Prisoners Do Time - And Pick Up the Tab For Room and Board

Across the country, a growing anti-prisoner sentiment has intersected with an antitax mood. The result: prisoners are increasingly being required to foot the bill for their time behind bars.

From New Hampshire to Michigan, inmates are asked to pay states or counties for room-and-board fees, medical expenses, and even the legal costs of the trials that led to their own convictions.

Last year alone states passed two dozen new laws calling for some form of prisoner reimbursement. Arizona has a new $2 monthly utility charge for inmates who have at least one major electric appliance. Colorado charges a fee for probation supervision. Iowa and Minnesota charge lawsuit-filing fees.

The idea of criminals paying for their own fees is not new. But it is becoming increasingly popular in this era of "getting tough on crime." Taxpayers no longer want to pick up the tab for the nation's ballooning 1.6 million prisoner population, and politicians, looking to appeal to voters, have become strong backers of such legislation.

"People are sick of crime and looking for some form of distributive justice," says Dennis Payne, a criminal law expert at Michigan State University.

But civil libertarians claim that the practice unfairly punishes prisoners and provides no real gain for society. "Instead of doing anything realistic about crime," says Jenni Gainesborough of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project, "we're making life more miserable for prisoners because it's so much easier to do." Since most prisoners are poor, she adds, administrative costs may outstrip collections.

Federal prisons, which house white-collar criminals among their population of 100,000, have long charged inmates for expenses. But most state and county inmates can afford to pay only a small share of their costs. Feeding and housing one prisoner in the United States costs an average $5,000 a year.

Still, advocates of charging prisoners say, even partial payments add up.

*About half of Michigan's county jails charge inmates $15 to $30 a day for room and board. "Anything collected helps in that fewer taxpayer dollars are being spent," says Cathleen Clintworth, executive director of the Michigan Sheriffs Association. Macomb County, where many prisoners have kept their automobile jobs while serving time, has recouped more than $4 million in 11 years of charging for room and board.

*The state government in Virginia last year collected more than $800,000 by charging for room and board, postage and copier use, and inmate-initiated medical visits.

*More state and local governments are charging a small fee for inmate visits to the dentist, optometrist, or doctor. Prison officials say the fee has cut "frivolous" visits by those who just want to get out of their cells by 25 to 40 percent.

Money is deducted from inmate accounts (a few come into the system with substantial funds) or from wages earned either outside prison (in work release programs) or inside prison. Room-and-board charges have spread as inmate job opportunities have improved. Some 25 states have joint-ventures inside prisons with the private sector. Longtime opposition from organized labor spurred a federal requirement that inmates must be paid the prevailing wage.

This summer, the Wisconsin Department of Corrections began two new in-prison projects, one with a glove company and the other with a conveyer manufacturer. Steve Kronzer, who directs the projects and hopes to get legislative approval for three more next year, says Wisconsin will deduct 50 percent of the prisoners' gross income for room and board. "Nobody suffers ... everybody benefits," he says.

Sometimes inmate charges are collected only near the end of the prison stay. The desire to get probation or parole acts as leverage for paying up, officials say. Occasionally, property has been seized and collection agencies used.

In Michigan all prisoners convicted of felonies must pay $40 into a state victims' rights fund. "They all pay it or they basically don't get parole," says Michael Thompson, president of the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan.

So far, there have been few court challenges to offender fees. A few prisoners have challenged the charges for doctor visits, with mixed results. The ACLU's Ms. Gainesborough says requiring prisoners to pay the costs of their own prosecution is the most "worrying" and legally vulnerable development.

Yet John Costello, a criminal law specialist at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., says most offender fees make good sense and are likely to spread. "I see no constitutional problem with them whatsoever," he says, "as long as you give [prisoners] due process and everybody gets treated the same."

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