Published Friday, Feb. 7, 2014 | 1:33 p.m.
Updated Friday, Feb. 7, 2014 | 6:12 p.m.
RENO — A Northern Nevada county is moving ahead with what may be a first-in-the-nation plan to charge county jail inmates for food and medical care, despite objections from the American Civil Liberties Union that it's cruel and unusual punishment and could lead to a court battle.
The Elko County Commission on Wednesday approved Sheriff Jim Pitts' proposal to charge inmates $6 a day for meals, $10 for each doctor visit and $5 for initial booking into the jail, a move he says will save county taxpayers millions of dollars a year.
"Why should the people of Elko County pay for somebody else's meals in jail?" said Commissioner Grant Gerber, a backer of the plan who thinks the fees should be higher.
Tod Story, executive director of the ACLU Nevada, said that depending on how indigents and others who can't afford the fees are treated, the county could be in for a legal fight over the edict to prisoners that there is no free lunch.
"I was aghast that anyone was even thinking of doing this," he told The Associated Press. "It is unconstitutional — cruel and unusual punishment."
"There is no value in trying to punish them further than the sentence that they are already serving," Story said.
Pitts said it costs about $85 per day per inmate to cover the costs of food, services, housing and utilities at the facility with a capacity of 120 — a total of about $10,000 daily.
"We're not the Hilton," he told the Elko Daily Free Press, which first reported approval of the plan on its website Thursday. "These guys shouldn't have a free ride."
While it's not uncommon in some states for counties to charge inmates a small fee or copayment for medical care, National Sheriff's Association operations director Fred Wilson said he's not aware of any charging for meals.
In Arizona, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, famous for his crackdowns on illegal immigration and tough jail policies, has discussed the idea and is still considering it, but he hasn't instituted it, sheriff's spokesman Christopher Hegstrom said Friday.
"Elko has never been afraid of being first," Gerber told the AP.
Under the new policy, Elko County inmates will be exempt from the fees if they work at the jail or are incarcerated for less than 24 hours. Inmates ultimately found innocent will be reimbursed.
In the coming weeks, the fees will be deducted from an individual inmate's commissary account, where family and friends can deposit money for the inmate to order items such as candy, shampoo and envelopes.
Those with no money would see their account accrue a negative balance, and that balance would remain in the event the inmate was released but later returned to jail for whatever reason.
"It has nothing to do with them getting out of jail, but if they ever come back with any money, that will be applied to what they owe us," Pitts said Friday. "All I'm doing is taking my cut first, before they buy their candies. They need to pay for their food first before they get their dessert."
Pitts said the fees for doctor visits are necessary to help combat an increase in the number of inmates who appear to be faking illnesses.
"Once they hit our jail, they're sick. And then when they get into the cells they talk to each other," Pitts told the commission. "They say, 'Oh, you got aspirin for that? Or you got a prescription for that?' So everyone in that cell ... (claims to have) the same disease."
Story said the fees for food likely are more vulnerable to legal challenge than charging for doctor visits.
"Some jails charge a very minimal copayment for medical services, but it's based entirely on an inmate's ability to pay, or capacity to pay," he said. "But the food is not even a question. Once somebody has entered into the system, they become the responsibility of the state."
Associated Press writer Brian Skoloff in Phoenix contributed to this report.