Tennessee Inmates Must 'Pay-to-Stay'

August 28, 2013

On Friday, Anderson County, Tennessee proposed to join the roster of places requiring inmates to shoulder the costs of incarceration. County commissioners approved three resolutions to charge prisoners in the Anderson County Jail for everything from toilet paper (29 cents per roll) to their prison garb ($9.15 for pants). Currently, Anderson County taxpayers pay $62 a day to house one inmate in the local jail.

Asking inmates to pay for their time behind bars shifts the responsibility for rightsizing our prisons from policymakers to indigent inmates who can’t afford the bill. Yet, as incarceration costs skyrocket, the “pay-to-stay” practice remains popular with public officials who, struggling to balance tight budgets, ask inmates to chip in for medical fees, toiletries, transportation, and even their room and board.

Since 1984, when Michigan became the first state to enact legislation allowing the recovery of general incarceration costs from inmates, this unfortunate practice has become common. Today, the fees inmates pay run the gamut. In Calloway County, Kentucky, inmates pay up to $30 a day and are subject to civil or contempt actions when released. Many jails in Oregon charge inmates between $30 and $60 a day, while in Virginia, Chesapeake Correctional Center requires inmates to pay $1 a day. In Freemont, California, the practice is viewed as an incentive for a better stay. There, the police department offers inmates the option of paying a one-time fee of $45 plus $155 a night to stay in a smaller facility. In Riverside County, California prisoners are charged up to $142.42 per day for their stay. The Southeast Ohio Regional Jail utilizes a “pay-to-stay” policy under which inmates are charged $15 for booking fees and an additional $1 per day spent there. Around two-thirds of Ohio counties have implemented similar fees. And counties in Oregon, Arizona, Missouri, and Michigan charge inmates fees for everything from medical expenses to per-diems for their stay.

The Brennan Center has found that many men and women also face an increasing number of “user fees” as part of their criminal cases. Unlike fines, which are intended to punish, and restitution, which is intended to compensate victims, user fees are explicitly intended to raise revenues. These fees are often imposed on top of other forms of criminal justice debt, and can make it difficult for individuals to avoid returning to prison.

Although widespread, this practice of imposing fees and fines on inmates does raise constitutional questions. Does this post-conviction practice constitute an increase in punishment?

(Photo: Colorlines.com)