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Tennessee Inmates Must 'Pay-to-Stay’

On Friday, Anderson County, Tennessee joined the roster of places requiring inmates to shoulder the costs of incarceration. Commissioners will charge prisoners everything from toilet paper to their prison garb.

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: Color­