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GOP says stop pay to inmates; Proposal would end wages for prisoners.

Byline: Lyle Moran

BOSTON - Cash-strapped Massachusetts lawmakers have been looking for creative ways to save money, including turning to prisoners' pockets.

On Tuesday, Republican lawmakers and Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson unveiled a proposal to end the practice of paying prisoners for their work.

The new legislation follows budget amendments by the House to charge inmates $5 a day, and the Senate to allow sheriffs to collect up to 10 percent of inmates' wages that were not included in the final budget. The budget sent to Gov. Deval Patrick only required the issue be studied.

Inmates currently receive pay for their labor, as well as reduced prison time.

Republican state Rep. Elizabeth Poirier of North Attleboro said blocking prisoners from collecting wages could save the state up to $3 million. The savings could be put toward elderly services, education and services for the mentally and physically disabled, she said.

Poirer also said inmates' work would still count toward "good time," which allows prisoners to reduce their sentences through work and participation in other social programs, such as substance abuse treatment. Prisoners in Massachusetts can earn up to 7-1/2 days a month toward a reduced sentence.

"What we feel is an even greater carrot than payment is good time," Poirer said.

But other legislators say paying inmates for their work is an integral part of the rehabilitation process. Rep. Ben Swan, D-Springfield, said cutting prisoner pay would be "very, very mean-spirited."

"This legislation is unnecessary and would set back rehabilitation in our correctional system by decades," Swan said.

Leslie Walker, executive director of Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services, a public defender group, said the state will actually lose money if this legislation is approved.

Walker said that inmates use their wages to pay for their toiletries. If inmates no longer have the money to pay for their toiletries, such as deodorant and toothpaste, the state will have to. This could cost the state millions of dollars, she said.

Inmates can earn from 50 cents to $5 a day, depending on the job they are doing. Prisoners work in food services, janitorial services and on community work crews, among other jobs.

The state spends $2 million a year on inmates in the Department of Correction, DOC spokeswoman Diane Wiffin said.

Sheriff Hodgson said inmates could still receive the positive benefits of work without the pay. He said the primary reason reform is needed is to restore the trust of taxpayers.

"This sends taxpayers a message that they will not be at the back of the line, but at the front of the line," Hodgson said.

Gov. Deval Patrick said Tuesday he supports efforts to give inmates "the opportunity to learn the discipline to earn money for work."

But one of Patrick's gubernatorial opponents, Republican Charles Baker, has said he supports charging prisoners a daily fee to offset the costs of incarcerating them. Bristol County charged inmates $5 a day

and raised $750,000 in two years, Hodgson said.

The inmate wage bill faces an uncertain future in the Legislature, which ends its formal session on July 31.

ART: PHOTO

CUTLINE: Hodgson
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Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Jul 14, 2010
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