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Mass. sheriff asks court to reinstate inmate fees

Associated Press | 11/4/2009, 4:36 a.m.

BOSTON — Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson’s controversial program to charge inmates for rent, haircuts, medical visits and high school equivalency tests raised $750,000, but outraged inmate advocates who said the fees violated their constitutional rights and amounted to an unlawful tax.

Five years after a judge struck down the program — ruling that county sheriffs do not have the authority to charge such fees — Hodgson is reviving the proposal. The state’s highest court will hear arguments in Hodgson’s appeal on Monday.

When he initially imposed the fees in 2002, Hodgson said he believed they could help teach inmates to accept responsibility for their actions and ease the burden on taxpayers, who pay for inmate services.

Among the payments he charged was a $5 per day “cost of care” fee for each inmate. The fees were deducted from inmates’ canteen accounts, where they keep personal money to buy food and hygiene products.

But two years later, a Superior Court judge ordered Hodgson to stop charging the fees, agreeing with inmates who claimed in a class-action lawsuit that the fees violate a state law requiring Hodgson to safeguard inmates’ funds until their release.

In his appeal, Hodgson argues that the fees fall under the broad discretion sheriffs have to manage their jails.

Attorney Bruce Assad said Hodgson collected $750,000 through the program, which is now being held in escrow.

“If the court determines that sheriffs have the authority — as part of their duties and responsibilities — to institute fees, there are millions of dollars in savings to the taxpayers as a result of inmates paying a very small portion of their fees and services,” Assad said.

“The $750,000 could be put back into the facilities, inmate programs. With the budgetary problems the Commonwealth has right now, it would certainly be beneficial.”

But the legal group representing inmates argues that the fees amount to a second punishment.

“People are sent to prison as their punishment, period,” said Leslie Walker, executive director of Massachusetts Correctional legal Services.

“There is no statute that says the sheriff can collect a fee to have the pleasure of being incarcerated,” she said.

Walker said the majority of inmates are indigent, so the money in their canteen accounts is sent to them by family members so they can buy basic items that are not supplied by the jails. To deduct money from those accounts is like placing an unlawful tax on prisoners’ families, she said.

Assad said inmates who couldn’t afford to pay the fees were not deprived of any services.

(Associated Press)