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July 24. 2004 6:01AM Forums  Print this  Email this

CLASS-ACTION LAWSUIT
Inmate fee law target of suit

  • Lawyers filing the suit said the fee is an example of how the prison system is taking advantage of prisoners and their families.
  • By KAREN VOYLES
    Sun staff writer


    The lawsuit aims to stop the state from collecting about $3.5 million a year.

    class action suit filed Friday in Tallahassee would stop the Florida Department of Corrections from collecting about $3.5 million a year from inmates in the form of an administrative processing fee.

    The fee - $4 an inmate a month - is scheduled to begin being collected at the end of July for the first time. The suit seeks both a temporary and permanent injunction to prevent the state from collecting the fees.

    The 2004 state Legislature unanimously passed the law requiring the Department of Corrections to collect as much as $6 an inmate a month to cover the costs involved with the cashless purchases they make inside state prisons.

    Inmates are not allowed to have any cash inside prison and can only make purchases from the prison canteens and only with money that has been deposited into their individual account in the prison banking system. Prison officials said they will deduct the $4 fee at the end of each month and inmates with a zero balance in their account will have a lien placed so that when money is deposited, it will go to pay late fees first before being available to the inmate.

    The lawsuit was filed by the Florida Justice Institute, a nonprofit, Miami-based, law firm that specializes in prisoner condition and civil rights cases.

    The suit claims the fee "will impose irreparable injury since they (inmates) have no other source of funds and no way in which to buy those very necessary items, such as deodorant and shampoo, which the Department of Corrections does not provide."

    "While we haven't seen or been served with the lawsuit, the Department of Corrections believes we are simply following the law that was passed this session," said Sterling Ivey, the department's communications director.

    Ivey also recalled that when the Legislature considered the state budget this spring, lawmakers removed $5 million from the prison system's budget after calculating that a $6 an inmate a month banking fee would generate about $5 million for the prison system. When he announced a $4 fee a month ago, Corrections Secretary James Crosby said he chose to do some belt tightening within the system to minimize the monthly fee because he realized that many inmates rely exclusively on their families for spending money and he did not wish to put an additional burden on them.

    While Florida prisons require all inmates without medical exceptions to hold a job or attend classes, the class action suit said that of the nearly 80,000 inmates in the state prison system, fewer than 5,000 hold prison jobs that provide even a small paycheck.

    Some inmates who have written to The Sun about the new fee also expressed concern for their relatives.

    "This law is not meant to hurt us, the inmates, but to hurt our families," wrote Craig Casselman, 27, who is serving a 6-year sentence at Desoto Correctional Institution in Arcadia for crimes including robbery with a deadly weapon and aggravated battery with a deadly weapon.

    Another inmate, Kyle Sundberg, wrote; "We are all incarcerated for a reason and I'm not of the opinion that inmates deserve special treatment, but I do believe that we should be entitled to fair and just treatment." Sundberg, 33, is being held at the Reception and Medical Center in Lake Butler while serving a 23-year term for crimes including aggravated battery and false imprisonment.

    Ivey said the new fees will be deposited into the general revenue fund for the prisons. The state employs 32 people to run the prison banking system, a system which receives about 4,000 money orders each day that must be credited to individual inmate accounts. During the 2002-2003 fiscal year, the approximately 77,000 inmates moved about $66 million through the accounts. Inmates also use the accounts to pay for health service at $4 a visit and other expenses, like 15 cents per page for copies.

    Lawyers filing the suit said the fee is an example of how the prison system is taking advantage of prisoners and their families.

    "Florida prisoners are getting ripped off in every sense of the phrase ripped off," said Cullin O'Brien, one of the institute attorneys who filed the suit. "This fee shines light on the other ways that inmates are being taken advantage of and getting ripped off."

    O'Brien and the inmates said that in addition to being charged a fee to maintain an account to make canteen purchases, inmates are paying canteen prices that would be considered gouging in the free world.

    For example, a Snickers candy bar that costs 48 cents at Wal-Mart or 65 cents at Eckerd costs 75 cents inside a state prison. A tube of Colgate toothpaste that costs $1.58 at Wal-Mart and $2.29 at Eckerd costs $2.77 at a prison canteen. A pack of Marlboro cigarettes costs $2.72 at Wal-Mart, $3.10 at Eckerd and $5.87 at a prison canteen. A Scrabble board game that costs $10.97 at Wal-Mart costs $18.92 from a prison canteen.

    Until last year, Ivey said prison canteen prices were set at 60 percent above what it cost the department to buy each item and the profits were put into the general revenue fund.

    All state prison canteens were turned over to a private contractor, Keefe Commissary Network, in October in return for Keefe paying the state 84 cents an inmate a day.

    Under the contract, which can be extended to cover five years, Keefe's prices began at the rates already being charged by the state and can increase up to 10 percent every six months, Ivey said.

    Inmate Casselman's opinion of the new fee and rising canteen prices was that "the state is not trying to rehabilitate us because they want us to keep coming back just so they can make money."

    However, the department's 2002-2003 annual report showed Florida spent an average of $47.36 a day to keep someone in state prison and the fee paid by Keefe only accounts for about 2 percent of the average daily cost.

    "It's difficult to have competitive pricing in a closed environment in which items must be brought in securely and sold in a cashless system," Ivey said. "There are additional costs involved and so the prices are higher."

    If the monthly account fee remains at $4, inmate Sundberg, who is not scheduled to be released from prison until November 2023, could have his canteen account charged $928 before he is released and before he buys a single item from the canteen.

    "If the canteen prices . . . and these new fees were imposed on the non-incarcerated citizens of Florida, the Attorney General's office would no doubt intervene," Sundberg wrote.

    Karen Voyles can be reached at (352) 486-5058 or voylesk@gvillesun.com.


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