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Massachusetts Court Enjoins Sheriff from Charging Jail Prisoners Assorted Fees

Massachusetts Court Enjoins Sheriff from
Charging Jail Prisoners Assorted Fees

by Michael Rigby

The sheriff of Bristol County, Massachusetts, has been enjoined from gouging prisoners and their families on jail service fees in accordance with his Inmate Financial Responsibility Program (IFRP).

Under the program, prisoners in the Bristol County Jail and the Bristol County House of Corrections were saddled with multiple fees. These included a $5 a day fee for the prisoners' "cost of care," $5 for prisoner initiated medical visits, $3 for pharmaceutical prescriptions, $5 for eyeglass prescriptions, $5 for a hair cut or beard trim, and $12.95 to register and take the General Equivalency Diploma (GED) test. These fees were automatically deducted from the prisoners' Inmate Money Account (IMA). If a prisoner had no money in the IMA, the debt accrued for a period of two years and was deducted whenever a prisoner received money.

On July 9, 2002, the day after Hodgson implemented the program, attorney for the prisoners, James R. Pingeon, Litigation Director for Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services, filed a lawsuit challenging Hodgson's fee scheme as unconstitutional. Hodgson removed the case to U.S. District Court, but on July 17, 2003, after the plaintiffs voluntarily dismissed with prejudice all of their federal claims, the case was remanded to the Superior Court for resolution of the state law claims.

After examining a number of state laws, Superior Court Judge Richard T. Moses held that if the legislature had intended for the sheriff to impose fees for room and board and for medical expenses it would have explicitly authorized him to do so. Since the relevant laws gave no such authorization, the sheriff exceeded his authority when he imposed the fees, Moses ruled. Likewise, Moses held that the GED fee was illegal because the legislature had clearly intended for the prisoners to have free access to GED testing (General Laws Chapter 127, § 92A). As to the hair cut fee, Moses noted that G.L. c. 124, § 1(r) authorizes the Commissioner of Corrections to charge state prisoners a fee for haircuts, but does not specifically authorize the sheriff to do so. Nevertheless, Moses held that the sheriff could impose a haircut fee, just not in excess of the $1.50 charged to prisoners in the Massachusetts Department of Corrections.

The July 29, 2004, ruling also requires Hodgson to return approximately $720,000 collected since the program was implemented. Hodgson said he will appeal the decision and asked Moses for permission to hold off on returning the money in the meantime.

Ironically, Hodgson's brilliant scheme probably cost the jailand ultimately the taxpayersmore than it collected. Prisoners at the jail earn no wages and rely on small donations from family members for commissary purchases. Many prisoners, unable to maintain an amount in their IMA in excess of the fees (roughly $150 a month for the COC alone) apparently chose not to have any money at all placed in their accounts. Thus, the rate of indigency rose. These now indigent prisoners were unable to make even minimal commissary purchases, forcing the jail to provide them with basic necessities such as soap, razor, toothbrush and toothpaste.

In order to justify this ill-conceived program, Hodgson claimed the IFRP was designed to instill a sense of personal responsibility in the prisoners. But as Pingeon argues, "Sheriff Hodgson's fees did not teach prisoners responsibility because the vast majority of prisoners have no money. Therefore these fees were paid by prisoners' families, most of whom are poor and have done nothing wrong." If the sheriff truly wanted to teach responsibility to prisoners, Pingeon said, "he should treat their substance abuse problems, educate them, and give them job skills."

Hodgson has been criticized in the past for removing televisions from cells, closing weight rooms, and advocating the use of chain gangs. See: Souza v. Hodgson , Bristol Superior Court, Case No. BRCV 2002-00870.

Additional source: Boston Globe

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Related legal case

Souza v. Hodgson