A judge has refused to block the state from charging a $25 background check fee to those who want to visit state prisoners.
Middle Ground, a prisoner rights group, had argued that the fee is illegal because the funds are not simply to cover the cost of conducting those checks. Instead, the cash raised - estimated at $750,000 a year - is being used to help maintain all the buildings within the entire Department of Corrections.
But Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Karen Potts said that is irrelevant. She said that, legally speaking, the fee is voluntary.
"The party who pays it has voluntarily asked the Department of Corrections to provide a benefit not shared by any other members of society: the right to enter a highly secure and regulated facility in order to visit a person incarcerated in that facility," the judge wrote. "The necessity to pay does not arise unless or until a person seeks to enter that facility, at which time a background check is performed."
Donna Hamm of Middle Ground said the ruling is unfair.
She said there was testimony during the hearing that only a handful of the agency's more than 1,500 buildings are actually used by inmates for visitation.
"We consider this a holiday slap in the face of prison visitors," she said. "Prison visitors are saddled with the responsibility of paying for repair and maintenance of 1,552 buildings because they allegedly cause wear and tear on 20."
Potts also rejected a separate contention by Middle Ground that the law which allows Corrections Director Charles Ryan to charge a fee is illegal special legislation.
"There is a legitimate purpose in maintaining the state's correctional facilities, and the statute at hand has a rational relationship to that purpose," the judge wrote. And she said there is no discrimination, because the fee applies to all visitors, with the lone exception being for those younger than 18.
Hamm vowed an appeal.
Ryan, who was empowered to set the fee, said he picked $25 because it reflects the low end of what the Department of Public Safety charges private individuals for background checks legally required for employment purposes.
But Ryan conceded his agency does its own background checks. And he said he had no figures of exactly how much the process actually costs.
In objecting to the lawsuit, Middle Ground said the fee would discourage the kind of family visits which can help inmates get rehabilitated.
But state Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, scoffed at that contention.
"If a one-time charge of $25 is enough to dissuade you from visiting your loved one, then I'm wondering how much of a loved one he or she is," he said.