TAUNTON -- The Bristol County sheriff has overstepped his bounds by requiring inmates to pay daily rent and other fees, an attorney for the inmates argued yesterday.
James Pingeon said Sheriff Thomas Hodgson is violating a state law requiring him to safeguard prisoners' funds until their release. In addition, a state law requiring county inmates to pay for their incarceration was repealed in 1904, Pingeon said at a hearing at Bristol Superior Court.
Hodgson attorney Bruce Assad said imposing fees is one of the sheriff's powers. "He has complete control of his facilities. . . . It is his responsibility and only his responsibility."
Bristol Superior Court Judge Richard Moses took the issue under advisement and gave attorneys 30 days to file additional briefs.
More than 100 inmates are part of a class-action suit against Hodgson that claims the fees violate their rights, are unconstitutional, and are "an invalid and unauthorized tax."
Pingeon, who represents the inmates through taxpayer-funded Correctional Legal Services, said such inmate fees are "appropriate for the Legislature to rule on, and not for the sheriff to take the law into his own hands."
Hodgson instituted a $5-a-day rent for inmates in July 2002, as well as fees for medical visits and haircuts and for taking high school equivalency tests. Jail officials say they've set aside $700,000 from inmate accounts in an escrow account pending the outcome of this lawsuit.
"I have a hard time understanding why anybody would have a problem with inmates being accountable and lowering the burden for the taxpayer," Hodgson said. "If you have enough money every day for cookies and other amenities in the canteen, you certainly ought to be asked to pay for your basic needs first instead of strapping that on the back of the taxpayers."
Hodgson, who was appointed sheriff in 1997 and then elected to the post the next year, has made news in the past. He infuriated civil rights advocates by reinstituting chain gangs and stripping inmates of privileges, by offering his sheriff's deputies to combat crime in New Bedford and by offering inmate labor to help communities struggling with cuts in local aid. Earlier this year, he suggested a "Prisoner Peace Corps" that would send inmates to provide aid in global trouble spots.
Bernie Sullivan, spokesman for Hodgson, said many sheriffs around the state are watching this case because of the impact it might have on their own ability to collect fees from their inmates.