Billing for the Billets

originally published in the Hartford Advocate

Billing For The Billets

In Connecticut, when you get out of jail, you may get a bill from the state for your room and board

By Jennifer Abel

A few years ago the Chinese government made a great humanitarian leap forward by outfitting “death vans” with lethal-injection tools and then driving through the countryside executing prisoners along the way. This was a huge improvement over the old system, where they shot you in your own village and then billed your family for the bullet. As the Times of London reported in 2005, “Death by injection costs the state about £63 but is free to the victim’s relatives.”

Connecticut’s pay-for-your-punishment plan differs from the old Chinese model in significant ways, the most important one being that executions are mercifully rare and always free of charge. Prison sentences are another matter; the Department of Corrections runs a spotty program to make (some) inmates pay for their incarceration.

The intent is to recoup actual costs. So we called to let DOC brag about the program’s success. The annual Corrections budget “for this year is about $665 million,” said spokesman Brian Garnett. The individual cost per inmate depends on where they’re kept. “Typically, they’re charged the rate of their facility. Minimum security ranges from $50 or $60 [per day], maximum security up to $150.”

But he didn’t know how much money the DOC got from inmates; that question’s for the Department of Administrative Services, which handles the collections.

Spokesman John McKay told us “We had 781 cases in 2007, collected $3.3 million out of those cases.” That’s just under 0.5 percent of the annual cost.

One reason it’s so low is that not every inmate’s slated for reimbursement. “There’s a tracking system,” McKay said. Those who are asked to pay back include “anyone [who] receives a windfall, proceeds from a claim or any type of lawsuit, they’re required to reimburse the state.”

That also includes inheritances, but “not income,” according to McKay. Say for example that a corrupt ex-governor went to prison, got out and then used his connections to land a cushy six-figure consulting-type job at taxpayer expense. How much money did former Governor Rowland pay for his stint in the clink?

“Rowland was in a Federal prison,” McKay pointed out. “That doesn’t apply.”

Many people like the idea of having the state charge for the punishments it doles out. “I’m a law-abiding citizen and I don’t get free room and board, so why should criminals?” they say.

We posed the question to Bridgeport attorney Antonio Ponvert. “The measure of our society and how advanced we think we are is … how we treat the least among us,” he said. “If people want to punish and then exact that last ounce of blood, that says something about our society and what kind of people we are.”

Thing is, even though Connecticut’s program has the stated goal of “fiscal responsibility” rather than “screw you,” in practice it seems to work more like the latter.

Take the case of Mark Strickland. He was no angel; several years ago he served time for sexual assault and multiple burglaries. While in prison he won $250,000 in a court settlement against a third party. And had his victims then sued him for damages, we’d cheer them on.

But the state sued him instead. Strickland got that money from a local diocese of the Catholic Church, because back in the ’70s he was a little boy unwillingly involved in what later became known as “that priest-molestation scandal.”

After paying the state for his time in stir and his lawyer’s fees he had only $40,000 left. Last anyone heard, he’s living in poverty somewhere in Florida. Although he’d be slightly better off nowadays, according to state Rep. Mike Lawlor, who said that the law changed in 2004. “Now attorney’s fees and the costs of the case are excluded.”

What’s not excluded are cases against the DOC itself. If you’re an inmate who sues for mistreatment, or the family member of an inmate killed by the guards, the DOC will pay out any judgments and then take the money right back. “I’ve had cases,” said Ponvert, “where someone’s killed in custody [and the state wants] reimbursement for the very day he was killed.”

In 1999 a paranoid schizophrenic inmate named Bryant Wiseman stopped receiving his anti-psychotic medication. Two days later he died while being restrained by prison guards. His mother brought a wrongful-death suit against the DOC, and lost. Had she won, however, the state would’ve charged for the tender loving care her son received in its custody.

We told Ponvert we understood how the program was legal — obviously, because the lawmakers said so — but couldn’t understand how it was constitutional. If you take away a man’s liberty, then turn around and charge him for the privilege, how does that not run afoul of the “double jeopardy” clause? You can’t punish someone twice for the same crime.

“It may not be legal,” he said. “I think it’s unconstitutional interference with federal civil rights standards [which] allow a citizen to sue the government if the government infringes on their constitutional rights.”

It’s hard to feel sympathy for some of the folks swept up in the payback net. And yet, we speculated to Ponvert, you could say that crime and punishment is the one area of government that should always run a deficit. Taking away a man’s liberty is such a serious matter that you don’t want it to be cheap and easy and convenient.

“It all comes back to two things,” Ponvert said. “One is enlightened self-interest. No matter how anti-prisoner you are, 95 percent of them are going back into the community … do you want them living under a debt they’ll never be able to satisfy?”

More ominous, says Ponvert, is the message this sends to prison guards. “It allows guards at the DOC to mistreat people with impunity, and creates disincentives to behave like decent human beings according to the Constitution.”