Cash-strapped jails begin charging inmates for snacks – even room and board
Shades of Charles Dickens, critics say the controversial measures create debtors prisons
(Page 2 of 2)
This week, legislators in New Jersey joined their counterparts in Pennsylvania in proposing the introduction of daily fees of about $10 to $15 to offset the estimated annual $38,700 cost of an individual's incarceration.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Georgia lawmakers have discussed a $40-a-day fee for inmates deemed able to afford it, and one of the nation's highest prisoner tariffs, $60-a-night, was recently approved in Springfield, Oregon.
Others are taking a piecemeal approach to raising money from detainees, rather than a pay-per-stay. Some examples: in Maricopa County, Arizona, Sheriff Joe Arpaio's prisoners pay $1.25 a day for their meals; weekend-only inmates pay a fee in Virginia's Hanover and Caroline Counties, contributing $29,000 a year to the running costs of Pamunkey jail; and in Ware County, Georgia, fees are deducted from inmates' accounts for medical and dental expenses, as long as they have at least $10 to their name.
Major Roger Paxton, head of corrections in Ohio's Richland County, asked commissioners to consider a $30 booking fee and medical and other charges to help Sheriff Steve Sheldon close a $500,000 budget gap.
"We had to lay off 14 employees," he says. "We have to look at all potential sources of revenue to offset the costs we pay and to be able to do the job we're supposed to do."
"We looked at a pay-to-stay charge but there were a couple of issues," he says.
"Firstly, the return on the investment is very low, we figured it would come close to 20 per cent. You'd have to hire a full-time person to administer it, and pay their salary and benefits, and come out losing money or just breaking even.
"Then if somebody doesn't pay, what do you do? Do you issue a warrant for them, have them arrested again, put them back in jail? You've created a debtors' prison, and that's neither wanted nor needed. For us, it wasn't the right thing to do."
Civil liberties groups have begun raising questions about the legality of charging inmates for room and board.
In 2006, a Georgia county had to repay money to some inmates who had been made to pay for the time they had been incarcerated before their conviction.
Critics say the idea of expecting prisoners to pay is absurd.
"They're typically poor people anyway from poor families, and when you take $45 a day from them that's money that doesn't go for groceries or rent," says Sean O'Brien, formerly Chief Public Defender in Kansas City, Missouri, and now an associate professor of law at University of Missouri-Kansas City Law School.
"In abstract, it sounds good, user fees for prisons, but it's a ridiculous notion. Really it's a poor person's tax. Some counties are lukewarm to it and others have rejected it because they know they're never going to get it. You can't get blood from a turnip."
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.