Inmate Fees for Services

By Crocker, Karla | Corrections Today, July 2004 | Go to article overview
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Inmate Fees for Services

Crocker, Karla, Corrections Today

Buying food, clothing, toiletries and medicine, and paying for medical appointments and transportation are some of the things citizens do every day. It is a part of life in the "free world." So why, many wonder, should inmates not do the same?


According to the National Institute of Corrections, in 1982, Michigan passed the first law in the nation, allowing inmates to be charged a medical co-payment. Many states followed suit and by 1997, 41 states had passed legislation authorizing assessment of inmate fees for prison services and operations. Like many jurisdictions, the Davidson County Sheriff's Office (DCSO) in Tennessee began its fees-for-services program during the 1980s by charging inmates who participate in work release. Davidson County Sheriff Daron Hall said the idea of assessing a fee initially was to target the population of offenders who leave the jail each day to work full time for a paycheck and then return to jail each night. "The thought was to require the offender to offset costs associated with his or her incarceration," he said. Eventually, the whole concept of fees for services began to change. As DCSO began charging inmates for additional goods and services, including medical co-pay and processing fees, the reason to charge fees moved from recouping costs to instilling responsibility. "For me, as a corrections professional and local elected official, it is as much about teaching offenders a sense of accountability and responsibility as it is about trying to recoup some of the costs associated with incarcerating an individual," Hall said, adding that the fees-for-services policy forces inmates to choose between an extra bag of chips and going to sick call. Many of the facility's 3,000 inmates have never had to make such choices, Hall added.

Although the amount of revenue generated through fees for services is relatively small, its contribution is important because it allows the agency to demonstrate to taxpayers that it is working to hold down costs. However, the larger savings is not as apparent. DCSO collects approximately $45,000 in fees associated with medical care annually. The real cost savings, according to Hall, is the decrease in the number of sick call visits. Initially there was nearly a 50 percent decease during the program's first six months, and although the decrease has leveled off, there still are not as many inmates going to the clinic on a daily basis. "Over time, the amount of money you save due to needing less staff is significant. The percentage of people who decide not to get of out of their cell to go see the nurse and run around because it will cost them $3 really does affect the bottom line," Hall said.

Which Services Are Assessed a Fee?

According to the American Jail Association, jails assess fees in four major areas: medical, per diem (housing, food, basic programs), other nonprogram functions (telephone use, haircuts, escorts, drug testing) and program participation (work release, electronic monitoring, education, substance abuse treatment, medical costs). Many jails and prisons charge fees on the basis of local authority, not state statute. When DCSO decided to assess fees beyond work release in 1997, officials decided to approach state legislators to sponsor permissive bills that would allow further assessment of fees. The legislation required local lawmakers to pass the legislation by a two-thirds vote before it could become effective. "We felt it was in our best interest to begin the process of assessing fees with enabling legislation," Hall said.

Additionally, in Tennessee, there were already other statutes that provided avenues to recover money from inmates, including work release and per diem. This created an implication that since laws were already in effect that allowed corrections officials to recover some costs, jails or prisons might not have the authority to create a new set of rules for recovering costs that are outside of those mandated by state law.

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