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Nevada sheriff ruffles ACLU; charges inmates for food, expenses

Incarceration in jail
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A Nevada sheriff is saving taxpayers a lot of money by charging jail inmates for their food and medical expenses, despite objections from the American Civil Liberties Union.

The Elko County Commission on Wednesday approved Sheriff Jim Pitts’ proposal to charge the inmates $5 for booking administrative costs, $6 a day for meals and $10 for each doctor visit. The move is estimated to save the county millions, according to the Reno Gazette Journal.

“Why should the people of Elko County pay for somebody else’s meals in jail?” Commissioner Grant Gerber said, adding that, if anything, the fees are too low.

Tod Story, the executive director of the ACLU’s Nevada chapter, is adamantly opposed to the so-called “no free lunch” policy, especially since it would burden indigent inmates.

“I was aghast that anyone was even thinking of doing this,” he told The Associated Press. “It is unconstitutional — cruel and unusual punishment. There is no value in trying to punish them further than the sentence that they are already serving.”

But Pitts said the charges represent a small fraction of the $85 a day it costs to keep inmates incarcerated. With a jail capacity of 120, that amounts to over $10,000 a day.

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The Gazette Journal reported:

While it’s not uncommon in some states for counties to charge inmates a small fee or copayment for medical care, National Sheriff’s Association operations director Fred Wilson said he’s not aware of any charging for meals.

Arizona’s Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, famous for his crackdowns on illegal immigration and tough jail policies, has discussed the idea and is still considering it, but he hasn’t instituted it, sheriff’s spokesman Christopher Hegstrom said Friday.

Inmates who work at the jail or stay fewer than 24 hours would be exempt from the fees, and those eventually acquitted would be reimbursed.

The ACLU’s main objection is with the $6-a-day charge for meals.

“Some jails charge a very minimal co-payment for medical services, but it’s based entirely on an inmate’s ability to pay, or capacity to pay,” Story said. “But the food is not even a question. Once somebody has entered into the system, they become the responsibility of the state.”

Because Elko County is apparently the first jurisdiction to charge for food, it may open itself to litigation.

“Elko has never been afraid of being first,” Gerber told the AP.

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