SJC: Bristol County inmates owed $1 million in refunds

Kenneth J. Cooper | 3/29/2011, 6:53 p.m.

Prisoner advocates are racing against a tight deadline to find thousands of former inmates, who together are owed nearly $1 million in refunds for fees unlawfully collected by the Bristol County sheriff for rent, medical services, GED exams and overpriced haircuts.

The Supreme Court Judicial Court upheld a lower court ruling that Bristol County Sheriff Thomas M. Hogdson, who oversees jails in New Bedford and North Dartmouth, does not have the legislative authority to charge inmates the fees. Before a Bristol County judge stopped the practice in 2004, Hogdson collected about $750,000, which has grown to almost $830,000 with interest.

Hogdson was charging $5 a day for “custodial care” or rent, and separate fees for medical and dental services, eyeglasses, prescription drugs and GED exams. Haircuts for prisoners cost $5, more than triple the $1.50 set by the state Department of Correction. The Republican re-elected in November has called the fees, which were captured from inmates’ prison accounts, a matter of “inmate responsibility.”

But James Pingeon, a lawyer with Prisoners Legal Services in Boston who filed the successful lawsuit, said the payments fell on relatives and friends. Unlike inmates in state prisons, Bristol County “prisoners don’t have jobs, so they don’t get paid,” he said.

Since the first notices were mailed to 4,500 former inmates in February, fewer than 1,000 have been found, according to Pingeon, with a court-imposed deadline of April 7 looming. About a third of Bristol County’s inmates are African American or Hispanic.

Harold Adams, founder of the Committee of Friends and Relatives of Prisoners, said the former prisoners are difficult to find because “it’s a transient population.” He has led volunteers on weekends canvassing four public housing developments in New Bedford.

The refunds average less than $200, but Pingeon said they range up to $3,500. Any unclaimed funds will be donated to charities under the settlement agreement.

Meanwhile, a commission that the Massachusetts Legislature formed last year is reviewing whether to authorize all county sheriffs to impose the kinds of fees that Bristol County did for two years. The panel’s report is due within weeks.

Across the country, making prisoners “pay to stay” and to receive services has grown in popularity as state and county governments try to cope with falling revenues  —   though some have discovered the collection costs exceed receipts.

State Rep. Elizabeth Poirier, a Republican from North Attleboro, has filed legislation that would authorize fees of up to $5 for rent, medical and dental visits and eyeglasses. Prescription drugs would cost $3. There would be a number of exemptions for preexisting conditions, emergencies, contagious and chronic ailments, and other essential services. Her bill tracks closely with Hodgson’s former policy.

“Five dollars a day is a small amount,” Poirier said. “In these hard economic times, why should these individuals be a greater burden than they should be?”

She estimated the legislation would save Massachusetts counties $10 million a year.

Many inmates, she said, “enter prison with great sums of money and put it in their account.”