Cash-strapped jails begin charging inmates for snacks – even room and board

Shades of Charles Dickens, critics say the controversial measures create debtors prisons

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

A basic tenet of criminal justice holds that an offender should pay for his crimes.

So in these recessionary times, inmates are finding their pocketbooks lighter than ever as a growing number of jails and sheriffs departments exploit that principle to counter rising costs and budget cutbacks.

In Florida, for example, which has the nation's third-largest prison system, authorities have found a new way to make sure an inmate pays his debt to society - increasing the price of chocolate buns, among a host of other items from its jail canteens, by 244 per cent.

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All profits made from the snack shops – about $30 million in 2008 – are ploughed straight into the general fund of a state grappling with a $6 billion budget deficit.

"We have sympathy but it's tough on everyone," says Gretl Plessinger, spokesperson for the Florida Department of Corrections. "Prices are going up everywhere."

Elsewhere, charging inmates for their bed and board seems to be the way to go.

Missouri's Taney County has just spent $27 million on a new state-of-the-art jail with facilities that might rival anything found locally through an online hotel search.

The nightly tariff is a competitive $45, full board, and although the room service might lack a few of the luxuries of the outside world, county leaders are determined that their 'guests' pay their own way.

"It doesn't make sense that our citizens should have to pay for the irresponsible behavior of others in these tough economic times," says Jeffrey Merrell, the prosecuting attorney for Taney County, which began billing inmates seven weeks ago.

"It just makes good common sense to require those serving time in the jail to pay for the time and services spent," he says. "Although we may not be able to recoup every dollar spent to house all of our inmates, every dollar that can be collected provides some bit of relief for the taxpayers."

Not surprisingly, inmates and their families are not happy at having to dig deeper in their pockets to bail out states and counties that no longer have the funds to maintain jail services at pre-recession levels.

The Florida Department of Corrections has received more than a hundred letters and emails from inmates' families complaining about the price hikes.

"It's like we're a private ATM for the corrections department and they know there's nothing we can do about it," says the wife of one inmate serving a life sentence at Florida's Martin County Correctional Institute.

The woman, who asked to remain anonymous because she feared repercussions for her husband, said she can't afford to send him more than $40 a week. But that, she claims, is quickly swallowed up by the new higher rates on essential items such as sunscreen for when he works outside tending the prison grounds.

"It's crazy. It doesn't leave them enough money to be able to afford to eat properly," she says. "What they've done is sly. They reduced portion size at mealtimes to save money, leaving the men hungry, then made it sound like they were doing them a favor by increasing the amount they could spend in the canteen from $50 to $75 a week. Then they turn around and jack up all the prices. They make them pay 99 cents for a packet of Ramen noodles. You can get 10 of those for that price in the supermarket."

Other price hikes in Florida's 137 detention facilities, which came into effect in late March and which Ms. Plessinger blames on a change of supplier, include a 150 per cent rise in the cost of Hersheys chocolate and Snickers bars to 89c, a jump from 61 cents to $1.49 for a Mrs Freshley's chocolate iced Honeybun and a 275 per cent increase in a small bag of Doritos chips to $1.29.

Florida calculates it can improve its bottom line without resorting to directly billing inmates. But that concept, while not new, is quickly gaining popularity around the country as the recession continues to bite.

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.

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."

Not every cash-strapped county sees prisoners as cash cows, however. Deputy Tom Erickson, the sheriff's spokesman in Johnson County, Kansas, says authorities there rejected the idea.

"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.

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