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Oregon Department of Corrections ends practice of charging prisoners for medical devices

Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem, Ore., May 19, 2021.
Kristyna Wentz-Graff
Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem, Ore., May 19, 2021.

The change comes as a result of a 2021 class-action lawsuit that resulted in refunding $77,041 to 870 people currently in prison.

The Oregon Department of Corrections will no longer force prisoners to pay hundreds — or even thousands — of dollars for medical devices, such as hearing aids and prosthetic limbs. The policy change, which came as part of a legal settlement, resulted in the agency paying back thousands of dollars to hundreds of adults in custody.

Until now, if an incarcerated person needed a medical device and could not pay for it in advance, the state’s prison system would garnish their wages to recoup the cost. Prisoners typically make less than $100 per month.

“There’s no insurance in prison and people don’t have any access to it,” said Thomas Zito, an attorney with the nonprofit legal firm Disability Rights Advocates, who represented people in prison in a class action lawsuit. “So they would go into debt and then Oregon DOC would deduct a certain amount of money every month from their trust account to pay back those devices.”

The agency would typically take half of the balance of an inmate’s account at the beginning of each month, and then whatever funds remained at the end of the month.

As part of a legal settlement reached last month, the Oregon DOC agreed to abandon the practice.

The state’s prison system refunded $77,041 to 870 people currently in prison and forgave $39,683 in medical debt for 30 people. Amber Campbell, a spokesperson with the state Department of Corrections, said some in custody could have received both.

Campbell also said the 2021 lawsuit helped agency officials realize it needed to expand its definition of “elective medical devices.”

“We are in the process of reviewing and updating our rule for health care services as a result of this direction from the court,” Campbell told OPB in a statement.

Those new rules could be finalized by the end of the year, Campbell said.

In 2021, several prisoners at the Snake River Correctional Institution in eastern Oregon filed a class action lawsuit, arguing that the Department of Corrections violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“There is no provision regarding waiver of costs for indigent people,” the lawsuit states. “Therefore, a person with a disability requiring an artificial limb in order to walk, a hearing aid in order to hear, or a simple wheelchair repair in order to be mobile, must pre-pay or incur significant debt in order to access the prison facility and all of its programs and services.”

Donald Terrill, who has a lower-leg amputation and uses a prosthetic to walk, said in the lawsuit that since 2013 he’s paid more than $10,000 towards the costs of the prosthesis and still owed more than $14,000. At the time the lawsuit was filed, Terrill made about $45 per month, about half of which went to pay for his prosthetic.

“Should a family member place money on his books, the administrative rules allow ODOC to take any amounts exceeding $40 (including wages) per month,” the lawsuit states. “Therefore, incarcerated individuals with disabilities cannot save money because ODOC will take any funds remaining on their books at the end of the month.”

The result is disabled people in prison have an even lower quality of life, the lawsuit argued.

Nicholas Pando, who uses hearing aids, was charged $900 for them. According to the lawsuit, just like Terrill, every month the prison system would dock Pando’s trust account. As of 2021, he had paid more than $550 toward the balance and still owed more than $300.

Michael Wesly, a paraplegic who needs a wheelchair to get to meals and recreation in the prison, was forced to pay for repairs after the prison system refused.

“He had the funds so he did not incur debt,” the lawsuit states. “His wheelchair requires regular maintenance, thus causing him to incur significant expense.”

Zito said Oregon was an outlier, with states such as Idaho, Washington, California, Colorado, Hawaii and Alaska all having abolished the practice.

“It’s very significant for people in custody with disabilities,” he said. “People who need durable medical equipment need it for independence to access the services of what they need to do while they’re in prison with a level of independence that other prisoners have, and having those devices gives them that independence.”

Copyright 2024 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Conrad Wilson is a reporter and producer covering criminal justice and legal affairs for OPB.