You gonna pay for that?

Police can now charge inmates for any damage incurred at the North Las Vegas jail

Photo: Sean Rademacher

Free room service, complimentary slippers, linens and laundry, highly trained staff, modern metal and concrete decor—in this winter of wild hotel launches, Clark County’s most imposing new accommodation has been overlooked: The North Las Vegas Detention Center.

Prisons and jails across the country are increasingly asking inmates to cover the cost of their stay. It’s punishment squared: dungeons with a day rate. In December, the North Las Vegas City Council approved a resolution allowing local police to follow suit, and charge inmates who have money (about as common as oil tycoons who don’t) for expenses incurred during incarceration.

But Nevada law has long allowed for jailers to bill their inmates—a fact that will outrage some people. And Clark County jails, for whatever reason, have long since elected not to—a fact that will outrage everyone else. And in the end, it turns out, North Las Vegas Police aren’t even going to do it.

Call it a bureaucratic hiccup, or an early Christmas gift, or some dark symptom of the American circumstance: Here, a night in jail is still free.

Just because the department got permission to charge inmates a daily fee, police spokesman Tim Bedwell said, doesn’t mean they ever really planned on collecting. Not yet, anyway. The real motivation behind the resolution was getting permission to charge inmates for destroying property. The bit about seeking reimbursement from prisoners for “expenses incurred by the City for maintenance and support of the prisoner” was boilerplate language, Bedwell said, echoing regulations at other jails and reaffirming the Department’s right to collect from inmates, if not their immediate plans.

Money—or lack of it—is directly or indirectly behind a good percentage of crimes. North Las Vegas Police don’t have to squeeze a turnip to know it won’t give blood. In other states, inmate fee programs have been scrapped simply because collecting incarceration debts costs more than it brings in.

The problem here, Bedwell says, isn’t daily fees or incarceration controversies or the feedback loop between crime and poverty. The problem here is shower heads. Inmates are ripping them out. And sprinkler systems, too.

The problem is anything prisoners can break, crack, dismantle and otherwise destroy. About $10,000 in sheets, shoes and blankets, for example, are ruined annually. With this resolution passed, North Las Vegas Police can now make prisoners pay for their warpath—an open tab on mayhem. Repair costs will be deducted from an inmate’s canteen account, like a hotel billing hooligan guests for the cost of a mini-bar, and all its contents, after it lands on the pavement 10 floors below.


Abigail Goldman

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