parent who has custody of the child, that parent can agree to waive it.
For others who can't get their debt wiped clean, it's a barrier as they try to reenter society.
Nicole Huddleston, an attorney with the Detroit Justice Center, said some of her clients have quit their jobs after prison because they felt defeated to see their wages garnished to pay off debt.
"It's unfathomable to me that you can rack up $60,000 or $70,000 of debt and you have no ability to pay because you're incarcerated," Huddleston said.
One father told the Detroit Free Press he had considered returning to a life of selling drugs to avoid having his wages garnished. Another man who found work said he didn't file income tax returns because the government could have intercepted his refund.
This type of debt is "completely preventable," said Erin Keith, a Detroit Justice Center attorney.
Damian Black saw his child support obligations for his five children balloon to more than $72,000 during his nearly 21-year prison term. "Ain't no way I'm gonna dig out this hole," Black thought before the Detroit Justice Center helped him clear the debt following his release in November.
"I feel like now I have a fighting chance of being successful and getting a job and starting my life over," Black, 44, said in July.
Olden, the father who accrued $26,000 in debt in prison, now works at a barbershop in Detroit and spends weekends with his 14-year-old daughter.
The Detroit Justice Center helped him arrange a mediation with his daughter's mother, who agreed to waive the child support that he owed her during his incarceration.
"My child's mother, she understood the burden that child support has on a person, especially being in my position as a returning citizen," said Olden, who was incarcerated for almost 12 years. "She wanted to make things a little easier on me, not just for the benefit of myself, but for the benefit of my child."
Those who've studied the issue argue that insurmountable debt only hinders a parent's efforts to support their children after prison.
"And it doesn't help the mothers," said Haney, the NYU professor. "Essentially, what you're doing is you're putting uncollectible debt on the one person who could potentially assist her: the co-parent."
A number of pilot initiatives have helped incarcerated parents on a relatively small scale over the years.
Law school students deployed by the grant-funded Michigan Prisoner Support Adjustment Project in 2004 reduced inmates' monthly payments in more than 3,300 cases. A report detailing the effort said that few prisoners know how to request that their payments be modified. "Impossible-to-pay" debt continues to build up unless someone steps in, the report said.
A hurdle for the Friend of the Court to intervene has been learning that a parent is incarcerated, said John Nevin, a spokesman for the Michigan Supreme Court, which oversees the state's courts through the State Court Administrative Office.
A federal regulation that took effect in 2017 requires that states inform parents who are incarcerated for more than six months of their right to request that their child support payments be adjusted.
To comply, staff at Michigan's Friend of the Court offices in March started running a monthly report that pulls from state corrections data and federal sources to find prisoners with active child support cases. Nevin said this new report was designed to generate better results than years past.
Still, local officials said information about inmates can get buried and overlooked because the technology isn't automated, and state prisoner and child support data is kept on separate systems.
That's not a problem in North Dakota, where the state automatically identifies when a parent who owes child support enters prison. As the state made technology upgrades to more easily identify inmates who owed child support, the legislature passed a law that does away with child support obligations for parents in prison.
The move bypasses the court's involvement in suspending child support, saving time for judges and administrative staff, said Jim Fleming, director of North Dakota's Child Support Program.
It started as Fleming's department looked for ways to boost efficiency. Most of the time, the agency wasn't successful in collecting past-due child support that piled up during incarceration.
"We've been able to refocus our efforts to other cases where we think we might be able to get more collections," Fleming said of the state's collection efforts since the law took effect in 2018.
Steven Davis started getting monthly child support notices in prison in 2001.
At one point, he said he filed paperwork to prove that he was incarcerated and couldn't swing the payments with the $30 a month he earned behind bars. But Wayne County kept sending notices, he said, and his debt swelled to $32,000.
He grew so frustrated that he eventually stopped reading the letters.
"I just got pissed off, and I started tearing them up and throwing them in the garbage," said Davis, 52. "I'm a ward of the state. I don't make no money. I make $1.20 a day in prison. Why are they trying to collect child support payments from someone who's incarcerated?"
Davis, of Detroit, was released from prison in 2017. He was able to get his debt reduced to $16,000.
Speaking generally, Wayne County Friend of the Court Erin Lincoln said an automated billing system could explain why an inmate would receive bills at a prison address without having their case reviewed and adjusted.
"With us and our caseload here, it's entirely possible an address may get updated automatically," Lincoln said. "It could be updated to a prison address, and it's possible the system sends out a bill to that person automatically, and there's not necessarily a human here who's looking at the case."
The Wayne County office has about 200 employees and 250,000 child support cases. Counties with smaller caseloads have more flexibility and time to identify prisoners' cases without receiving a request to pause payments. In Oakland County, for example, 150 employees handle 50,000 child support cases.
Ultimately, parents are required to update the court when their address changes. Incarcerated parents are encouraged to call or send a letter to Friend of the Court to request that their child support order be adjusted.
"I think sometimes people are scared of Friend of the Court," Lincoln said. "They tend to just hide from us. That's the worst thing they can do."
Davis said he struggled for months to find work after 19 years incarcerated. He eventually landed a job making $14.50 an hour at an automotive plant, where $120 is garnished from each paycheck.
His children are adults now, but he still needs to pay about $14,000 before he'll be free of his child support debt.
"I'm trying to get myself together," he said. "I'm trying to get my own place, a car. I wanna keep this from hanging over my head."
Information from: Detroit Free Press, http://www.freep.com
An AP Member Exchange shared by the Detroit Free Press.