SJC: Bristol County inmates owed $1 million in refunds

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

Poirier said her legislation would not penalize families because indigents would not have to pay right away. Upon their release, those inmates would receive a bill that would be forgiven if they are not incarcerated again within two years. “It’s quite an incentive for them to stay on the right side of the law,” she said.

The administration of Gov. Deval Patrick has announced its opposition to charging inmates new fees.

“The Patrick administration does not favor legislation authorizing payment of fees by inmates because their negative and unintended consequences do not lead to a comprehensive plan focused on successful re-entry and reducing recidivism,” Terrel Harris, spokesman for the state Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, said in an e-mail last week.

In another county, jail inmates are being charged for medical services. Essex County inmates pay a one-time fee of $30 for a mandatory health screening when they enter jail, $5 for a doctor visit, $2 for aspirin or Tylenol, but nothing for prescription drugs, according to Paul Fleming, media contact for Essex County Sheriff Frank G. Cousins Jr., a Republican who is African American.

Fleming said 40 percent of the county’s inmates are indigent and “nobody is denied medical care for anything” if they are unable to pay.

Since 2007, a private company, NaphCare Inc., has provided medical services at Essex County jails. The correctional health care provider based in Birmingham, Ala. was awarded a six-year contract in 2008, according to the firm’s website.

Asked the legal basis for the medical fees, Fleming said that “if you’re a member of society, most people pay a copay” for medical care and that the jail charges encourage inmates to “be regular participants in society.”

Fleming said the Essex County sheriff’s office has reviewed the SJC decision in the Bristol County case, but said he was unable to respond to a question about how the medical charges fit with that decision.

The SJC ruled last year that sheriffs do not have the legislative authority to impose fees for health services, rent or GED exams, which had cost $12.50 in Bristol.

Pingeon said a lawsuit challenging the Essex County fees is likely to be filed in the next couple months. About 11 percent of the county’s inmates are African American, and 6 percent are Hispanic.

Massachusetts law does allow collecting medical copayments from state prisoners, he said, because jobs are available to them during confinement. For a similar reason, state or county inmates who work regular jobs while in prerelease programs can be charged for room and board as they make the transition to life outside prison.

Pingeon disputed the idea that charging non-working inmates in county jails promotes personal responsibility. “It doesn’t, if you’re sitting in jail asking your mother to pay for your stuff,” he said.

The fee schedule in Bristol County, Pingeon said, had heightened tensions among inmates as those with access to money became targets for hostile extortion. “The preying of one prisoner on another, which is a problem in any jail, was much, much magnified when it was in place,” he said.

Adams said former Bristol County inmates who believe they are due a refund should call the Committee of Friends and Relatives of Prisoners at 617-267-1024 to check a database of eligible recipients and obtain claim forms.

Information and forms are also available at www.bristolcounty jailclassaction.com.