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Prisoners Docked Money As Disciplinary Sanction

BOSTON -- The state's highest court ruled Friday that inmates' personal and savings accounts may be docked by prison officials as a disciplinary sanction.

The ruling by the Supreme Judicial Court came in the case of Dennis Ciampi, an inmate who tested positive for alcohol consumption after a "home brew" was found in his cell. After a disciplinary hearing and an appeal, the state Department of Correction imposed several sanctions, including paying $144 in restitution to cover the costs of periodic substance abuse testing.

The money was withdrawn from his prison account by the department in October 2003.
Ciampi challenged the department's authority to withdraw money from his account. His attorney, Marc Estrich, argued that withdrawal of the money violated his protected property interests.

The Department of Correction argued that withdrawing money as a disciplinary sanction was within its rights to be able to control inmates in its prisons.

A lower court judge sided with Ciampi, ruling that the DOC had exceeded its authority in establishing regulations that allowed it to withdraw money from Ciampi's account to pay a restitution sanction.

But the SJC overturned that decision, finding that the DOC has broad authority to maintain security, safety and order in its correctional facilities.

Justice Roderick Ireland, writing for the majority in the 5-2 decision, noted that the DOC commissioner said in an affidavit that restitution is an "essential disciplinary tool" that deters future misconduct and holds inmates accountable for their actions.

Ireland said the DOC regulations that allow restitution as a disciplinary sanction "are reasonably related to the overarching goal of maintaining safety and discipline in prisons."

Chief Justice Margaret Marshall, in a dissenting opinion, wrote that the state Legislature has allowed only limited instances when the DOC can withdraw inmate funds, including to pay for medical needs or for personal expenses such as haircuts. Marshall said the commissioner does not have the authority to seize funds from prisoners' accounts as a sanction for any disciplinary offense.

"Had the Legislature intended to authorize the commissioner to seize a prisoner's money to pay for drug testing imposed as restitution, or as a sanction for any other disciplinary offense, it would have said so expressly," Marshall wrote.

Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services, an advocacy group for inmates, said in a written statement that it is "deeply disappointed and very troubled by the decision."

Executive Director Leslie Walker wrote that the court is ignoring the privileges granted by the legislature to balance both punitive and rehabilitation interests.

The group worries that prison administrators will "see this as an opportunity to seize any money prisoners have in their accounts; money which is typically given to them by their indigent family members," Walker said.

DOC spokeswoman Diane Wiffin said the department had no comment as its legal department reviews the decision.

Ciampi's attorney did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

Why are they getting money in the first place?
Family & friends can make deposits to their "canteen account" which can be used to buy toiletries, snacks, etc. from the prison canteen. Inmates can also earn money (pennies an hour) by making license plates, picking up trash on the highways, etc. I believe the state makes a modest profit on the canteens.

What shocked me is that the SJC decided against the prisoners.

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