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DOC puts budget squeeze on inmates

Faced with a projected $7 million deficit, the Rhode Island Department of Corrections (DOC) is increasing fees for inmates. Prisoners and advocates say the higher fees for medical care, clothing, and other items are misguided. "They’re approaching this completely backwards," says Mimi Budnik, community organizer for Direction Action for Rights & Equality’s (DARE) Behind the Walls Prison Project. Although she calls the state prison system, "a huge sinkhole of expenses," Budnik says, "The way to alleviate that problem and pressure is not to increase fees — especially because the fees are often carried on the backs of family members who are already having a hard time making ends meet when someone in their family is incarcerated." Instead, she suggests, the state should examine alternatives to prison.

In a November 15 budget report, the state Budget Office projects that DOC spending will exceed its budget by $7 million this year, primarily due to growing medical costs and increases in the prison population. The DOC moved ahead with the increased costs after a November hearing on plans to increase fees for doctor and dentist visits from $2 to $3, establish a $6 fee to see a specialist, and to charge for women’s transitional housing. The higher fees come about a year after DOC stopped paying interest on inmate accounts.

Inmates at the Adult Correctional Institutions in Cranston complain that the DOC is also charging more for clothing. Previously, according to a letter from Medium II inmate Gregory Rivers, the department supplied long-sleeve uniform shirts during the winter. But inmates were told that only short-sleeved shirts were available this year. Inmates can wear long-sleeved "thermals" under their short-sleeved shirts, but these cost $5.80 at the prison store.

In a phone interview, Anderson Cesar, a US Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainee confined at Medium II, confirms Rivers’s account. Newly arrived detainees previously received six undershirts and six boxers at no charge, Cesar states. In October, he reports, the DOC announced that detainees would receive just one undershirt and one pair of boxers. If they want more, they have to pay $2.68 for a shirt and $1.87 for under-shorts. Outdoor recreation has been reduced from twice to once a day, and to further reduce costs, writing pads and deodorant are no longer included in the free "care packages" of toiletries, Cesar relates. "People who ain’t got nothing, they struggle," he says, "and it’s getting funky in here."

To pay for items sold at the prison store, each inmate has an account containing prison wages of $1 to $3 a day, and checks from relatives. But not all inmates have jobs. Cesar, for example, estimates that 20 of the 60 detainees at Medium II have jobs.

In another decision upsetting inmates, DOC stopped paying interest on inmate accounts in June 2002. "[W]e were quite stunned at this attempt by the DOC to yet again ‘screw the inmates’ out of anything this place feels they might get away with," wrote Edward Vashay, a Medium I inmate, in a letter to General Treasurer Paul Tavares.

The no-interest policy remains in place, however. In a July 2002 memo to inmates, Richard Frechette, the DOC’s associate director for financial resources, explained, "Net interest will probably be turned over to the State as general revenues." Inmates can also withdraw money from their accounts to deposit it in banks.

DOC spokesman Albert Bucci did not return phone calls from the Phoenix.

Issue Date: December 5 - 11, 2003
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