Photo courtesy of Wikipedia
How much would you spend on prison food?
In Elko County, Nevada, inmates won’t be able to decide. On February 5, the County Commission approved a proposal from Sheriff Jim Pitts, who oversees the county jail, to charge inmates for meals. When inmates are freed, they will be forced to pay a cumulative fee for the meals they ate at the clink. In 2012, Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez announced a plan to charge inmates small fees or co-payments for medical care, but this is the first time a similar policy has been introduced for food.
Jim claims his plan will allow taxpayer money to be reallocated to fund education and other services in Elko County.
“If I collect $20 a day, that’s $20 less the taxpayer has to come up with,” Jim told me. “I could get up here and say, ‘I’m going to save the taxpayer $4 million a year.’ Realistically, your taxes won’t go down $4 million a year, but that money can be used in other places. I might be able to keep people out of my jail if we get them educated.”
Jim said he has a $3 million annual budget for the small jail. The prison only has 120 beds, but the prison is often overpopulated. According to Jim's calculations, one inmate's three daily meals—a hot breakfast and two cold sandwiches—costs $6.87 total. On March 3, the jail began instituting the new policy, although inmates had already responded negatively to the proposal weeks before it was initiated. And they weren't the only ones.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada has publicly condemned Jim’s plan as a violation of constitutional rights.
“Food is one of the basic necessities of life,” Staci Pratt, the legal director of Nevada’s ACLU, told me. “It is considered cruel and unusual punishment to deny anyone access to food.”
In an email, Tod Story, the executive director of Nevada’s ACLU, said, “We’ll be watching closely to see if they actually implement the plan.” On February 28, he sent a letter to Jim and the County Commission discussing his concerns.
From Jim’s point of view, the functioning of the jail’s food service is not going to change. Financial considerations will not be made until an individual’s prison term finishes—the plan is basically a forced credit system except instead of being forced to pay a credit card in full, inmates are being forced to pay for shitty food.
“My whole purpose of this is that my computer system will keep them on record as owing us money,” Jim said. “The next time [repeat offenders] come in and they have money, I’m going to take it.”
Jim said he doesn’t care about the ACLU's opinion because the County Commission has supported his decision.
“It was their choice to commit a crime, and now they should pay for their meals while they’re serving their time,” Elko County Commissioner Grant Gerber told me. “We’re looking out for the taxpayer. We’re not looking out for the criminal.”
Grant suggested that it might be a good idea to start charging inmates for housing accommodations as well. He continually bucked the notion that inmates are forced to remain in jail, instead repeating that they chose to be there.
“[The ACLU] is wrong,” Grant said. “I’m an attorney; they’re wrong lots of times. They need to raise money, so they’re making complaints to get their name in the paper.”
Neither Grant nor Jim took into account the plan’s long-term effects on inmates’ pocketbooks and quality of life. It’s a misconception that the plan will preclude some inmates from eating, but the new rule will likely become a financial burden for inmates once they leave jail.
Former convicts are more likely to develop bad credit, because they are often forced to pay agencies, like probation departments, upon release, according to a report released by the Council of State Governments in 2007. Faced with the unwinnable scenario of paying a large sum for jail meals, Elko County inmates are clearly not getting a fair shake, but that hasn't stopped people from supporting the plan or seeing it as a sales pitch for living in Elko County.
“It’s a fair system,” Grant said. “You should move to Elko County, so your taxes will be a little bit less.”