Danny Lindsay, 23, has been in Warren County jail for one week after being sentenced to 60 days for contempt of court. He says he takes medicine for a rare blood disorder and gets it free outside with his medical insurance. Jail staff, he says, would not let his family send in his medicine. They choose to fill it at a local pharmacy.
His family sent him $60 to spend at the jail commissary. The jail took $30 of it to apply toward his bill. That's standard procedure here. The bottom of his money receipt shows a balance due the jail of $589.
"That's over $600 a week, man. After 60 days I'll owe $5,000," Lindsay says.
About one-third of county jails in the United States charge inmates for their time behind bars, according to a May 23, 2004, Associated Press report. In Minnesota, Olmstead County suspended its "pay-to-stay" program after losing close to $6,000 in four months. The state of Missouri did better, gouging inmates for a total of $384,000 over several months, according to the AP.
Here, new arrivals are issued one mattress, one blanket, a sheet, a towel, a small bar of motel soap and a three-inch toothbrush with enough paste for one brushing. A jumpsuit is the only clothing issued. No shorts, no socks, no shoes -- no anything. Underwear, shoes and socks can be purchased at the commissary at exorbitant rates.
Food can also be purchased, and the jail fare is sparse, to say the least. Some inmates try to ignore their medical needs to keep from going hungry all day. Hunger makes a day seem longer than illness.
One uneducated hillbilly from the far reaches of Harlan County, Kentucky, looks at his docked money slips and says something that sounds almost philosophical.
"We ain't presumed innocent no more. We are presumed in arrears."
A survey of the jail population reveals there are no rich people here. They are all out on bail. The middle-class is barely represented, so the cost of the jail falls on the abject poor, who make up the majority of the jail population.
Someone says to Danny Lindsay: "The hell with them. They can't make you pay that five grand once you get out."
"No, but if I don't pay it," Lindsay replies, "they will turn it over to a collection agency and ruin my credit for the rest of my life."
Life without credit seems like a harsh sentence for contempt of court.
Dannie Martin is currently behind bars in the Warren County Regional Jail in Bowling Green, Ky. He is co-author of "Committing Journalism: The Prison Writings of Red Hog" (W.W. Norton and Co., 1995)
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June 19, 2006 (http://www.albionmonitor.com)
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