Is it fair and legal for inmates to foot their room and board?
Sheriff Thomas Hodgson took away their weights and pull-up bars and rolled their television sets out of sight. He banned smoking - and thenslapped a daily $5 room-and-board fee for the 1,000-some inmates in his custody.
The sheriff, whose controversial moves have made headlines before, equates himself to being "the tough-love parent." But the Bristol County House of Correction inmates and their advocates see nothing parental about it, and they've filed a class-action suit claiming that the "cost of care" charges are unconstitutional in Massachusetts. The case could affect how other sheriffs across the state set fees in county jails - from haircut costs to medical co-pays.
"Pay to stay" fees have soared in popularity across the nation in the past 15 years, as budgets have shrunk while "get tough on crime" rhetoric has flourished. Some counties charge inmates the actual cost of care per day - $60 in some states.
Prison researchers estimate that a third of the nation's 3,000-some county jails levy room-and-board fees. In state correctional systems, 53 percent attach the fees, according to a 2002 survey by the American Correctional Association.
But the Massachusetts lawsuit is a measure of how polarizing pay-to-stay programs still are. While many sheriffs like Hodgson argue that fees take the burden off taxpayers and teach inmates a lesson in responsibility, critics say they are unethical and ineffective.
"It usually costs more to implement the laws than it generates revenue," says Paul Wright, editor of Prison Legal News. "If people had the money, they wouldn't be in jail in the first place."
One of the first pay-to-stay programs began in Macomb County, Mich., in 1985. Michelle Sanborn, who has been administering the program since its inception, says it would be "financially irresponsible" for taxpayers to foot the entire bill when state law authorizes the county to subsidize costs with prisoner funds.
"We started out small," says Ms. Sanborn. "Now we're real aggressive with our collection techniques." The jail takes released prisoners who haven't paid up to court, or probates their estates if necessary. Sanborn says the jail collected $1.2 million last year, while costs for the program were estimated at only a fifth of that.
Other programs, like one in Olmsted County, Minn., have failed and then been revamped, as administrative costs outpaced revenue. Some counties have faced lawsuits similar to the Massachusetts one.
Throughout US history, authorities have experimented with collecting money from prisoners - most notoriously in the form of debtors' prisons. In the 18th and 19th centuries, state statutes allowed sheriffs to collect fees, but many of the edicts were later repealed. This is the heart of the Bristol case: The relevant Massachusetts statute was repealed in 1904, says James Pingeon, director of litigation for Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services, which represents Bristol County inmates.
Hodgson, the only sheriff in Massachusetts to charge room-and-board fees, maintains that under the state's common laws he is entitled to run his jail as he sees fit. A Bristol County Superior Court judge is reviewing the case.
In his executive office recently, the sheriff, dressed smartly in a monogrammed shirt, says he has collected $720,000 since the program started in 2002.
Before inmates can buy extra items like deodorant or cookies from the prison canteen, they must pay their fees. Those with no money are given a bill upon release. If they don't return to jail within two years, the debt is absolved. "I don't want them walking out saying, 'I'll never get ahead,' " Hodgson says. "I want them thinking positively, about moving forward."
But those behind bars see it differently. One recent afternoon, various inmates relentlessly screamed obscenities at the sheriff. "Give me back my $20," yelled one.
Thomas Ramos, who has served two years, said he was happy about his upcoming release, but not about his debt. "I owe the sheriff $1,500," he says. In addition to rent, Mr. Ramos, like other inmates, has been charged $5 for haircuts, $5 for medical visits, and $3 for prescriptions.
"They can't get all the extras while someone else pays the bill," says Hodgson. "Asking [them] to be accountable for their bad choice is absolutely fair and it's absolutely American."
Prison advocates say his actions are not fair. Most inmates, they say, don't have jobs, so it is their families - many of them broken - who end up incurring the costs. "The burden is on the wrong person," says Julie Falk, executive director of Correct Help in California, an advocacy group for HIV-positive inmates. "It is often women footing the bill for a lot of things in prison."
Alberto Salinas says the sheriff is teaching him no lesson in responsibility. In his cell he holds up a ledger, pointing to the $5 daily deduction from money put into his account by his family. If he had the opportunity to earn his own money, he says he may not be so angry. "It's not like the inmates are paying $5 a day," he says. "Your family pays the $5."