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‘Pay to stay’ law charging prisoners for their incarceration faces repeal 

  • Eric Cable (right) listens as ACLU-NH lawyer Henry Kelmentowics speaks at the Merrimack County Superior Court earlier this month. Cable, who was released from prison in 2017 after serving a roughly four-year sentence, is being sued by the Department of Justice over the cost of his incarceration. Caitlin Andrews / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 1/25/2019 3:34:26 PM

A prisoner in New Hampshire can spend years locked up without any real way of generating income, only to be forced to foot the bill for their care upon release.

Called the “pay to stay” law, the practice that allows the state to recoup a current or former inmate’s cost of care up to six years after their release is rarely invoked in New Hampshire. A new bill sponsored by state Reps. David Welch and Sandra Keans aims to get rid of the practice altogether.

Welch said it was “unfair” that the state is able to “saddle individuals with debt they are unable to pay off,” when felons already face high barriers to reintegrate into the society.

“There’s all kinds of reasons why it’s going to be difficult to reintegrate yourself into society,” he told the House’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee on Thursday. “Seems to me like (the practice) is rubbing salt into the wound.”

The practice jumped into the spotlight recently after Hooksett man Eric Cable sued the state for medical malpractice and the attorney general’s office turned around and charged him for the cost of his care.

Cable was released from prison in 2017 after serving a roughly four-year sentence for causing the death of a Manchester man in a drunken boating accident on Northwood Lake in 2012.

He sued the state last March, alleging prison officials failed to properly treat his Type 2 Diabetes by not performing regular lab tests, foot exams or thorough eye exams. As a result, he says he lost partial eyesight in one of his eyes.

A few months later, the Department of Justice filed a counterclaim for the cost of his care, valued around $119,000, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire, who is representing Cable. The ACLU-NH has accused the state of retaliating against Cable and motion to dismiss the state’s petition is currently before a Merrimack County judge.

Cable testified before legislators Thursday that he is currently working 60 hours a week at two jobs while putting himself through school. While incarcerated, he worked jobs earning $1 a day.

The idea of having to pay for his incarceration “is weighing on me,” he said. “I’m sure it’s weighing on anyone else who is trying to reintegrate into society.”

Cable’s bill would represent more than half the money the state has collected in recent years – Department of Corrections has collected $174,512 in revenue during fiscal years 2016 to 2018, according to the bill’s fiscal note.

The Department of Corrections would lose about $81,000 a year starting fiscal year 2020 if the statute was repealed, using the fiscal year 2018 the cost of care estimate of $40,615. Of the roughly 2,500 people who are incarcerated in the state, only two inmates are paying for their care, according to the bill’s fiscal note.

Court documents provided to the Monitor by the ACLU-NH show that only 11 petitions for reimbursement have been filed in the last 10 years.

Those 11 petitions sought to recover close to $2 million of inmate care. Not every petition sought a specific amount of money, but rather stated the total cost of care for inmates during a fiscal year.

Robin Maddaus, director of administration for the prison system, said every inmate fills out a financial affidavit detailing their assets and income. That form is then sent to the Department of Justice, which decides who gets sent a bill.

Maddaus didn’t have insight into how that decision was made, which seemed to worry some lawmakers.

“We’ve got two people who are currently paying for their own room and board, that seems an extraordinarily low number,” said state Rep. Scott Wallace. “...this seems like it might be arbitrarily applied. Is that the case?”

“I wouldn’t say that when they’re within our system, we apply it evenly, because there aren’t many that have those assets,” Maddus answered.

The Department of Corrections is not taking a position on the bill, Maddus said.

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