Nevada Jail Charges Prisoners for Meals, Medical Care to Defray Costs
by Michael Brodheim
Overcrowding at Nevada’s Elko County jail is expected to ease with the scheduled completion of an addition to the facility, while the jail continues to work on correcting deficiencies reported in a Nevada Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) citation filed in the wake of a complaint by a female prisoner.
The April 2013 citation faulted the jail for failing to meet state standards in five areas, most critically by providing only half as many toilets for female prisoners as required by HHS guidelines. Instead of having one toilet for every eight prisoners, the facility provided just one for every 16 prisoners.
To bring the facility into compliance, the county transferred long-term female prisoners to jails in other counties, but Lt. Kevin McKinney said that solution costs $50 per prisoner per day and is not designed to be long-term.
“It’s a temporary fix,” he stated. “We’re going to have to bring them back sooner or later because right now we’re traveling back and forth for court.”
Undersheriff Clair Morris said other steps implemented by the jail include the release of women charged with misdemeanors, who are instructed to return for court dates. She said the steps are designed to keep the facility in compliance with state regulations until new bathrooms are built.
Other problems noted in the HHS citation included faulty water pressure to a bathroom in one of the cell blocks housing female prisoners and damage to a shower wall in another cell block. According to the citation, the jail was threatened with immediate suspension of its permit if it failed to comply with the HHS-mandated guidelines.
In addition to improvements to the women’s section of the jail, construction is expected to be completed by summer 2015 on a two-story, 84-bed addition to the facility.
“The main goal and purpose of the project is to create additional cell space for inmates,” said Jennifer Back, project manager for Ormaza Construction, Inc. “Elko has seen an increase in population due to job openings in the mining and industrial fields. With this comes the demand for more county- and city-owned [correctional] facilities.”
Undersheriff Morris told the Elko Daily Free Press that the jail averages between 130 and 140 prisoners per day, around 10% over capacity.
She said the jail has started charging prisoners for meals, booking fees and medical visits in an effort to reduce costs. Beginning on April 1, 2014, prisoners were required to pay a $5.00 booking fee, $6.87 per day for all meals and $10.00 for a routine medical request. The fees are deducted from a prisoner’s account or are collected if they are released and later return to jail with money on their person.
Morris indicated the new fees are designed to defray a portion of the cost of housing prisoners, which reached $3.4 million in 2013. “Why should the taxpayers have to pay all of that?” she asked. “... They’re paying the bill and it’s a big one.”
Morris said that with the exception of meal fees, the charges are similar to fees at jails across the state. The Elko County jail is the only facility in Nevada that charges prisoners for meals – which led to objections by the state ACLU chapter.
“I was aghast that anyone was even thinking of doing this,” said Nevada ACLU executive director Tod Story. “There is no value in trying to punish them further than the sentence that they are already serving.”
“[The fees] are very minimal compared to the country or the rest of the state,” countered Support Services Manager Annette Kerr, who said the fees are charged based on the prisoner’s ability to pay. “No one is being denied services.... Everyone gets the emergency services. Everyone gets meals,” she added.
Kerr further noted that all of the fees are earmarked to support the prisoners at the facility, not for guards’ wages or capital expenses. Prisoners who work at the jail will not have to pay for meals, nor will those held less than 24 hours. Pre-trial detainees who are found not guilty will have any fees reimbursed.
Sources: www.elkodaily.com, www.correctionalnews.com, Associated Press
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