It used to be that you could get three meals a day and a roof over your head, as long as you committed a felony. Well, the days of being paid to pound out license plates are coming to a close. Now, any cash you make in the joint goes back to the joint. Local governments across the United States are considering fees for inmates as a way to offset falling tax receipts.
The programs vary from one municipality to the next, but the motivation is uniform. New York City, for example, is considering a bill that would require "wealthy criminals" to pay $90 a day for their hitches in the clink, in the hopes of chipping away at the $1 billion spent every year on incarceration. New Jersey is looking into much more modest fees for Camden County Correctional Facility, which is to be expected: everything's more expensive in Manhattan. The state would hit prisoners up for $5 a day to cover room and board and $10 per day spent in the infirmary. The measure would help the state recoup approximately $300,000 a year.
And, there are more. Prison systems in Virginia, Iowa and Missouri are putting plans together to address budgetary constraints.
Of course, the governments can't make their decisions on finances alone, as lobbying groups and civil liberties organizations have spoken out against these plans. In the extreme, charging prisoners could effectively create debtors prisons, though in practice, this seems unlikely. Prisoners aren't going to be allowed to starve, with even Arizona's controversial Sheriff Arpaio -- who warehouses inmates in tent cities -- waiving financial obligations for the impoverished.
Some states access prisoner accounts during incarceration to cover the fees charged, while others defer billing until the inmate's release. The latter approach hasn't been terribly effective, though. Overland Park, Kansas officials have only collected 39 percent of the fees charged. This isn't as troubling as Jackson County, Missouri's experience, where the government has spent more collecting than it has receiving.
So, let's take another look at New York. How would a hitch on Rikers Island stack up against the lowliest of the city's hotels? Gadling blogger Mike Barish spent $89 to stay at Hotel Carter, on West 43rd Street and Eighth Ave. It was only a dollar cheaper than prison, though the savings disappears when you see the local hospitality taxes on your portfolio, but the risk of getting shanked is much lower. For now, it's better to book a hotel room than to walk into a package store packin'.