Tuesday, March 02, 2010
(Last modified: 2010-03-02 10:55:25)
Author: Gilbert Soesbee
Source: The Newport Plain Talk

NEWPORT-Circuit Judge Ben W. Hooper II has reversed an earlier order forbidding Cocke County from deducting a medical co-payment from inmates' personal accounts.

But the judge has some strong feelings about the constitutionality of the practice. Not to mention the fairness and basic humanity of taking money from imprisoned citizens.

Judge Hooper was informed in January in the case of inmate Eric Ridenour that the county was deducting a co-pay from the inmates' "commissary accounts" for medical treatment. The commissary accounts, which are usually fairly small or nonexistent for many inmates, are intended to provide an inmate's basic hygienic needs and other small purchases while he is held in jail.

On January 27, Judge Hooper issued an order forbidding the practice, calling it "blatantly unconstitutional." But he gave the county an opportunity to respond to his order.

As a result of the county's response, the court was informed of the existence of a Tennessee law which allows such "co-pay" deductions from the inmates' personal accounts. In light of that law, and a resolution by the Cocke County Legislative Body implementing the law locally, Judge Hooper said he had no choice but to vacate his earlier order.

But he has some deep concerns about the practice.

"The court is suspect as to the constitutionality of this law," Judge Hooper wrote. "Just because the [Tennessee] General Assembly has enacted a law does not mean it is able to meet the requirements of our constitutions, state and federal."

Judge Hooper said there appear to be lax regulations governing the deductions, but the practice seems to be legal, at least until someone files a formal legal challenge.

"There appears to be a list of co-pay charges established, but there is nothing to guide the jail [officials] as to the actual financial situation of an inmate, their income or assets, the source of funds placed into their commissary accounts, or the inmate's actual needs for personal hygiene items, which should be given priority over any other needs such as a co-pay deduction.

"Nearly one hundred percent of all inmates are indigent and must depend on friends and family to meet their needs while incarcerated," Judge Hooper wrote. "I would suggest that most people contributing to the commissary account of an inmate are not advised of the fact that their contribution may not be used for the purpose for which it was contributed.

"Do these people have any rights protected by our constitutions?" the court asked.

Judge Hooper held that Cocke County appears to be in compliance with state law, so he vacated the previous court order, adding, "It is not the court's duty to pursue this matter any further."

But he left the question of the legality of the law up to someone else who may choose to file a legal challenge.

"If the state law and Cocke County's actions are illegal, someone else may certainly challenge the conduct or the procedure being followed," Judge Hooper wrote.

"This is just another case where the already poor are made poorer," he continued. "Not all laws are good laws or fair laws.

"The majority of people might disagree with me having any compassion for criminals and their families, until it is one of their own family members," the judge concluded.

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