Fees Charged to Prisoners

The following are brief descriptions of the administration’s legal authority to charge for services or to take money from prisoners’ canteen accounts.

I. Medical Co-payments

Massachusetts law allows correctional facilities to charge a reasonable fee for medical services, including prescriptions, provided to a prisoner in a state jail or correctional facility. G.L. c. 124, §1(s). The court ruled in Souza v. Hodgson, litigated by PLS, that the statute does not allow county facilities to charge for these services.

Medical care CANNOT be denied to prisoners for financial reasons, meaning if a prisoner can’t pay, the prison or jail must provide the care anyway. The fees currently run from $3 to $5 per service, depending on the facility. The law authorizes the prison to deduct the fee for medical services from one half of the money a prisoner earns at a prison industries job (except for those serving life sentences or classified as a sexually dangerous person in which case they are not limited to one half). G.L. c. 127, § 48A. The DOC has created a policy, 103 DOC 763, which explains who will be charged a fee and for what services. The policy identifies a number of medical services which no one should be charged for, including: emergency or trauma care, hospitalization or infirmary admissions, diagnosis and treatment of contagious diseases, care for chronic conditions (for example diabetes or Hepatitis C) and the medications needed to manage them, mental health care, pregnancy related care and any care that the medical provider requests you be given (read the policy for a full listing, 103 DOC 763.05).

The DOC policy states that any prisoner who is indigent by DOC standards will not be charged for care. By this policy, if a prisoner is being charged a $3 fee but has had no more than $13 in his or her personal account and no more than the $100 minimum in a savings account, the prisoner should not be charged the fee. DOC practice is to deduct the fee from the prisoner’s savings account if he or she have previously held a prison job, but does not currently have one.

G.L. c. 124, § 1(s) also authorizes the DOC to charge a reasonable fee to a prisoner for medical care for self-inflicted injuries and to charge a reasonable fee for medical care for another prisoner that he or she has injured. 103 DOC 763.06 sets these fees at $15 for care received inside the prison or $25 for care received outside the prison. The co-pay is charged for each instance of care, for example: if the injured prisoner goes to an outside hospital, sees a medical professional and gets and x ray and two prescriptions, there would be four $25 co pays charged. The DOC policy also provides for charges to prisoners for “incidental” costs in this circumstance, such as the ambulance fees or staff overtime for the hospital trip. Those charges are not authorized by statute and PLS believes they are illegal. We have filed a lawsuit regarding this issue.

Prisoners who believe they are being charged for care that they should not be charged for, whether because they are indigent, have not earned money earned from a prison job or are being charged for services that are excluded from the fees by law or policy, should file a formal grievance with the DOC. Keep a copy and send a copy to PLS. We are not able to do individual advocacy on this issue, however we are tracking problems with the fee policy to determine whether the practice violates the law.

II. Haircuts

Massachusetts correctional facilities are authorized by G.L. c. 124, §1(r) to charge prisoners at any county or state correctional facility a reasonable fee for haircuts. However, the law only authorizes the prison to deduct the charge for a haircut from one half of the money the prisoner earns at a prison industries job (except for lifers and those classified as a sexually dangerous person). G.L. c. 127, § 48A. The DOC has instituted a policy, 103 DOC 762, which conforms to this law. If it is not followed, grieve the problem and cite that policy and the above laws. We cannot assist prisoners with this issue. If a prisoner does not consent to paying for his or her haircut, the statute allows the prison to refuse to provide one.

III. Prison Accounts

Massachusetts DOC, but not counties, is authorized by G.L. c. 124, §1(u) to charge prisoners a fee for maintaining their prison accounts. DOC policy is to charge $1 activity fee in any month that a person’s account gets a deposit from outside the prison or money is sent out of the account by check. No fee is charged for ordering canteen or getting paid from a prison job.

IV. DNA Database Charges

Currently, the DNA Database Law, G.L. c. 22E, § 4(b), requires people who must submit DNA samples to pay for the sample unless they are indigent according to the standard in G.L. c.261, §27A. This is the standard used by the courts when determining indigence for the purpose of a court case. The prison or jail may not take money for DNA tests without the consent of the prisoner. Currently, the charge for the DNA sample is $110 and the prison can only collect this fee if the prisoner signs a form giving consent to the withdrawal of funds from his or her account. It is the advice of PLS that no one should consent to paying for DNA sampling, unless the prisoner believe that he or she is not indigent under any standard and wish to pay this fee. If a prisoner refuses to sign the consent form, the prison cannot take his or her money, freeze his or her account, or penalize him or her in any other way.

V. Victim And Witness Assessment

If the judge at sentencing ordered that the defendant pay a Victim Witness fee, the prison can take the money to satisfy that fee from any funds in the prisoner’s accounts without his or her consent. G.L. c. 258B, §8.

VI. Child Support

Imprisonment does not stop a prisoner’s legal obligation to pay child support if he or she has been ordered to do so. DOC and the Department of Revenue have begun increased enforcement of these obligations. The DOC is not granted authorization to take this money from a prisoner’s account without his or her consent unless the court that ordered payment of support has also issued an order directing that the prisoner’s wages can be garnished (taken) or that money can be taken from his or her bank account. Prisoners who need to get their support obligations modified can write and ask for PLS’ information packet on modification of child support orders as soon as possible because modifications are not retroactive.

VII. Restitution for Disciplinary Violations – IMPORTANT

A decision of the Supreme Judicial Court in the summer of 2008, called Ciampi has devastated the security of funds in prisoner accounts. In that case the SJC held that the Department of Correction can seize prisoner funds without limit to punish prisoners for disciplinary violations. Following the Ciampi case, PLS must advise prisoners to keep as little money as possible in prison accounts, as nothing but a disciplinary hearing stands between the prisoner and loss of whatever assets he or she may have, whether from prison jobs or friends and family.