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Indigent trap 

Inmates kept behind bars until they pay up

A human-rights group contends the state Department of Corrections has violated its procedures and state law by forcing inmates in at least two diversion centers to stay until they earn enough money at minimum-wage jobs to pay for whatever medical expenses they have incurred – on top of paying for their room and board and fines imposed by the court.

"It's a system that keeps indigent people incarcerated and lets people with means out," says Sarah Geraghty, a lawyer at the Southern Center for Human Rights. The center has championed prisoner rights -- most notably its lawsuit over conditions at the Fulton County Jail that led a federal judge to order substantial improvements at the facility.

Diversion centers are reserved for individuals convicted of low-level felonies. The inmates are confined to the facility, but are required to work in the community -- primarily at minimum-wage jobs -- and must use that income to pay restitution and court fines. They also are responsible for paying $600 a month in room and board.

Six months ago, the Southern Center filed a lawsuit against the DOC when Ora Lee Hurley couldn't leave the Gateway Detention Center in Atlanta because she owed $705 for a fine. Hurley, who was imprisoned for nearly one year, earned thousands of dollars as a waitress, but the department required her to turn over a majority of her wages for room and board each month. As a result, very little of her money went toward paying her fines.

Now, Geraghty says a similar situation is taking place at the diversion center in Macon.

According to the DOC, most inmates at diversion centers stay for about 120 days. But some centers, Geraghty argued in a letter to the DOC, impose "a virtual life sentence on indigent inmates" because stays can become indefinite.

"Some of them have been in there for four, six or eight months and not a dime has gone to their fines," Geraghty says. "They work and pay all their money to the [department]."

According to state law, the DOC must pay for inmates' medical care or arrange employment that provides health insurance. However, a former DOC official says the agency doesn't consider people at diversion centers to be inmates because even though they are confined, they are technically on probation.

What's more, the DOC's operating procedures state that the department "guarantees payment of charges ... if the resident is unable to pay." Thus, Geraghty says, a center isn't supposed to hold an inmate solely because he incurred medical bills while incarcerated.

However, a sign was placed in the Macon center that read, "All male and female residents[:] any medical bills incurred after [April 23, 2006] will have to be paid before you leave this facility."

Macon Diversion Center Superintendent William Powell says the sign went up on his day off.

Geraghty cites Cornesa Gilliard as an example of an inmate trapped by her inability to pay her medical bills. Gilliard, who was convicted of forgery and fraud, was sentenced in March to stay at the diversion center until she pays $275 in restitution and $1,450 in fines.

Gilliard worked at a poultry plant, where she aggravated a hernia by lifting heavy crates. After being at the center for 10 months, she learned that she needed surgery to remove tumors in her uterus and to repair the hernia. Last week, after she was taken to the emergency room, two sheriff's deputies brought Gilliard a garbage bag that contained her belongings and told her she couldn't return to the diversion center.

Geraghty says Gilliard was released because the center feared it might have to foot the bill for her surgery. Powell would not comment.

Gilliard now has no place to stay until her surgery and has racked up more than $20,000 in medical expenses. What's more, Gilliard and other inmates have told the Southern Center that the diversion center's staff informed inmates that "meeting with lawyers would be a waste of time." Geraghty says residents were also threatened with disciplinary reports if they met with the Southern Center.

The department has yet to respond in writing to Geraghty's concerns. "We've tried time and time again to request changes," she says. "There's been little improvements."

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