Making Prisoners Pay — Literally

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Stephen Chernin / Getty

Bernard Madoff arrives at federal court in New York City on March 12, 2009

Bernie Madoff's crimes spawned a global financial meltdown, a wave of populist outrage, books, movies, souvenirs and, now — perhaps — an overhaul of New York's prison system. On July 20, Republican Assemblyman James Tedisco introduced a so-called "Madoff bill" in New York's legislature that, if passed, would require wealthy inmates to be billed for the cost of their prison stays — estimated at $90 per inmate per day. TIME spoke with Tedisco about the legislation's nickname, the "party palace" in a Manhattan jail that helped spark the proposed law and why lawmakers might want to let prisoners keep their TVs.

Why did you decide to christen your proposal "the Madoff bill" now that federal authorities have seized Madoff's assets.
The bill itself does not relate directly to Mr. Madoff because he'll be in a federal prison. [Tedisco's version only covers local and state prisons.] But it refers to the fact that right now, he's a poster person for somebody who has gained monetarily by breaking the law — and is going to continue to victimize taxpayers by being in prison for the rest of his life and getting three square meals a day. There are enough wealthy people who have broken the law and can afford to pay for it. We spend $1 billion a year to incarcerate individuals in New York. We have drug dealers who are probably going to leave after a sentence of 2 to 5 years and go back to millions of dollars they've made illegally.

You've also cited a recent scandal involving taxpayer money and a lavish bar mitzvah staged by a convict in a Manhattan lockdown known as the Tombs.
Yeah, that was a situation where a prison was being used as a party palace. Some of the inmates there were pretty wealthy, and officials were bringing special food in for special parties. I think that attitude adds insult to injury as far as how the taxpayers feel about the high cost of incarceration.

How will authorities determine which inmates will be forced to foot the bill for their incarceration?
It's on a sliding scale. The highest level is $200,000 and above; [inmates worth that amount] will pay all their stay. If you're worth $40,000 or less, you wouldn't pay anything. You can't get blood from a stone; we're not trying to cause pain.

You mentioned rich drug dealers as a targeted demographic. How would their worth be evaluated when their finances aren't so transparent?
Well, that's difficult. Probably the cars they have, some of the money police can find in different spots. Of course, some of it will be hidden away, but some would be available, I'm sure.

What about concerns that this system would end up punishing an inmate's family?
Under this bill, an inmate's house is protected, the mortgage payments are protected, child support would be protected. I think that's about as far as we go. We've put some protections in there.

What portion of inmates do you think this will affect?
That's hard to say, but I'm sure there's a lot of them who have wealth above $40,000. Whatever little bit each inmate can help to pay in those upper income levels is going to take the burden collectively, and I think very largely, off the taxpayers. And we certainly need that in New York State right now.

New York prisons, like many nationwide, are facing budget cuts. Some jails have even cut back to two meals a day on weekends. What are some other ways the state is hoping to deal with the cutbacks?
There's been some discussion about telephones and television and recreational activities, but you have to weigh the inactivity and violence that may take place if inmates aren't afforded these things. We're not trying to be draconian in the care of inmates, but understand: this is a punishment.