Change Change

Visitors to the county jail can now get the most for their money

Bargain hunters may not be exactly awed by the arrangement, but Harris County is suddenly offering the general public a real deal: four (count 'em, four!) quarters for a dollar bill.

The transactions can occur almost instantly at the dollar-bill changer in the lobby of the county's main jail at 1301 Franklin. Four quarters for a buck sounds typical for any bill changer, but it is actually 25 cents more than users had been getting from the machine. The Houston Press article "Quarter Masters" described the systematic shortchanging -- a sign even notified customers that a dollar would get them only 75 cents in change. Shortly after the February 14 story, the sign came down and -- voilà! -- every dollar fed into the slot now spits out an extra quarter.

Advocates for inmates say the old change machine was another example of how the county exploits those who can least afford it: jail prisoners and their families and friends.

Lieutenant Robert Van Pelt, the spokesman for the Harris County Sheriff's Department, said he was unaware of who ordered the change or why. He emphasized that the county's facilities and property management department has control over the lobby machines, and that the sheriff's department does not benefit from the profits.

County Property director Michael Yancey, who oversees such operations, did not return calls on the new policy. The county appears to be coping somehow with the reduced revenue -- there were no announcements of pending layoffs or budget cuts from the change.

 
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