ELKO — Between food, services, housing and utilities, taxpayers are footing a bill of about $85 per day for each inmate locked in the Elko County Jail, according to Sheriff Jim Pitts.
With a jail population that’s almost constantly at the facility’s 120 inmate capacity, lock-up expenses add up to more than $10,000 per day and millions of dollars each year, according to Pitts’ estimation.
But the sheriff has proposed shifting a portion of those costs onto the inmates.
The county commission on Wednesday wholly supported the idea, which outlines a $6 daily fee for food, $10 for each doctor’s visit and $5 for booking.
Not only is the change a fiscal concern, Pitts argued, but it’s unjust for law-abiding residents to pay the full price for incarceration.
“These guys shouldn’t have a free ride,” he said after the meeting. “Society shouldn’t be paying for their wrongs.”
Payment will work through the jail commissary system.
Right now, family or friends can put money on an inmate’s account, which he or she can use to order items such as shampoo, envelopes and snack foods from a jail kiosk.
Once the new payment requirements are implemented, which Pitts estimated will take effect mid-month, the cost of food will be automatically deducted from the inmate’s account. Inmates with no money will still be fed but accrue a negative balance.
As for medical treatment, Pitts said inmates are gaming the system.
The sheriff said he recently received a call from a woman who was wanted on a warrant. She asked about the jail doctor and mentioned she had “something on (her) head that needed to get looked at,” before agreeing to turn herself in.
“Once they hit our jail, they’re sick. And then when they get into the cells they talk to each other. 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,” Pitts said.
At this time, the jail plans to charge inmates $10 for a doctor’s visit and $5 for a prescription.
Commissioner Grant Gerber asked whether the price was too low. Pitts responded that it probably was too low. He said he’d like to begin charging $10 per visit and raise the price at a later time.
Inmates won’t be billed for medical emergencies.
Pitts said an announcement about the changes would be made to the inmates soon.
Defense attorney Brian Green, who was critical of the quality of food and medical care available to inmates, argued in a phone interview the justice system could take measures to reduce the jail population, thereby alleviating the cost to taxpayers.
In Green’s estimation, judges are setting higher bails, imposing lengthier jail sentences and opting to keep those awaiting court locked up instead of releasing them on their own recognizance with a summons.
“Feeding and housing them and providing them a proper environment and proper care, that’s their responsibility once they decide to house them,” he said.
Admittedly, Green said, some people deserve heavy-handed sentences and should remain behind bars.
Green was also leery of charging credit to the inmates’ commissary accounts for meals.
Pitts disagreed that the jail was holding people unnecessarily. Because of capacity concerns, he said, inmates facing low-level charges are being released almost immediately after being booked.
“We’re OR’ing everybody we can,” the sheriff said.
And he responded to food complaints by saying the meals are designed to meet nutritional needs, but nothing more.
“We’re not the Hilton,” he said. “We’re not there to give them what they want. … We shouldn’t be giving them anything over what’s necessary.”
Pitts said having a negative balance will not prevent inmates from being released. However, if they are arrested again, the negative balance will carry over.
Certain inmates would be exempt. Sentenced inmates who work at the jail, known as trusties; people incarcerated for less than 24 hours; and inmates who are found not guilty will be reimbursed.
The county commission approved a general request to allow the jail to charge inmates, but because of an issue with the wording of the proposal and agenda item, it wasn’t able to approve specifics. However, the commission said it would do so at its next meeting.