Feb 10 5:21 PM

Northern Nevada county to charge prisoners for meals and medical care

Volunteer inmates receive meals through a slot in the cell doors during an overnight stay.
Eric Francis/Getty Images.

A county in northern Nevada is instituting a plan that will make its jail the first in the nation to charge inmates for food and medical care.

The commission overseeing Elko County's prison approved a proposal last week to charge prisoners a $5 processing fee when they are first booked, then $6 daily for meals and $10 for each doctor's visit.

Elko County Sheriff Jim Pitts said the plan, which he estimates will take effect mid-February, would reduce the $85 per day that taxpayers pay for each inmate and could save the county millions of dollars. Pitts also supports the plan on principle, saying that prisoners shouldn't have a "free ride."

“We’re not the Hilton," he added.

Inmates will pay for meals and medical care from accounts set up by friends and family members. Inmates who cannot pay for meals and medical care will accrue a negative balance.

Several types of inmates will be exempt from the policies, including those incarcerated for under 24 hours and those prisoners who work at the jail. Inmates who are found to be falsely imprisoned will be reimbursed for their fees.

Critics of the plan say this system will unduly burden the families of inmates. Pitts defended the accounts system, saying, "All I'm doing is taking my cut first, before they buy their candies. They need to pay for their food first before they get their dessert."

Pitts said the charges for medical care and prescriptions are necessary to serve as a deterrent from unnecessary visits to the doctor.

Todd Story, executive director of the ACLU Nevada, expressed outrage at the new policy and said a legal battle over its constitutionality is likely. Speaking to the Associated Press, Story said, "I was aghast that anyone was even thinking of doing this. It is unconstitutional — cruel and unusual punishment."

In Arizona, Sheriff Joe Arpaio has drawn similar attention for his proposal to charge inmates $1 for each meal, but Elko County is the first to actually move forward with such a plan. Policies of charging inmates for medical care, on the other hand, exist in several other prisons across the country. Critics of this approach say it has a negative effect on prisoners' health, as treatment is often limited to emergencies to avoid costs.

Story says Elko County's policy on prisoner meals is more likely than its policy on medical services to be overturned in court.

"Food is not even a question," Story said. "Once somebody has entered into the system, they become the responsibility of the state."

What do you think about Elko County's decision to charge inmates? Leave a comment below.



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