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SJC: Bristol County inmates owed $1 million in refunds

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Prisoner advocates are racing against a tight deadline to find thousands of former inmates, who together are owed nearly $1 million in refunds for fees unlawfully collected by the Bristol County sheriff for rent, medical services, GED exams and overpriced haircuts.

The Supreme Court Judicial Court upheld a lower court ruling that Bristol County Sheriff Thomas M. Hogdson, who oversees jails in New Bedford and North Dartmouth, does not have the legislative authority to charge inmates the fees. Before a Bristol County judge stopped the practice in 2004, Hogdson collected about $750,000, which has grown to almost $830,000 with interest.

Hogdson was charging $5 a day for “custodial care” or rent, and separate fees for medical and dental services, eyeglasses, prescription drugs and GED exams. Haircuts for prisoners cost $5, more than triple the $1.50 set by the state Department of Correction. The Republican re-elected in November has called the fees, which were captured from inmates’ prison accounts, a matter of “inmate responsibility.”

But James Pingeon, a lawyer with Prisoners Legal Services in Boston who filed the successful lawsuit, said the payments fell on relatives and friends. Unlike inmates in state prisons, Bristol County “prisoners don’t have jobs, so they don’t get paid,” he said.

Since the first notices were mailed to 4,500 former inmates in February, fewer than 1,000 have been found, according to Pingeon, with a court-imposed deadline of April 7 looming. About a third of Bristol County’s inmates are African American or Hispanic.

Harold Adams, founder of the Committee of Friends and Relatives of Prisoners, said the former prisoners are difficult to find because “it’s a transient population.” He has led volunteers on weekends canvassing four public housing developments in New Bedford.

The refunds average less than $200, but Pingeon said they range up to $3,500. Any unclaimed funds will be donated to charities under the settlement agreement.

Meanwhile, a commission that the Massachusetts Legislature formed last year is reviewing whether to authorize all county sheriffs to impose the kinds of fees that Bristol County did for two years. The panel’s report is due within weeks.

Across the country, making prisoners “pay to stay” and to receive services has grown in popularity as state and county governments try to cope with falling revenues  —   though some have discovered the collection costs exceed receipts.

State Rep. Elizabeth Poirier, a Republican from North Attleboro, has filed legislation that would authorize fees of up to $5 for rent, medical and dental visits and eyeglasses. Prescription drugs would cost $3. There would be a number of exemptions for preexisting conditions, emergencies, contagious and chronic ailments, and other essential services. Her bill tracks closely with Hodgson’s former policy.

“Five dollars a day is a small amount,” Poirier said. “In these hard economic times, why should these individuals be a greater burden than they should be?”

She estimated the legislation would save Massachusetts counties $10 million a year.

Many inmates, she said, “enter prison with great sums of money and put it in their account.”

Poirier said her legislation would not penalize families because indigents would not have to pay right away. Upon their release, those inmates would receive a bill that would be forgiven if they are not incarcerated again within two years. “It’s quite an incentive for them to stay on the right side of the law,” she said.

The administration of Gov. Deval Patrick has announced its opposition to charging inmates new fees.

“The Patrick administration does not favor legislation authorizing payment of fees by inmates because their negative and unintended consequences do not lead to a comprehensive plan focused on successful re-entry and reducing recidivism,” Terrel Harris, spokesman for the state Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, said in an e-mail last week.

In another county, jail inmates are being charged for medical services. Essex County inmates pay a one-time fee of $30 for a mandatory health screening when they enter jail, $5 for a doctor visit, $2 for aspirin or Tylenol, but nothing for prescription drugs, according to Paul Fleming, media contact for Essex County Sheriff Frank G. Cousins Jr., a Republican who is African American.

Fleming said 40 percent of the county’s inmates are indigent and “nobody is denied medical care for anything” if they are unable to pay.

Since 2007, a private company, NaphCare Inc., has provided medical services at Essex County jails. The correctional health care provider based in Birmingham, Ala. was awarded a six-year contract in 2008, according to the firm’s website.

Asked the legal basis for the medical fees, Fleming said that “if you’re a member of society, most people pay a copay” for medical care and that the jail charges encourage inmates to “be regular participants in society.”

Fleming said the Essex County sheriff’s office has reviewed the SJC decision in the Bristol County case, but said he was unable to respond to a question about how the medical charges fit with that decision.

The SJC ruled last year that sheriffs do not have the legislative authority to impose fees for health services, rent or GED exams, which had cost $12.50 in Bristol.

Pingeon said a lawsuit challenging the Essex County fees is likely to be filed in the next couple months. About 11 percent of the county’s inmates are African American, and 6 percent are Hispanic.

Massachusetts law does allow collecting medical copayments from state prisoners, he said, because jobs are available to them during confinement. For a similar reason, state or county inmates who work regular jobs while in prerelease programs can be charged for room and board as they make the transition to life outside prison.

Pingeon disputed the idea that charging non-working inmates in county jails promotes personal responsibility. “It doesn’t, if you’re sitting in jail asking your mother to pay for your stuff,” he said.

The fee schedule in Bristol County, Pingeon said, had heightened tensions among inmates as those with access to money became targets for hostile extortion. “The preying of one prisoner on another, which is a problem in any jail, was much, much magnified when it was in place,” he said.

Adams said former Bristol County inmates who believe they are due a refund should call the Committee of Friends and Relatives of Prisoners at 617-267-1024 to check a database of eligible recipients and obtain claim forms.

Information and forms are also available at www.bristolcounty jailclassaction.com.