A room at the George V in Paris is going to cost you big time, but then, you knew that going in and chose to run up such a tab. Prison, not so much. On the bright side, room, board, medical care and the ancillary joys like telephone and commissary, may not be charged at George V rates. On the dark side, that they can be charged at all is outrageous.
He was at the end of a three-year sentence in a Florida state prison when he was caught stealing potatoes from the prison kitchen. As punishment, he was sent to confinement with a cellmate who, according to court filings, was “severely mentally ill.” The man attacked Barrett in a violent rage, ultimately gouging out one of his eyes. “I went into shock,” Barrett said.
When he got out of prison one month later, Barrett, 36, sued the Florida Department of Corrections for negligence. The department responded with a counterclaim or a “cost of incarceration lien” of $54,750 — the total cost of Barrett’s 1,095 day stay in the prison at $50 a day.
Nice. First, Jeremy Barrett gets his eye gouged out by a crazed cellmate, and then he gets a bill for the pleasure. But, that’s the law.
Such cases stem from a Florida law that allows the state to charge inmates $50 a day to cover the costs of their incarceration. According to a spokesman at the Florida Department of Corrections, every person who is convicted in the state immediately begins accruing the $50 a day “cost of incarceration lien.”
It’s not that they invariably charge inmates, although some states do, and levy a laundry list of fees for the fine services they deliver, but as in Barrett’s case, use it as a wedge to offset any claim of damages. Nothing like a little selective enforcement, right?
“We’re seeing it all over, medical co-pays, cost of incarceration claims, you name it.” said Randall C. Berg Jr., the executive director of the Florida Justice Institute which represented Barrett.
Fees have also been charged for booking, probation, DNA testing, use of a public defender, police transport, phone calls and video visitation, court costs and sentencing.
And then there’s the $25 visitation fee, because it’s not like family members don’t eat up the valuable time of prison guards, who are forced to suffer the intimate touching of women and children and coming up with rude and condescending quips for the tourists’ amusement.
The underlying justification is that government is entitled to recapture its costs from those who “use” its services, and once the government finds a potential revenue stream from people who are in no position to complain, nature takes its course and it expands to fill the void.
While charging such fees is nothing new, the amount that inmates and other defendants can be charged and the total number of fees they can incur have grown significantly, said Lauren-Brooke Eisen, senior counsel at the Brennan Center. According to the Brennan Center report, an estimated 10 million people now owe more than $50 billion as a result of these charges.
Such fees have increasingly become the norm as the costs of running the nation’s criminal justice system have “skyrocketed,” said Eisen. Over the course of 30 years, the cost of running everything from the courts to the prisons have climbed by 650% to $265 billion in 2012, the report found.
The insanity of charging inmates for the pleasure of staying at Casa de Prison seems to make no sense at all. It’s not as if inmates book a room, and in fact, it seems abundantly fair to say that most would prefer other accommodations, any other, to prison.
But the retort is that prisoners make their own reservations by committing crimes. If you can’t do the time (or pay the cost), don’t do the crime. But then, the absurdity of piling costs on prisoners, who not only can’t pay it, but will likely never be able to pay it under any circumstances, creates yet another insurmountable hurdle to a successful post-incarceration return to society as a law-abiding member.
Say an inmate gets a bill for $5,000 for medical care, “If you have a very good lawyer, you might be able to fight it,” said Eisen of the Brennan Center. “If you ignore it, you could have a warrant out for your arrest.” The state could also lay claim to your estate if you die, prevent you from accessing public housing or revoke your driver’s license, she said. It might also affect your ability to receive government benefits like Social Security, she added.
Then again, if you have “a very good lawyer,” she will cost you more than the $5000 anyway, so nothing is gained and no problem is solved. No, there is no right to counsel to fight prison “pay to stay” charges.
But the enforcement mechanisms, revocation of a drivers license or loss of social security, undermines that minimal ability to get a place to live, a job, the nice stuff the rest of us take for granted. It’s not hard enough to move beyond a felony conviction, especially if you’re on a registry, after you’ve paid your dues to society. Oh wait, you haven’t paid yet.
Having closely checked Jeremy Barrett’s sentencing minutes, nowhere did the judge impose punishment of “an eye for an eye.” Is it not bad enough that Barrett went in with two eyes and only came out with one? What kind of hate-filled Bill Otis-type cretin would then demand that he pay for the cell as well?
This is pretty sick stuff, and yet few outside of prison even know it’s happening, and fewer still have enough empathy to recognize just how destructive and wrong it is. Of course, nothing prevents courts from holding such fees unconstitutional burdens under due process, equal protection and the Eighth Amendment, but then, who where would the money come from to pay for judge’s health insurance?