Jail inmates no longer charged rent

18th April, 2006
Atlanta Joural Constitution
Carlos Campos

Pretrial detainees in Clinch had paid room and board

A southeast Georgia sheriff must stop charging jail inmates $18 a day for room and board and return about $27,000 to those who have incurred the fees, according to the terms of a settlement signed Monday by a federal judge.

Clinch County, on the Florida border near Valdosta, was charging pretrial detainees — people arrested but not yet convicted of a crime — to be held in its jail. The Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta sued in November 2004 on behalf of two men, Mickel Jackson and Willie Williams.

Jackson was in the jail for three months and was charged $1,471 for his stay. He paid almost half of it in installments, but the sheriff's office did not return the money even though the charges against him were dropped, according to the center.

Williams was jailed for nine months. Upon his release on bond, he was required to sign a promissory note agreeing to pay $4,608 or risk going back to jail. Williams is still awaiting trial on charges of rape and aggravated child molestation.

Clinch County has been collecting jail reimbursement fees for about 30 years.

County Sheriff Winston Stephens could not be reached for comment Monday. But in a 2004 interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, he defended the policy, saying that taxpayers should not have to bear the burden of feeding and housing lawbreakers.

Stephens said the sheriff's office tries to reimburse detainees whose charges are dropped, "if we could find them."

Another condition of the settlement, signed by U.S. District Judge Hugh Lawson, requires the county's insurer to pay $30,000 in court costs and attorney's fees.

Southern Center lawyers, aided by attorneys from the King & Spalding law firm in Atlanta, contended that the sheriff lacked the authority under Georgia law to levy such charges on jail inmates.

Sarah Geraghty, a lawyer for the Southern Center, said that many of the people charged the fees were poor and that responsibility for the payments sometimes fell on their families. Geraghty also noted that people awaiting trial in a jail have not been convicted of a crime.

"It's the court's job to impose appropriate punishment after conviction," she said. "It's not the sheriff's job to impose punishment on detainees at the jail."