Dec 232011

By Teri Walker–

A Maricopa County Superior Court judge decided Tuesday that a $25 prison visitor fee assessed by the Arizona Department of Corrections (DOC) is constitutional.

Judge Karen Potts said the fee is not a tax, and that those who pay the fee benefit from it because DOC uses the money collected for prison facility upkeep.

The inmate advocacy group Middle Ground Prison Reform filed suit against the DOC, claiming the $25 fee is unconstitutional and an unfair tax on a select portion of the population, namely those who have loved ones in Arizona prisons.

Arizona legislators passed the prison fee to help generate revenue in the face of a $1.6 billion state budget deficit.

The fee, which was billed as being intended for conducting background checks on prison visitors, is the first of its kind in the nation.

Prisoner advocacy groups balked against the fee because they claim it places an undue burden on families of inmates who may already be suffering financially, and in many cases, have difficulty scraping together the money to travel to prisons to visit inmates.

Middle Ground called the fee unconstitutional because the money is being used for facility maintenance when the legislation mandating the fee stated the money would defray costs of visitor background checks.

In an interview reported by Capitol Media Services, Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, who introduced the visitor fee bill language, said he chose the $25 amount because there is a cost to doing background checks. When Middle Ground balked against the money supposedly earmarked for background checks being deposited into the DOC Building Renewal Fund, Capitol Media Service reported Kavanagh said it was a “meaningless distinction,” and that the money collected had to be deposited somewhere, and that the building renewal fund was as good a place as any.

According to DOC Director Charles Ryan, the DOC conducts its own background checks, using internal resources.

DOC public information officer Bill Lamoreaux said, as of Nov. 30, the DOC has collected $95,090 through the one-time fee, which is charged to individuals who visit any of the state’s prisons. The fee is not collected from children under the age of 18, and is collected only once in a visitor’s lifetime.

Middle Ground plans to appeal this week’s ruling. In the meantime, the visitor fee will continue to be collected.