Prisoners in Riverside County, California, who have assets may soon be required to fork over approximately $143 a day for their stay in what County Supervisor Jeff Stone calls the “Prison Hotel.”
An ordinance to introduce the proposal was passed unanimously by the county supervisors last week, and a vote is expected shortly. Whether or not it passes, Stone may be correct in stating, “I think we’re blazing a new trail here. In these very challenging economic times, I believe this can be a source of revenue. I believe this can return 3 to 5 million (dollars) a year during these very challenging economic times.” (Emphasis added.)
If passed, a “prison hotel” fee could be charged to those able to pay, with a lien placed on the assets and property of anyone who objects. In short, a person imprisoned for possession of drugs, or for obstruction of justice (such as speaking back to a police officer) could lose his home, car, or bank account to the county for payment of “hotel” fees, drug testing, medical care, and parole costs. A defendant with “equity” would also be charged attorney fees for using a public defender. As for those using the “services” of a parole officer, Stone states, “The County will do the same on the parolee’s parents’ property if that’s the only way to get the money.”
Riverside County Counsel Pamela Walls raises revealing objections. The primary one addresses the legal authority of the council to seek reimbursement. She offers a solution to what is clearly viewed as an administrative obstacle: “In order to recover such costs, the Board must adopt an ordinance which designates the officer responsible for the collection of moneys ordered and the average per-day costs in the County jail or other local detention facility.”
In a similar practical vein, Walls warns that the fees may not return much money because so many prisoners are indigent. In this, Walls misses the point on two levels. First, the thousands of prisoners who do have assets are low-hanging fruit, ripe for government plucking; it is easy money for cash-starved bureaucrats.
Second, and more significantly, a “hotel” fee would provide ominous incentives for future income. It would become tremendously profitable for the county to imprison people with houses, mutual funds, and retirement accounts. Such people constitute the respectable class of society to whom police often issue a polite warning rather than an arrest warrant. Now, warrants would be where the profits live.
Moreover, the fee establishes a strong financial incentive for courts to find people guilty. Supervisor Stone assured the public, “[I]f a defendant is found innocent, he will not be charged for the time he served.” Some of us “in the public” hear these reassuring words as, “Courts will be biased toward revenue-enhancing ‘guilty’ verdicts.”
Prisons for Profit
America has long recognized the use of prison labor as a source of profit. Section 1 of the Thirteenth Amendment reads, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
Under law, a prisoner’s time and his labor belong to the State. In America two basic models have been used to exploit the convict’s labor: the contract system and the public account system.
In the contract system a private business agrees to purchase the labor of X convicts and usually establishes a workshop within the prison to produce goods that will be sold on the market. When the work must be done on site – for example, at a farm – the convicts are generally transported there as needed or leased-out to be “cared for” by the leasing business concern at taxpayer expense.
Today, the laboring convicts are often given a tiny portion of the profits on a piecework or hourly basis. This provides incentive to the workers without significantly reducing profit to the business or the prison.
In the public account system the prison authority directly exploits the convicts’ labor by using them in public works, in producing goods to be sold in limited venues, or in tasks for which paid laborers would otherwise be required (such as cleaning roadsides). Prisoners who refuse to work can lose privileges, including “good time” credits that reduce sentences. Not surprisingly, most prisoners decide to work.
If Riverside County is successful in charging prisoners for their own maintenance, then the profits to made from imprisoning a person will proceed to a different, higher level. No more will the profits be limited by the number of hours or skills a convict can provide. His real estate and business, his goods and bank account, could be forfeited to the coffers of governments on every level. “Prison hotels” will entice authorities to arrest and convict people of means.
The Free Life