Due to massive state budget cuts, across the country state prison facilities are beginning to charge inmates in order to garner the funds to maintain detention services. This week The Christian Science Monitor reported that a growing number of jails and sheriffs departments are also charging inmates and raising costs for a number of items -- from snacks to room and board -- a move authorities say is necessary to counter rising costs and budget cutbacks.
Charging inmates for their own incarceration - also known as "pay-to-stay" fees - is a trend that began about 20 years ago in Alabama, and soared in popularity around the country under the "tough-on-crime" policies of the Reagan and Clinton eras. By 2004 about one-third of the county jails in the United States had policies charging inmates for their own incarceration. During that same time period more than 50% of state correctional systems also had pay-to-stay fees. Some of these fees were collected through the inmate's bank account during incarceration and others through civil litigation aimed at a prisoner's estate or properties once they were released.
The trend, while not new, is quickly gaining popularity again around the country as the recession deepens. Some counties want to charge inmates the actual cost of care per day - as much as $45 - $60 in some places. That means a year behind bars could cost an inmate more than $16,000. Besides charging inmates for room, board, clothing and other related costs, some prisons - including ones in North Carolina, Virginia, and Florida - charge inmates every time they get written up for breaking the rules. Several states in the South also charge probationers monthly fees for seeing a probation officer.
It's already been a big year for pay-to-stay programs over all. This month lawmakers in New Jersey and Pennsylvania introduced legislation that would charge daily fees of about $10 to $15 for incarceration and electronic monitoring services. During this legislative session, Georgia lawmakers debated a measure that would have allowed state officials to collect a per diem of up to $40 from "financially capable" prisoners. One of the nation's highest prisoner tariffs, $60-a-night, was recently approved in Springfield, Oregon. Earlier this year, Maricopa County, Ariz., began charging inmates $1.25 a day for meals in the county jail. And last month in Richmond, Va., the city jail started charging inmates $1 a day to help cover the costs of their stay behind bars.
In a more controversial policy, several states also charge inmates for their medical and dental needs. In Georgia last month, Gov. Sonny Perdue signed a measure into law giving state prisons more power to charge inmates for their medical costs while behind bars. This is a fee that state and county corrections officials can deduct from inmates' accounts. While several prisons around the country charge co-pays for medical procedures, prison rights advocates have argued that this is a dangerous trend. They point out that these policies not only create a system where only privileged inmates have access to care, but it also runs the risk of allowing the spread of illnesses like Hepatitis C among inmates because they are discouraged from seeking treatment.
Keeping the poor impoverished
Critics of pay-to-stay programs and prison fees say these policies place an unfair burden on the poor.
To pay for the ever-increasing size of the criminal justice system, we are seeing more and more fees being levied against people who cannot afford them: fees for medical services, anger management classes, drug tests, police officers' funds, crime victims' funds, clerk fees, attorneys' fees, probation fees, and jail fees. A new trend is "room and board" fees in prisons and jails.
Prison rights groups underscore that it's the relatives of the inmates that end up shouldering this high financial burden. These families - often disproportionately women - are typically already impoverished and struggling to make ends meet. Critics of the pay-to-stay system argue that in essence the government is seizing the assets of some of the poorest families in the country.
As The Christian Science Monitor reported:
"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.
Prison rights advocates also point out that these fees make it more difficult for prisoner's to reintegrate into society once they are free.
When asked why his county rejected the pay-to-stay policies, Deputy Tom Erickson, the sheriff's spokesman in Johnson County, Kansas, told the Christian Science Monitor: "[I]f 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."
Kansas Rep. Pat Colloton also sees the downside in pay-to-stay policies, pointing out that these indigent inmates could end up with massive bills to pay when they leave the lockup. "Many of these individuals have a difficult time re-entering society anyway," Colloton told the The Kansas City Star. "We don't want them so burdened with debt that any legitimate attempt at re-entry is impossible and they turn back to crime to pay the fees you just imposed on them."
Modern-Day Debtors' Prisons?
Human rights and civil liberties groups are troubled by the resurgence in the popularity of pay-to-stay fees. As a result, groups have been raising questions about the legality of charging inmates for room and board.
The Southern Center for Human Rights has been following the issue closely here in the South, where some of the policies are even stranger and more convoluted. According to the SCHR, courts across the South routinely impose substantial costs on already poor people who are struggling to get by, then incarcerate them for being too poor to pay. In some parts of the region people have even been jailed for not being able to pay their court fines. One example is in Gulfport, Miss., where the municipal court started a "fine collection task force" to crack down on people who owed fees for misdemeanors.
As the SCHR reports on their Web site:
The task force trolled through predominantly African American neighborhoods, rounding up people who had outstanding court fines. After arresting and jailing them, the City of Gulfport processed these people through a court proceeding at which no defense attorney was present or even offered.
Many people were jailed for months after hearings lasting just seconds. While the city collected money, it also packed the jail with hundreds of people who couldn't pay, including people who were sick, physically disabled and/or limited by mental disabilities.
According to SCHR's 2008 report entitled "Profiting from the Poor," charging people for misdemeanors has also become an industry in Georgia:
In courts around Georgia, people who are charged with misdemeanors and cannot pay their fines that day in court are placed on probation under the supervision of private, for-profit companies until they pay off their fines. On probation, they must pay these companies substantial monthly "supervision fees" that may double or triple the amount that a person of means would pay for the same offense.
In some cases, jails in the South have charged people room and board fees even before inmates were convicted of any crime. For more than 15 years the Clinch County Jail in Homerville, Ga. charged those in its custody a daily room and board fee. Since many people were too poor to pay the fees upon their release, the county sheriff would require them to sign notes promising to pay the fees in installments, or return to jail. Following a lawsuit by the SCHR in 2006, the county was forced to repay money to several inmates who had been made to pay a $18 per-day fee for their time in custody before their conviction. One of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit - Willie Williams Jr. - had been charged a $4,608 "room and board" bill for his time behind bars even though he had not yet been convicted.
In 2006, the SCHR also filed a petition on behalf of Georgia resident Ora Lee Hurley. A court had ordered Hurley incarcerated until she paid a $705 fine for a 15-year-old drug conviction. But Hurley couldn't pay the fine because she had to pay the Georgia Department of Corrections $600 a month for room and board. Hurley spent nearly a year in prison - from a 120-day sentence -- due to her inability to pay the fine before the SCHR was able to get her released.