St. James inmates must pay to see doctor

Published 12:00 am Friday, July 17, 1998

Rebecca Burk Ellis

VACHERIE — St. James Sheriff Willy Martin hopes with the new ordinance the St. James Parish Council passed Wednesday night, inmates will cut down their requests to see the doctor unless they are in dire need.
“In the absence of the nurse, to protect you and me,” Martin said to the council during a public hearing, “we take them to the doctor. And when the word is out that the nurse isn’t in, everyone wants to take a ride.”
He said 15 to 20 inmates are transferred to the doctor once a month at $40 a visit on the parish.
The ordinance, hopefully, will decrease the request for unnecessary medical attention because inmates will have to fork over part of the money they use to spend on things they enjoy.
The ordinance basically says inmates have to pay $5 per doctor visit, $5 for emergency room or hospital care and $5 for prescriptions out of their commissary fund, which they set up with their own money when they were brought to jail.
Martin said family members and friends often come and add money to the accounts for the prisoners. And up until now the accounts were used for things like snacks and “goodies that they like to have,” Martin said.
But some inmates don’t have that luxury and have no account. They will no tbe denied medical care if they need it — they will just keep a negative balance.
With the ordinance, the Sheriff’s Office simply deducts the amount for health care services from their account. If an inmate doesn’t have an account or his or her account is empty, the Sheriff’s Office waits until more money is added then immediately deducts it before the money can be spent by the inmate.
If a prisoner leaves the St. James Adult Detention Center with a negative balance, they only have to worry about it if they commit another crime and make a repeat trip to jail. Then, again, they just start with a negative balance.
“I doubt we would get $5 from a prisoner who left,” Martin said. “We just don’t want them to come back.”
Martin studied similar programs which are followed in St. John the Baptist and Ascension parishes. He also said many other parishes in the state follow similar rules.
“It’s time for us to get on board and do this,” he said.
Some parishes charge inmates to see the detention center’s nurse, but Martin said inmates in St. James won’t be charged for that.
“You don’t want to discourage them from seeing the nurse if they need to,” he said.
If the nurse decides they need more medical attention, they are brought to Poche Clinic about nine miles away, then money is deducted from their commissary account.
Councilman Elwyn Bocz made a motion to accept the ordinance, which was seconded by Ralph Patin. It passed 6-0 with Elton Aubert absent. Martin said he feels the ordinance will change things.
“We’ll see a difference,” he said. “The nurse will see a difference. And it’s good because people feel uncomfortable about seeing someone incarcerated in chains in the doctors office so often.”