Inmates in prisons and jails, even minor offenders, are finding they not only have to do the time, but they have to pay—for booking, rent, routine medical care, and even electronic monitoring once they are released. Most states have long authorized penal officials to charge those and other fees, but the current budget crunch on state and local governments is making more adopt the controversial practice.
Few legal obstacles stand in the way of requiring inmates to "pay to stay," though a federal court has found fees imposed on suspects jailed while awaiting trial in Ohio violated their due process rights and the highest court in Massachusetts ruled last year that state laws do not permit a county sheriff to charge for rent, health care, and GED exams.
Supporters say jail fees relieve a financial burden on taxpayers and accustom offenders to behaving in a responsible way. But, prisoners' rights advocates say the fees wind up being paid by relatives, make prisoners who have money targets for hostile extortion, and can cost more to collect than they yield in revenue.
Whatever financial relief may be provided to governments, racial and ethnic minorities are disproportionately affected because they are overrepresented in prisons and jails.
A study by the National Institute of Corrections, part of the Justice Department, found that Michigan in 1982 passed the first law requiring state prisoners to make copayments for medical care. By 1997, at least 41 states allowed jails to charge fees for a variety of services rendered to inmates.
No one knows for sure how many of the more than 3,200 jails run by counties and cities charge their inmates, who have either committed relatively minor offenses or who are confined while awaiting trial. But, another institute study in 2005 suggests fees are popular at the nation's largest jails, though the researchers acknowledged their survey sample may not be representative.
Jails raised the most money from daily rent, which was commonly $20 but ranged from a dollar to $60, the 2005 study found. (One jail in Ohio charges almost $70, according to a 2010 report by the American Civil Liberties Union). The second biggest source of revenue was from inmates who do have regular jobs outside jail while on work release.
The American Jails Association has listed a proliferation of fees for other services, including telephone calls, drug tests, substance abuse treatments, attorney and library visits, secure transportation to court appearances, and laundry.
Perhaps because of their revenue-generating potential, jail room charges appear to be growing in popularity, particularly in the Midwest. A Google search found new or increased rents have been considered or adopted so far this year in counties in Michigan, Minnesota, and Ohio. Summit County, Ohio, where Akron is located, has debated a $100 booking fee and an unspecified room charge.
The 1997 survey of states, which appears to be the most recent done, showed only seven had held out against the trend: Arkansas, Massachusetts, New Mexico, New York, Pennsylvania, Utah, and Vermont. Researchers found no information on state laws in Alaska and Louisiana. Washington, D.C. did not impose jail fees, nor did federal prisons.
In Massachusetts, the legislature last year established a special commission to study setting fees for jail inmates after Republican lawmakers unsuccessfully pushed bills to adopt the practice in the financially-pressed state.
The issue came to public attention there in 2004 when a county judge stopped a Republican sheriff in southeastern Massachusetts from collecting $5 a day for what he called "custodial care" as a matter of "inmate responsibility." The judge in Bristol County, where the depressed fishing port of New Bedford is located and a third of jail inmates are Black or Hispanic, also halted two years of collection of $5 per medical and dental visit, for eyeglasses or a haircut; $3 for prescription drugs; and $12.50 for taking the GED exam.
A year ago, the state's Supreme Judicial Court upheld that decision, ruling that state law does not allow county sheriffs to charge fees for rent or health care, and limits the price of an inmate haircut to $1.50. Under a settlement, a total of $830,000, including interest, is to be refunded to 4,500 former inmates—if they can be found.
A Republican state representative, Elizabeth Poirier, has for several years filed legislation to authorize the state's sheriffs to adopt a fee schedule similar to the one unlawfully imposed by Sheriff Thomas M. Hodgson in Bristol County. She says her latest version would exempt indigent inmates—if they remained out of incarceration for two years after their release.
"Five dollars a day is a small amount," Poirier says. "In these hard economic times, why should these individuals be a greater burden than they should be?"
She maintains many offenders "enter prison with great sums of money and put it in their account," so paying would not become the responsibility of their families.
But, James Pingeon, a Boston lawyer with Prisoners Legal Services who filed the successful lawsuit, says the payments did usually fall on families because unlike inmates in state prisons, those in Bristol County jails "don't have jobs, so they don't get paid."
Those inmates with access to funds, Pingeon says, faced strong-arming by other inmates to pay the fees for them. He also disputed the argument that the charges promote personal responsibility among offenders. "It doesn't, if you're sitting in jail asking your mother to pay for your stuff," Pingeon says.
A Special Commission to Study the Feasibility of Establishing Inmate Fees, which the Massachusetts Legislature created last year, is expected to file its report within weeks. Whatever its recommendations, it's uncertain that Republicans, a small minority in the Democratic-dominated Legislature, can cobble together the votes to pass Poirier's bill or a similar one.
Gov. Deval Patrick, a Democrat who is the state's first African American chief executive, opposes such legislation.
"The Patrick administration does not favor legislation authorizing payment of fees by inmates because their negative and unintended consequences do not lead to a comprehensive plan focused on successful re-entry and reducing recidivism," says Terrel Harris, spokesman for the state Executive Office of Public Safety and Security.
Kenneth J. Cooper, a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist, is a freelancer based in Boston. He also edits the Trotter Review at the University of Massachusetts-Boston.