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Inmates Pay Debt to Society And Taxpayers - With Cash

AFTER serving three months of a robbery stint at the Berks County Prison here, Edgardo DeJesus says he's ready for the world. He's learned how to be a man, he says, how to handle responsibility.

He'd better hope so.

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Under a two-year-old program, inmates here are charged $10 a day for room and board, and extra for haircuts and clinic visits. Upon release, Mr. DeJesus will owe about $3,000.

As American lawmakers continue to push tough crime measures, and prison costs soar, similar programs are in place or under discussion in at least a dozen states.

Prisoner advocates complain that forcing ex-inmates to pay incarceration fees amounts to double jeopardy. Several challenges loom in federal courts, including one here at Berks County.

But if the experiment succeeds at cutting costs and lowering recidivism, it could become standard procedure: turning America's jails into places where convicts not only pay a debt to society, but an added debt to taxpayers.

"If crime doesn't pay, then it shouldn't cost either," says Glenn Reber, a Berks County commissioner. "We think it's unfair to penalize those who obey the law to pay for those who don't."

In the last decade, prison fee programs have quietly spread across the nation. At the Macomb County Prison in Michigan, jailers collected more than $600,000 last year, often by dragging ex-inmates to court. In Texas, Washington, and New Hampshire, only prisoners who participate in work-release programs, or have independent means, are charged. Pennsylvania's law, however, applies to everybody.

"This is all in the name of being harsher and meaner," argues Jenni Gainsborough, spokeswoman for the American Civil Liberties Union's Prison Project. The solution to spiraling costs, she says, is putting fewer nonviolent people in prison, not "extracting money" from inmates and their families.

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"My people don't have a lot of money, and I have two babies," Mr. DeJesus says, tugging at his orange prison scrubs. "I already did my time, and now they want me to pay twice."

Still, it's easy to see why this two-year-old program is so popular. Attitudes toward criminals have hardened lately, and packed prisons are running up big bills. Here in Berks County, where voters recently sprang for a $19 million expansion, the 800-bed prison costs $10.5 million a year: roughly 40 percent of the county's entire budget.

George Wagner, warden at the medium-security facility, insists that the plan "is not about making money or extracting a pound of flesh." Rather, he says, the goal is to prepare inmates for the personal and financial responsibilities they'll face in the real world: "to get these guys to change their lifestyles."

Indeed, the Berks County Prison defies stereotypes. Instead of living in dingy cell blocks, prisoners here inhabit bright and spacious "pods." These two-story rooms are carpeted, air-conditioned, and clean. Inmates sit on sofas, play cards, lift weights, talk on pay phones, play Foosball, and watch television. They have keys to their cells, and access to three radio stations. Each pod is controlled by one unarmed guard.

No yelling, few fights

This arrangement has a tangible effect. Prisoners are cordial to visitors, nobody yells, and fights are rare. "We operate on the idea that prisoners are not singularly bad people," Mr. Wagner says, "that they can adapt to any social situation."

Yet many prisoners don't like the place. Unlike other jails, there is always a guard in sight. Use of TVs, weights, and phones is strictly limited, and inmates must earn privileges by keeping their pods spotless. Smoking is prohibited.

Some prisoners who have served time in big state prisons say they prefer them, even though they are louder, dirtier, and more violent. "At least you don't have a guard on you all the time," grumbles one inmate. "And you don't have to pay."

And pay they do. Aside from the initial $10 daily fee, haircuts cost $2, visits to the clinic $3, and trashing one of the porcelain toilets costs $100. Although some inmates hold down kitchen jobs or work-release positions, they rarely earn enough while in prison to cover the tab: an average of $1,800 per inmate. Half of their earnings is held to pay their bills upon release. For those who need help making payments, financing is available.

No moneymaker

Yet Wagner insists the program is not a big revenue gainer. Most debtors are on payment plans and some pay as little as $20 a month, he says. Last year, the jail collected about $180,000: only 8 percent of total billings. Clinic visits declined, but only saved $6,000.

The goal, Wagner reiterates, is teaching responsibility. "Even if you're paying $2 a week, you're still being responsible," he says. "To what degree doesn't matter."

Some inmates see the point. "It has helped me see the problems of our society more clearly, to see what the taxpayers do for us now," says Kelvin Welmaker, serving time for a parole violation. "It's too bad I'm subjected to paying bills, but it gives me another incentive not to come back."

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