Monday, April 18, 2011

The End of Three Squares?

By Matt Hrodey

A bill authored by a western Wisconsin state legislator would cut the meals of most state prison inmates from three a day to two – and permit county sheriffs to make the same reduction in their jails. Another bill by the same lawmaker, Democratic State Rep. Mark Radcliffe, would require inmates in both jails and prisons to pay more for prescription drugs. Radcliffe says the measures are intended to create savings, but critics worry about the effects they would have on inmate populations.

Radcliffe, an attorney who represents the Black River Falls area, didn’t respond to a request for comment on Thursday. His sole co-sponsor on the bill cutting prison meals, State Rep. Chris Danou (D-Trempealeau) agreed to an interview but offered a caveat: “It’s more Mark’s bill than it is mine.”

Although meals would be cut, he says, prison administrators and sheriffs would probably maintain the total calories provided to inmates at current levels.

The bill would save money by cutting staff time. Instead of working three shifts, kitchen staff would only work two, probably “a brunch and a dinner,” Danou says. “You could probably reduce staffing levels to some extent,” unless meals are provided by a contractor, then the contract could be scaled back.

The bill would mandate the state Department of Corrections to serve only two meals unless inmates have a medical excuse. A similar reduction would be optional for county jails. State law currently requires them to serve three meals day. At state prisons, the only existing requirement is that inmates are treated humanely.

Radcliffe has estimated that at state prisons, cutting a meal would save $5 million a year.

In a recent Twitter exchange, Radcliffe said that “spreading necessary calories to two kitchen sessions saves wasted food and prep costs.” He added that committee hearings would flesh out the proposal. (The bill has been referred to the Assembly Committee on Criminal Justice and Corrections.)

Radcliffe also tweeted, “Necessary caloric intake and humaneness stay the same. 3 is no more a magic number than 4 or 5.”

Danou, a former Onalaska police officer and union officer, says he has some concerns about the legislation. “Food is a method of control in a jail setting,” he says, and removing it can create disruptions. “You don’t want to make things so bad you cause a riot or worsen things for the jailers.”

The state Department of Corrections has not officially taken a position on the bill, but it hasn’t welcomed it, either.

Spokesman Tim Le Monds says the department is still reviewing the legislation but has some concerns. He says it might alter the climate within prisons which could “create a variety of safety issues for our staff.” Le Monds says there are other health concerns.

He adds that the department has already created some $2 million in savings at state prisons by consolidating menu options, meaning each has the same menu day-by-day, allowing the state to “buy in bulk.”

Larry Dupuis, legal director of the Wisconsin branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, says of the meal bill, “Its biggest problem is it’s taking away from the discretion of prison administrators. Why not just let the prison administrators decide?”

Like Le Monds, Dupuis says cutting inmate meals could make them “hungry and unhappy” and lead to problems.

Guidelines set by the American Correctional Standards Association call for serving three meals a day to prisoners.

The other bill authored by Radcliffe would require both prisons and jails to charge a “deductible, coinsurance, copayment or similar charge for prescription drugs or devices,” according to the Legislative Reference Bureau.

Danou says some jails are already charging inmates. In state prisons, according to Dupuis, the only co-payments required are for doctor visits requested by inmates. (Regularly-scheduled visits or those requested by the doctors themselves are provided entirely by the state.)

The new co-payments for prescriptions would be deducted from prisoners’ canteen accounts if the money is there, otherwise it would be billed to them.

Dupuis says the added cost could lead inmates to postpone getting needed medications, such as antibiotics for an illness that could spread to other inmates. “(The bill) really seems ill-advised and potentially unconstitutional,” he says.

Le Monds says the Department of Corrections is still reviewing Radcliffe’s medical expenses bill and hasn’t chosen a position yet.

Another cost-saving bill sponsored by the legislator in this session would limit legislators’ per diem allowances to 50 days per year. Most lawmakers get $88 per day to cover meals and travel expenses.

According to the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, members of the Assembly claimed an average of 107 days in the 2009-10 legislative session, and state senators claimed an average of 115.

This is really interesting, see how much money the lawmakers are allowed to spend on their per diem meals and travel, 50 days, yet they claim over twice that yet they can sit there and justify cutting meals and medical care for others?  Who exactly do they think they are, 'above' everyone else?  It pains me to think that they consider human life so disposable.

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