Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

Massachusetts May Start Charging Jail Inmates Room and Board

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When a Massachusetts sheriff started charging his jail inmates room and board — $5 a day — the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court struck down the practice, saying that it was the province of the legislature, not individual sheriffs, to provide for such a policy. Well, now the legislature may do just that, in a last-minute amendment to next year’s state budget that passed in the House 93-62, and now goes to the Senate [note: my original post suggested the amendment had passed in the full legislature; edited to reflect that it still needs to pass in the state Senate]. The Valley Advocate, in an exemplary work of local journalism, has the story (well worth reading in full):

The amendment allows sheriffs to charge inmates fees, including a daily room-and-board fee of no more than $5, plus $5 fees for medical and dental visits, $3 for prescriptions and $5 for eyeglasses. Exemptions are made for medical exams upon admission, emergency care, hospitalization, prenatal care for pregnant women, and treatment for contagious or chronic diseases. Inmates could not be denied medical care for lack of funds.

As in the system [Sheriff Thomas] Hodgson had established in Bristol, prisoners who owe money upon their release would carry a debt that would be forgiven if they are not reincarcerated for two years after release. The law also calls for a process that would allow inmates to appeal fees. In addition, sheriffs who want to institute a fee system would need to prepare a report, to be approved by the Secretary of Public Safety, demonstrating its “financial feasibility.” …

Some backers of the bill are, no doubt, motivated by the notion that hard-working, law-abiding taxpayers are underwriting the plush lives of spoiled inmates—a notion Hodgson fed into in a 2009 interview with the Globe, where he disputed the idea that most prisoners are poor.

“In fact, we have some that leave our facilities in limousines,” the sheriff said. “If they have money to buy candy and cookies and higher grade sneakers . . . it is my belief they certainly have enough money to first pay for the cost of their care.”

Another Massachusetts sheriff — Robert Garvey of Hampshire County — disputes this characterization of the jail population:

“It’s easy for legislators to pass this law who have not been witness to what goes on in these facilities,” Garvey added. “Obviously, in this political climate, it’s easy to be hard on anyone—’lock them up and throw away the key.’ Nobody has told the Legislature that the population we’re dealing with doesn’t have any money [or] they wouldn’t be here. …

“People don’t like to hear me say this, but there are an awful lot of people incarcerated here who are already victims of our society,” he said. “We have to provide an environment where change can take place, to provide opportunities to change so when we release someone they’re in better shape than when they came [here]. … That philosophy is not shared by all the sheriffs in the commonwealth.”

As the article notes, Rebekah Diller, a staff attorney at NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice, has been researching the national trend of increasing fees throughout the criminal justice system and will release a report on the subject later this year.

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