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State poised to end $1 per week prison fee

New York state is poised to end a longstanding policy of charging state prison inmates $1 a week to help cover the cost of their incarceration.

Assembly Andrew Goodell, R-Jamestown, said the fee should not only remain in place, it should be increased.

The state Assembly recently passed A.8215, sponsored by Assemblyman Demond Meeks, D-Rochester. Companion legislation in the Senate (S.5981) was passed recently in a 41-20 vote. Sen. George Borrello, R-Sunset Bay, voted against the bill.

State law authorizes state prison facilities to collect from the compensation paid to a prisoner for work a $1 a week incarceration fee for each week of time served to help pay the costs of incarceration.” The fee can be waived if it would cause unreasonable hardship on the prisoner or the prisoner’s immediate family,

Meeks and Sen. Zellnor Myrie, D-Brooklyn, are trying to end the $1 fee with A.8215/S.5981. The bill passed the Assembly 95-50 with Assemblymen Andrew Goodell, R-Jamestown, and Joe Giglio, R-Gowanda, voting against.

“Incarcerated persons are already inadequately compensated for their labor, thus, such fee is an unreasonable burden,” Meeks and Myrie wrote in their legislative justification.

The legislation is largely symbolic given the other fees the state is allowed to charge prisoners. In addition to the $1 incarceration fee, state prisons further withhold 20% of weekly payroll for the first 15 weeks of payroll until 15 days of pay has been withheld.

Within one year of the person’s earliest release date, state prisons also begin withholding 12.5% of all receipts from payroll and outside funds until $40 in total has been withheld. That money is later given to the person upon their release as “gate money.”

State law also authorizes state prisons to deduct certain expenses from wages earned by incarcerated individuals while on temporary work release, including costs related to the inmate’s participation in the work release program, support of the inmates’ dependents, court fines and restitution, and commissary purchases. Work release participants are subject to a weekly $10 “day reporting fee” and a 20% room and board fee, which is applied to net earnings.

“The fee, by the way, is $1 a week and it was set in 1929 when a dollar a week actually covered some of the costs of incarceration,” Goodell said on the Assembly floor. “Granted the state isn’t going to go bankrupt by eliminating the $1 a week incarceration fee. but I know there have been a number of people who have said we pay inmates who do work, whether they’re making license plates or whatever, such a low rate we ought to pay them more. To be honest, in my opinion, we should pay them more. We should pay all of our inmates who do work for us a minimum wage. But at the same time I think we ought to charge them fair and reasonable room and board. This might be a very small step, but symbolically it’s one more step by this legislature saying you may have a debt to society, but we’re not going to ask you to pay anything, not even $1 a week to offset your costs. The $1 a week should be raised, not eliminated.”

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