- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 6, 2009

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, some elected officials 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,” Mr. Tedisco said.

In Arizona’s Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, Sheriff Joe Arpaio calls himself America’s toughest sheriff and makes prisoners sleep in tents 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 inmates 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.

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.”

Collecting the fees covers a wide spectrum. 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.

“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.”

Trying to make prisoners pay to serve time is a wasted effort, civil rights advocates say. “This is a dry well,” Miss Alexander said.

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