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

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

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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.

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.

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