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Alabama DOC Charges Prisoners Unlawful Fees to Cover Budget Shortfalls

by Matt Clarke

On June 1, 2007, the Alabama Department of Examiners of Public Accounts released an audit report critical of the funding practices of the state's Department of Corrections (DOC).

The DOC operates 19 prisons, 10 work release centers, three community work centers and a pre-release center, and contracts with two out-of-state facilities to accommodate its more than 25,600 in-custody state prisoners. The department is funded at $349 million a year, which works out to $37 per prisoner per day -- about half the national average. Due to this underfunding, guards are poorly paid, aging prisons are poorly maintained and prisoner healthcare is abysmal, leading to lawsuits.

Instead of seeking a more appropriate level of funding, the DOC has been trying to close the budget gap -- estimated to reach $30 million in 2008 -- by accepting contractual kickbacks for expensive prison phone calls and by hitting prisoners with various fees that have totaled $13 million since January 2001.

A 15-minute out-of-state phone call originating from an Alabama prison costs a prisoner's family $14.15, or almost a dollar a minute. This money is often collected from financially-strapped families whose primary breadwinner is unable to contribute to their income due to incarceration. In 2007 alone, the DOC raked in $5.5 million in prison phone kickbacks.

As for fees, work release prisoners are charged $5.00 per day for a ride to and from work, and must also hand over 40% of their income. Prisoners who sign up for medical appointments are charged a $3.00 co-payment. Those who test positive for drug use are charged $31.50 for the test.

Not only is the notion of closing the DOC's budget gap through fees charged to prisoners questionable, according to the Department of Examiners report such a practice is unauthorized. The report noted that the past four DOC audit examinations had reached the same conclusion and recommended that the DOC charge only those fees authorized by law. The recommendations have been ignored. Typically courts have held that when agencies seize funds from prisoners for which they lack statutory authority the state must refund the money.

The report also noted that the DOC is a defendant in several class-action lawsuits related to prisoner healthcare, of which several have already been settled in the prisoners' favor. Insofar that the department's lack of funding results in lawsuits which establish liability, the DOC's approach is penny-wise and pound-foolish.

Alabama should adequately fund its prisons instead of nickel-and-diming prisoners and their families, crowding twice as many prisoners into the DOC as the prison system is designed to hold, and waiting for the courts to establish the DOC's liability for the resultant abuse, neglect and mistreatment that prisoners must endure.

Sources: Report on the Department of Corrections, State of Alabama, filed June 1, 2007; Birmingham News;

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