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Massachusetts Prisoners Receive Refunds for Illegal Fees Imposed by Sheriff

A class of prisoners at the Bristol County House of Correction in Massachusetts has received settlement checks from a lawsuit challenging an illegal $5-a-day fee imposed by the sheriff for room-and-board. The checks were mailed out on May 3, 2012, more than two years after the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court determined the Bristol County Sheriff’s Department lacked authority to charge the fees. [See: PLN, July 2010, p.46; Jan. 2005, p.13].

Sheriff Thomas M. Hodgson began collecting the room-and-board fees on July 1, 2002, as well as fees for medical visits, eyeglasses prescriptions, medication, GED testing and haircuts, but they were ordered stopped in 2004 by Superior Court Judge Richard T. Moses, who held the legislature had not granted authority to assess them.

The Supreme Judicial Court’s order upholding Judge Moses’ ruling did not end the dispute, however. In February 2012, the state won a judgment allowing it to deduct any unpaid child support payments from the prisoners’ settlement checks.

“I never thought it would take this long but it has,” said Jim Pingeon, litigation director for Prisoners’ Legal Services, which represented the class members. “There always has been something that has gotten in the way.”

According to Robert Novak, an attorney with the sheriff’s legal department, the sheriff collected a total of $827,500, including interest, during the time period when the fees were in effect. The money was held in an escrow account.

The court hired Analytics, Inc. as an administrator to help the sheriff’s department certify the class members’ claims. After the class was certified, the sheriff sent the comptroller a check for $515,658.64 to settle all claims related to the illegal fees. Around 1,100 former prisoners who were held at the House of Correction from 2002 to 2004 will receive payments ranging from $.02 to over $3,000; the refunds include 10 percent interest.

The administrator was paid $32,000, and Prisoners’ Legal Services was allowed to bill up to $200,000 in attorney fees and costs. Any remaining settlement funds will be donated to four mutually agreed upon charities – Changing Lives Through Literature at UMass Dartmouth; Steppingstone, Inc.; PACE in New Bedford; and the Boys and Girls Clubs in New Bedford and Fall River – as determined by the court. See: Souza v. Hodgson, Bristol County Superior Court (MA), Case No. 02-870.

Sheriff Hodgson was disappointed with the outcome of the class-action lawsuit and indicated he would continue to seek legislative approval to charge fees to prisoners. “We are going to pursue what is really just,” he said. “This is a very important issue for the taxpayers, and it’s also about teaching inmates responsibility.”

For now, the court has taught Hodgson that he will be held responsible when he acts absent the legal authority to do so, which is an equally important lesson.


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Related legal case

Souza v. Hodgson