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Former inmate sues county jail vendor
May 15, 2006 12:00 am
May 8, 2005 – A former Wilson, Trousdale and Macon County inmate has filed a class-action lawsuit in federal court, claiming his constitutional rights were violated when the jails in those counties contracted with a private company to sell inmates basic items such as underwear at very high prices.
Former inmate Dexter Palmes Jones, on behalf of potentially hundreds of other inmates across Tennessee, is alleging Swanson Services Corp. and the jails it provides hygienic items to engaged in racketeering to jointly profit from the sale of those items, extorted money from inmates and violated their civil rights by unlawfully charging them for being incarcerated.
According to the 20-page complaint filed April 21 in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee, Jones and his fellow inmates, "through their purchase of items for sale through the various jail commissaries, were deprived of property, that is money, through the racketeering activities of Defendant in agreement with the various county governments."
"It's all about this arrangement between Swanson Services Corporation and, according to their Web site, about 500-some-odd local jails, where they provide commissary service for the inmates," Jerry Gonzalez, the attorney representing Jones and the other inmates, said Friday.
However, Swanson Services attorney W. Stephen Gardner contends "the complaint contains various inaccuracies about the business arrangement."
The inaccuracies will be addressed in the response filed with the court, Gardner said late Friday night.
"We believe it will be established in the court proceeding that Swanson is in full compliance with all laws and regulations," he said, noting any specifics will be address the in response.
Kelly Swanson, a spokesperson for Swanson Services, was unavailable for comment Friday.
On its Web site, Swanson boasts the company is "well established" in 43 states and serves more than 110,000 inmates each week.
Gonzalez contends Swanson sets the price for various items – from underwear to pencils and erasers – provided to inmates.
Gonzalez provided a comparison of what Swanson charges inmates for some items and what the prices of those items are at Wal-Mart in Lebanon. According to the chart, sanitary napkins are 593 percent more expensive when purchased through Swanson Services, pencils are 525 percent more expensive and erasers are marked up 1,150 percent. Other items Gonzalez cited as marked up considerably included soap, underwear and socks.
Not only does Swanson profit from this price structure, so do the individual jails, Gonzalez added.
"Over the last four years, the (Wilson County) Sheriff (Terry Ashe) has profited $187,000" from its contract with Swanson Services, Gonzalez said.
But Wilson County Sheriff Terry Ashe said part of the reason for Swanson's prices on goods can be attributed to inventory, packaging and delivery costs.
And Ashe said Swanson has security issues to contend with above what any retailer would entail.
"We can't just have our prisoners head over to Wal-Mart to buy underwear," Ashe said.
Ashe explained the jail does incur a "small profit" from the sale of items to prisoners, but stressed all the money is accounted for and 100 percent is returned to the inmates in the form of services and products.
Gonzalez countered how the profits are used is irrelevant.
"The problem is there is no statutory authority (for the jail) to do that," the attorney said. "The county can only do what the state lets them do. There is no law that lets the county effectively tax the inmate for coffee pots, mattresses and aspirin" and other items "returned" to inmates.
Doing so is violating a prisoners' rights to due process, he said.
"There is a law that says that they (jails) can go after the inmate for the cost of incarceration if they're convicted," Gonzalez said. "But the statute says they have to sue the inmate to get that money, which allows the inmate the right to present a defense, say I don't owe that money, to challenge it constitutionally.
"What they're doing is charging the inmates, even those that are not convicted, and not providing them with an opportunity to argue that they shouldn't be charged," he continued.
Swanson has yet to respond to the claim, and they have a week left to do so with Senior District Court Judge John T. Nixon.
Gonzalez said it is still unclear how many plaintiffs Nixon will allow in the class-action suit.
"Ultimately it will be up to the judge to decide what the class is going to be defined as, but we want it as broad as possible," Gonzalez said. "If they (Swanson) have a deal with 500 jails, like they claim on their Web site, and the average inmate population is about 500 inmates, and the average amount that these jails have profited is the same as Wilson County, we calculate that it's probably about a $93 million case."
Staff Writer Jared Allen can be reached at 444-3952 ext. 15 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.