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Alabama Work Release Transportation, Medical and Drug Screen Costs Not “Incidental to Confinement”

Alabama Work Release Transportation, Medical and Drug Screen Costs Not “Incidental to Confinement”

by David M. Reutter

Alabama’s Supreme Court has held that the plain language of § 14-8-6, Ala. Code 1975 does not prohibit the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) from collecting, over and above the 40% threshold established by that law, costs that are not incidental to a prisoner’s confinement – including transportation costs and fees stemming from participation in the prison system’s optional work-release program.

The December 6, 2013 ruling came in a class-action lawsuit that challenged the ADOC’s deduction of more than 40% of prisoners’ gross earnings for costs associated with transportation to employment, laundering work clothes, drug-testing fees and prisoner-initiated medical visits. [See: PLN, May 2008, p.38; July 2006, p.35]. Pursuant to § 14-8-6, Ala. Code 1975, the ADOC is authorized “to withhold up to 40% of an inmate’s work-release earnings for costs ‘incident to the inmate’s confinement.’”

The ADOC contended that it could make deductions for costs associated with those services beyond the 40% statutory threshold because they were not “incident to” a prisoner’s incarceration. The plaintiffs in the class-action suit argued such costs were incidental, and thus not subject to additional withholdings.

The Alabama Supreme Court agreed with the ADOC, as the prisoners offered nothing to show that the ADOC’s definition of incidental costs differed from the statutory language. ADOC Commissioner Kim Thomas testified that costs of confinement include “Electricity, gas, water, repairs on the buildings, salaries of employees and benefits, food, processing food, transporting food, gas, paper products, health care, mental health care.”

Transportation fees for work release are “not related to the confinement itself,” he stated, but are fees that “relate[] directly to [the inmate’s] ... employment.” The Supreme Court agreed, finding work release transportation costs are related to the prisoner’s “decision to participate in a voluntary program offered by” the ADOC.

Fees for drug tests, which cost $31.50, are charged only if the prisoner tests positive for illegal drug use on a prison-administered drug screening and the positive result is subsequently confirmed by “a free-world laboratory.” The $3.00 medical co-pay for self-initiated prisoner medical visits is determined by medical staff, and intended to discourage “malingering.”

The Supreme Court found the fees related to tests for illegal drug use and “purportedly unnecessary medical care” do not arise from a prisoner’s confinement, but “from a voluntary and unnecessary undertaking by the inmate.”

The Court concluded that the ADOC’s “interpretation of § 14-8-6 as permitting its collection of charges, which are not incident to the inmate’s confinement, in excess of the 40% withholding cap established by that statute is both reasonable and consistent with the statutory language.” Accordingly, the lower court’s order that held the ADOC was limited to deducting 40% of a prisoner’s gross wages was reversed and remanded. Justice Glenn Murdock issued a dissenting opinion. See: Thomas v. Merritt, 2013 Ala. LEXIS 172 (Ala. Dec. 6, 2013).


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Related legal case

Thomas v. Merritt