Sheriffs, Lawmakers Press For Inmate Fees

State House News Service
By Matt Murphy

BOSTON — Republican lawmakers, with support from some sheriffs, called for the Legislature Tuesday to allow the state’s jail overseers to impose a $5 per day fee on inmates, saying the plan could offset budget cuts and reduce recidivism.

Rep. Elizabeth Poirier, a North Attleboro Republican, has filed legislation (H 483) that would authorize sheriffs to charge inmates “daily custodial fees” of up to $5, along with $5 medical and dental visit fees and $3 co-pays on pharmacy prescriptions.

“At a time when we are facing such difficult economic times, we need to find creative ways to fund programs and operations in our prisons,” Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson told lawmakers at a hearing held by the Joint Committee on the Judiciary.

Hodgson implemented the $5-a-day fee in Bristol County in 2002 and 2003, raking in over $750,000 over two years before the courts ruled that the program was unlawful. An appeal ultimately landed before the Supreme Judicial Court where the lower court rulings were upheld by Chief Justice Roderick Ireland who wrote that the fee program circumvented the Legislature.

“The only people hurt by this are the people who have done nothing wrong – the taxpayers,” Hodgson said.

Poirier was joined at the hearing by Republican Reps. Steven Howitt and Shaunna O’Connell to testify in support of legislation that would authorize inmate fees. Hodgson, Worcester County Sheriff Lewis Evangelidis, Essex County Sheriff Frank Cousins and Plymouth County Sheriff Joseph McDonald also testified in support.

The panel argued that not only would an inmate fee program teach prisoners important life skills about budgeting, but it would also help supplement prison budgets and reduce recidivism by giving prisoners an incentive not return to jail.

“This is not something we see as another form of punishment,” McDonald said. “It can be a teaching tool that life on the outside will require those types of sacrifices. You need to budget your money.”

Prisoner advocates blasted the proposal, arguing that inmates who work jobs in jail earn at most $1.50 a day and the burden of paying daily fees would be shifted to the families of those inmates.

“Obviously, it’s impossible for the inmate to pay this fee, so who is left to pay? The family, that’s who,” said Danielle Thurlow, a volunteer with Ex-Prisoners and Prisoners Organizing for Community Advancement.

Rep. Daniel Winslow, a Republican from Norfolk and member of the Judiciary Committee, also raised the concern about the impact on prisoners’ families, but Hodgson said families “bear no responsibility.”

Under the program Hodgson initiated in Bristol County, inmates that could not afford the fees were handed a bill when they were released from prison for the money owed to the state, but Hodgson said that debt was forgiven if the individual did not return to prison in two years.

“Frankly, all of the criticisms raised over the programs have never been substantiated,” Hodgson said.

O’Connell contended inmates spend their available money held in accounts by prison officials on “candy, soda and designer jeans,” while residents of Massachusetts are being forced to cut back on their own household expenses and seniors, often times, can’t afford their prescriptions.

She called the court decision striking down Hodgson’s program in Bristol County “egregious.”

Said Howitt, “The taxpayer is paying the full rate these incarcerated individuals. The criminals are always treated as victims, and I think it’s time they be portrayed for what they are – criminals.”

Bryan Nicholson, another member of EPOCA, rebutted O’Connell’s assertions that inmates spent their money on luxury items and snacks, insisting instead that any money they had went towards items like toothpaste, toilet paper, and maybe snacks.

“There are 14 or 15 hours between breakfast and dinner. How many people in there don’t eat for 15 hours?” Nicholson said while outside the hearing room.

Evangelidis called inmate fees just another “tool” that sheriffs could use to fund operations and rehabilitate inmates, stressing that it would not be mandatory.

“We know this program works, and we believe it helps reduce recidivism,” Evangelidis said.

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