CONCORD — Lawyers asked a judge Thursday to block state corrections officials from exercising a rarely used “pay to stay” law, which allows the prison system to charge an inmate for the costs of his incarceration.
Former inmate Eric Cable has little money and works two jobs to make ends meet, he said. But he has a pending lawsuit against the state — a medical malpractice suit against the state prison, which he faults for loss of his peripheral vision.
The state has filed a counterclaim, saying it wants Cable to pay about $120,000 for the four years he spent behind bars for negligent-homicide. He was freed in 2017.
Cable calls it retaliation for the medical malpractice claim.
“I feel like I’m being punished for trying to rectify a very serious situation for me and other inmates who may still be in there,” Cable said outside the courtroom Thursday.
Superior Court Judge Richard McNamara heard about a half-hour of arguments, often peppering the lawyers with questions about previous rulings, the state’s ability to limit civil claims under sovereign immunity laws, and the $475,000 cap on malpractice claims against the state.
He didn’t issue a ruling from the bench.
No one from the Corrections Department or state prison attended the hearing. Assistant Attorney General Heather Neville said the law allows the Corrections Department to recover the cost of incarceration for up to six years after release.
She said the pay-to-stay law is not a retaliation for the lawsuit.
“The facts are not disputed. We have a former inmate, we’re within the time frame, and we’re simply looking to share the cost of incarceration,” she told reporters outside the courtroom.
She would not answer questions about how the prison system decides which inmates to bill.
The American Civil Liberties Union is challenging the pay-to-stay rule on Cable’s behalf.
Staff attorney Henry Klementowicz said a malpractice award would be a “hollow recovery” if the state were to collect under the pay-to-stay law.
He said the state’s bill for the incarceration violates Cable’s right to remedy, a right in the New Hampshire constitution that allows one to sue for damages. This is the first time the state has ever tried to collect after an inmate has been released, Klementowicz said.
The ACLU filed a Right-to-Know request with the Corrections Department and found 11 petitions over the past 10 years under the pay-to-stay law. The most prominent inmate billed by the prison is John Brooks, the millionaire who is serving a life sentence on a murder charge.
Cable said he works 60 hours a week between two jobs as a cook. He also attends school full-time. He has one day off a week and lives paycheck to paycheck. A bill from the state would make it that much harder for him to reintegrate into society, he said.
Cable said he lost a lot of weight and became sick frequently in prison, which he attributed to diabetes. He asked the prison’s medical department to test his blood sugar and workers refused.
His former lawyer wrote the warden demanding treatment. When he started experiencing vision problems, medical workers again refused his requests for an eye exam. He appealed to the warden and corrections commissioner to no avail.
“The very first day I was released I went to the eye doctor. He said I had a detached retina and I needed emergency eye surgery,” Cable said.
Neville said the malpractice claim is in its early stages.