NEW YORK — A one-night stay? Ninety dollars. Need to see a doctor? Ten bucks. Want toilet paper? Pay for it yourself.
In the ever-widening search for extra income during desperate economic times, states across America are embracing a new idea: making inmates pay their debt to society not only in hard time, but also in cold, hard cash.
In New York, Republican Assemblyman James Tedisco introduced a bill that would charge wealthy criminals $90 a day for room and board at state prisons.
Dubbed the "Madoff Bill," after billion-dollar Ponzi schemer Bernard Madoff, the legislation is designed to ease the $1 billion annual cost of incarcerating prisoners.
"This concept says if you can afford it, or even some of it, you're going to help the beleaguered taxpayers who play by the rules," Tedisco said.
Several other states and some cities have gone to great lengths to squeeze money from inmates.
Charging inmates for meals
In Arizona's Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, Sheriff Joe Arpaio calls himself America's toughest sheriff and makes prisoners sleep outdoors in 100-degree-plus heat.
Earlier this year, he announced that inmates would be charged $1.25 per day for meals. His decision followed months of food strikes staged by convicts who complained of being fed green bologna and moldy bread.
In Iowa's Des Moines County, where officials faced a $1.7 million budget hole this year, politicians considered charging prisoners for toilet paper — at a savings of $2,300 per year. The idea was ultimately dropped, after much derision.
A New Jersey legislator introduced a bill similar to New York's, this one based on fees charged by the Camden County Correctional Facility, which bills prisoners $5 a day for room and board and $10 per day for infirmary stays — totaling an estimated $300,000 per year.
In Virginia, Richmond's overcrowded city jail has begun charging $1 per day, hoping to earn as much as $200,000 a year. In Missouri's Taney County, home to Branson, the sheriff says charging inmates $45 per day will help pay for his new $27 million jail.
Prisons and jails took some of the biggest cuts this summer when legislators cut their state budgets, trying to slash their way out of an economic morass exacerbated by dwindling tax revenues. But to civil rights advocates — and some law enforcement officials — trying to raise money by charging inmates makes no sense.
"The overwhelming number of people who end up in prison are poor," said Elizabeth Alexander, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project. "The number of times in which these measures actually result in a lot of money coming in is very small."
Alexander also says such efforts only amount to political window dressing. "They allow someone to look tough on crime instead of being effective," she said.
Tapping prisoner accounts for fees
Collecting the fees covers a wide spectrum. In Richmond, they are deducted from a prisoner's personal account — which contains whatever money relatives send and any cash the suspect had when arrested. In Arizona, sheriff Arpaio, who makes inmates wear pink underwear to increase the humiliation factor, also taps prisoner accounts. Inmates who have no money still receive food, the sheriff says.
Other authorities slap the prisoner with a bill upon release from prison. But it's often hard to collect. In Kansas, Overland Park officials acknowledged collecting only 39 percent of fees. In Missouri's Jackson County, officials discovered they spent more money trying to collect fees than they actually received from inmates.
In some cases, it's prisoners' families who shoulder the financial burden.
"It's the spouses, children and parents who pay the fees. They are the people who contribute to prisoners' canteen accounts," said Sarah Geraghty of the Southern Center for Human Rights, which successfully opposed an effort earlier this year in Georgia to bill prisoners $40 per day.
The money was to be collected by seizing cash in their jail accounts or by filing lawsuits. The proposal also would have denied parole to those who could not make payments after being freed.
"It makes no sense to release people with $25, a bus ticket and $40,000 in reimbursement fees," she said. "Saddling people with thousands of dollars in debt is contradictory to helping someone become a functioning member of society."
Inmate population has skyrocketed
In recent years, as get-tough sentencing and drug penalties increased, America's prison population skyrocketed. Chain gangs returned to states including Arizona and Alabama. Premium cable was eliminated in federal prisons. New York ended an inmate program that paid tuition for college-degree programs.
But trying to make prisoners pay to serve time is a wasted effort, civil rights advocates say. "This is a dry well," Alexander said. "They're not going to solve this (economic) problem by going down it."
Asked if she had heard about Des Moines County's proposal to charge inmates for toilet paper, Alexander laughed.
"I did not," she replied. "That's a good metaphor for the whole effort."
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