Massachusetts Legislature Considers Imposing Fees on Inmates

With budgets in crisis and the recession showing no signs of abatement, Massachusetts is looking for creative ways to cut prison spending. In a recent Joint Committee on the Judiciary session, Republican lawmakers and a group of sheriffs asked the Committee to support a bill that would require Massachusetts inmates to pay for their time in lock up. The bill would authorize state-jail overseers to charge people $5 for every day they are incarcerated, and would also impose a $5 fee for medical and dental visits and $3 co-pays for prescription medications.

The “pay-to-stay” bill would automatically deduct the fees from an inmate’s commissary account – most of which comes from deposits made by family and friends, and is intended to allow purchases of shampoo, deodorant, and snacks. If an inmate is unable to afford the fees during his lock-up, he will receive a bill upon his release for the money owed to the state. The debt is forgiven if the individual does not return to prison within two years.

While supporters claim the bill alleviates tax payer burden, tax-paying families of inmates would end up bearing the expense. Inmates earn a maximum of $1.50 a day while working in jail, so the daily costs and medical co-pays would inevitably shift to families. Furthermore, the bill disproportionately affects communities of color as they are overrepresented in the prison system.

The fees for doctors’ visits and prescription medications are particularly troubling. At the Committee hearing, one sheriff whose district already employs a co-pay system touted the recent drop in doctors’ visits as proof of the cost-saving effectiveness of charging inmates for health services. This view ignores the inevitable corollary that many inmates who have genuine health problems may not seek medical care or take much-needed medications in an effort to avoid the fees. Conditions of confinement create a host of physical and psychological health problems for inmates, and the state should not encourage them to “tough it out.”  Ignoring health problems will ultimately lead to increased costs to take care of inmates after their condition has worsened.

The “pay-to-stay” bill encroaches upon the important right of inmates to access medical care and places an additional financial burden on vulnerable families. The Massachusetts legislature should swiftly reject it.

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