Should Inmates Have to Pay For Their Food, Medicine And Housing?

February 13, 2014  |  

The Associated Press reports that a county jail in northern Nevada county might be the first in the nation to charge inmates for food and medical care.

From the Associated Press:

“The Elko County Commission on Wednesday approved Sheriff Jim Pitts’ proposal to charge inmates $6 a day for meals, $10 for each doctor visit and $5 for initial booking into the jail, a move he says will save county taxpayers millions of dollars a year.

…Why should the people of Elko County pay for somebody else’s meals in jail?” said Commissioner Grant Gerber, a backer of the plan who thinks the fees should be higher.”

The AP writes that the meal plan fees as well as doctor visits will be taken from an inmate’s commissary account. But those without money on the books will just end up owing the jail until it is paid off.

It doesn’t say how much this plan will save the jail system, or even if there is a budgetary reason to remotely justify what it might attempt to enact such a plan, but the AP reports prison officials estimate that it costs about $85 per day to house a single inmate, which amounts to around $10,000 in total daily. Sheriff Pitts goes on to say, “All I’m doing is taking my cut first, before they buy their candies. They need to pay for their food first before they get their dessert.”

That’s just cold-blooded. However upon doing some research, I found out that the Elko County jail system isn’t the only prison charging inmates for essential products (as opposed to non-essential products like soap, shampoo and whatever other incidentals you can get from the commissary). In fact, some state even allow jails and prisons to charge inmates for medical expenses. And back in 2011, a jail in Riverside County California implemented a pay-for-stay to cover what county officials alleged was an $80-million budget shortfall. According to the LA Times, county inmates were billed up to $142 a day to cover the cost of food, security and healthcare. Those, who couldn’t pay, had their wages garnished and a lien put against whatever property they may have owned.

According to this editorial in the American Correctional Facilities annual publication entitled, The Pay-to-Stay Debate: Inmates Must Take Financial Responsibility, Macomb County Jail Administrator Michelle Sanborn argued that the pay-to-stay system is necessary to cover cost of housing inmates, which prison systems do not recoup in state and federal reimbursements. Likewise, she argues that such system can also be vital tools in curbing recidivism rates, writing that:

“Institutionalizing offenders is sometimes not enough of a deterrent. Inmates must accept some financial responsibility in the reimbursement of their housing, thus taking the first step in becoming productive members of their community.”

Yet, according to the 72-page report by the Human Rights Watch entitled, Profiting from Probation: America’s ‘Offender-Funded’ Probation Industry,” the privatization of just probation services alone has created a predatory system, which punishes poor convicts, who can not afford to keep up with the fees and court-ordered fines associated with their crimes. Sometimes, these poor convicts end up right back in prison, not because of a new crime but simply because they are too poor to pay the fees. The report alleges that this system has been a huge financial whirlwind for private probation companies, who in Georgia alone, raked in an estimated $40 million in revenue.

And according to this report, prison officials have yet to make any serious collections in the two years since Riverside County implemented its pay-to-stay program. In fact, it is estimated that it has only $6,800 out of the $3 million it is said to be owed. Hoping to recoup the cost, the County is now looking to hire six new staff members, whose job it is to collect past due fees. They also will be going after those delinquents, whose prison stays involved a misdemeanor as, statistically, they are more like to be employed.

I will say that in the time she was hospitalized, my recently departed grandmother had to pay for every bit of her stay, down to seven dollars a day for television. So in a sense, the prison system would be more reflective of what the rest of us, the law-abiding citizens, have to endure. But I never thought that charging sick people, who mostly arrived on emergency and without change, should have to pay for television. And nor do I think that prisoners, who by definition are not there voluntarily, should have to pay for food or shelter either. If we are going to be a nation that believes and practices incarceration as a solution to crime and poverty, then we should ask taxpayers to endure the cost.  I do agree the cost of a prison stay is too high but I think that should be more of an incentive to rethink the value of incarceration in general.

 

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