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Protesters decry bills that would charge inmates fees

By David Abel
Globe Staff / May 26, 2010

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Prisoner advocates rallied in front of the State House yesterday, urging lawmakers to reject amendments to the state budget that would require inmates of county jails or state prisons to pay a raft of new fees, including $5 a day to subsidize the cost of their confinement.

The advocates argued that the proposed fees, which have passed in the House, would place a heavier burden on already impoverished inmates and their families, many of whom send money to prison to pay for toiletries. They also said the proposed fees could lead to increased crime, as some indebted inmates may feel the need to commit new crimes to repay their prison debt.

“The amendments are unreasonable, unrealistic, and disrespectful,’’ said the Rev. William E. Dickerson of Greater Love Tabernacle Church in Dorchester. “They would only contribute to a vicious cycle of recidivism.’’

Supporters of the legislation say it would help cash-strapped county and state prisons, as well as promote greater responsibility for inmates.

The House bill and similar versions being debated in the Senate would also impose fees on inmates of $5 for seeing a doctor, for a dental appointment, or for new glasses. There would be a $3 fee for filling a prescription.

The fees would be deducted from inmates’ prison accounts, but they would not have to pay if they did not have sufficient funds.

Proponents of the legislation said they are acting following a decision by the state’s highest court this year that rejected similar fees imposed on inmates by Bristol County. The Supreme Judicial Court ruled that only the Legislature can set such fees.

“The thing is with prisoners is that a lot go in with a ton of money that they put in a canteen, which they spend on candy and other goodies,’’ said state Representative Elizabeth Poirier, Republican of North Attleborough, who sponsored the House bill. “A lot of prisoners have a problem with a lack of responsibility and similar kinds of issues, like not understanding the consequences for their actions.’’

She said the bill would not increase recidivism because it exempts indigent inmates from paying the fees if, upon their release, they remain out of prison for two years.

Poirier does not agree with a proposed amendment in the Senate that would require the 11,300 inmates in the custody of the state Department of Correction to pay the same fees. The House bill only requires the roughly 13,000 inmates in county jails and houses of correction to pay the fees.

“My purpose is that it apply to short-term prisoners, rather than long-term prisoners,’’ she said. “I don’t know if it serves a purpose for prisoners who are there for decades.’’

Leslie Walker, executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services, a Boston-based civil rights group for prisoners, said the legislation could end up costing the state more money than it raises. The state this fiscal year is spending $540 million on the Department of Correction; the House and Senate have proposed reducing the department’s budget next fiscal year.

Walker argued that inmates would probably tell their families to stop sending money to their prison accounts. If they have more than $10 in their accounts, they have to use their money to buy soap, shampoo, and other toiletries. If they have less, the state picks up the cost.

Terrel Harris, a spokesman for the Executive Office of Public Safety, said the administration opposes the proposed fees.

At the rally yesterday, which was attended by dozens of people, prisoner advocates and former convicts held signs with slogans such as “Stop Pay to Stay’’ and “Prevent Theft from the Poor.’’

Rodney Petersen, executive director of the Boston Theological Institute, called the legislation “misguided social policy.’’

Derrick Farley, 45, who spent seven years in jail, called the bills “a very bad idea.’’

“How can you put a penalty like this on someone already poor and doing their time?’’ he said.

“It’s an unjustified burden, and I think it will just drive people back to committing crime to pay back their debts.’’

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com.

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