New twists to paying one’s debt to society

As the nation’s prison population continued its growth last year, state and local government continued their search for ways of easing overcrowded facilities and taking some of the escalating financial burden of incarceration off taxpayers.

One-hundred-and-forty inmates at the Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge had to be held in February at the county jail because of overcrowding. State and county correctional officials are looking to other states to rent cells for 200 inmates.

In Nebraska, the state prison system is expected to reach 200 percent of capacity by 2000.

Oklahoma’s state prison population increased by a record 1,613 inmates in 1995, reaching a total of 18,605 as of last Dec. 31.

The prison population in North Carolina grew faster than in any other state in 1995. The addition of 29,374 inmates caused a jump of 24.2 percent.

In the name of “taxpayer relief,” jail facilities in New Mexico, Kentucky, and Indiana were among those that began charging inmates in 1996 for their stay in jail and for medical care.


A measure adopted in May by the Albuquerque City Council called for the Bernalillo County Jail to charge inmates $64 a day for room and board. The policy applies to those convicted of drunken driving, prostitution, and shoplifting, among other misdemeanors.

Inmates can work off the debt through community services like picking up trash, a $5-a-day job that keeps their account current. The first batch of 103 invoices, totaling $10,240, were sent out during the first week of October.

In Kentucky, fewer inmates are using the jail infirmaries for frivolous reasons now that a state law authorizes charging them for medical care. In California, the state Department of Corrections is imposing a $5 co-payment on inmates for each medical appointment, except in the case of an emergency or a catastrophic illness such as AIDS.

Bernalillo County’s price for jail seems like a bargain compared to Placer, Calif., where officials are charging $71.36 a day. And in Iowa, sheriffs are planning to take advantage of a new state law that went into effect July 1 that will allow them to charge as much as $65 a day. Most inmates, however, would fall into the $30- to $40-a-day range, sheriffs said. “I’ve always joked that we run the biggest hotel in downtown Cedar Rapids,” said Linn County Sheriff Donald Zeller. “Now we’re going to charge  just like a Motel 6.”

But unlike a Motel 6, there is not always room at the inn  and even when there is, don’t expect cable TV, coffee, stamps or even palatable food. Prisons in Alabama, for example, cut back last year on items perceived as “frills” for inmates.

In Idaho, where the prison population has grown by 33 inmates a month for the past two years, officials are considering whether to hire a private company to build and run a prison, or search the country for other facilities to house inmates.

But private prisons, a boom industry growing at an annual rate of 35 percent, according to experts, have shown their own share of problems, especially in Texas, which has 38 of the 124 private jails open or expected to open around the country, and 23,008 of the nation’s 74,003 private prison beds.

Problems include shortcomings in the laws that govern private prison facilities. This was illustrated last year by Texas’s inability to prosecute two sex offenders from Oregon who broke out of a private facility near Houston and made it nearly 200 miles to Dallas before being caught. Not only was the state unaware that Oregon had shipped 240 sex offenders to the facility operated by the Corrections Corp. of America, it was unable to punish the two men for their 11-day escape. Guards at the prison are neither peace officers nor public servants, and thus no offense was committed under Texas law.

“We have no knowledge of what type of imates are being brought into the state or anything to do with the inmates being brought into the state,” said Allan Polunsky, chairman of the Texas Board of Criminal Justice. “Texas is literally in the dark.”

Other incidents involving private prisons in 1996 included a melee at a detention center near San Antonio, in which a group of Missouri inmates rioted over restricted television privileges. And 100 Utah inmates were returned to that state after a riot and eight escapes from a private jail near Pearsall.

In addition to private prisons, officials around the country are trying alternative facilities, and coming back around to some old ideas of incarceration.

In Alabama, Arizona, Florida and Washington, military tents were set up to ease overcrowding and provide temporary housing for misdemeanor inmates. In Ephrata, Wash., a year-round, surplus tent will hold 60 inmates and be rainproof and insulated to keep prisoners warm and dry. Maricopa County, Ariz. Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the self-proclaimed “toughest sheriff in America,” moved 200 female prisoners to tents in May.

Arpaio, who was accused by the U.S. Justice Department last year of using excessive force against prisoners and providing them with scant medical attention, began putting women on chain gangs in September. Arpaio has been placing male convicts on chain gangs since 1995.

The idea of putting women on the work gangs resulted in the ouster of Alabama Prison Commissioner Ron Jones in April by Gov. Fob James. The Kansas House of Representatives in February rejected a proposal by the state Department of Corrections to shackle delinquent teen-agers and have them do clean-up work. That same month, a poll in Georgia conducted by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Georgia State University showed that two-thirds of the state’s adults want prisoners to work on chain gangs.

In Indiana, on the other hand, inmates at the Mount Pleasant Correctional Facility are volunteering to work on the outdoor chain gangs that began May 1. It is so pleasant working in rural Henry County, they said, that the whole prison should be out there.


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Published in Law Enforcement News
Dec. 31, 1996.
© 1996, LEN Inc.  [ Subscribe.]