First, Sheriff Tim Evinger eliminated ketchup, salt, coffee and pepper at the jail, a move he says saved an instant $30,000 a year in runaway beverage and condiment costs.

Now, he has decided to start charging inmates $60 a day to help cover the costs of their stays behind bars.

"My constituents expect me to use whatever means I have to keep the jail open to its full extent," the sheriff said.

It is an idea that first surfaced about 15 years ago in Alabama, and has since spread rapidly nationwide, to about one-third of the county jails in the United States.

In some places, inmates are charged for their stays while they are still behind bars; other places bill them after they are released.

But increasingly, prison researchers dismiss such "pay to stay" plans as political grandstanding, citing the difficulty and expense of collecting anything from inmates and the ethics of such practices.

"If you go after people who owe you money on room and board or whatever, you will end up paying more money for the bill collector than you can ever collect for these people," said Ken Kerle, editor of American Jails magazine. "Holding inmates is a government responsibility, whether government likes it or not."

In Minnesota, Olmsted County suspended its pay-to-stay program after spending $13,000 over four months to administer it, and collecting just $7,261. The county is now revamping its program. In Iowa's Clayton County, jail administrators estimate that 150 inmates have outstanding bills.

Pay-to-stay programs have had their success stories. Missouri raked in $384,000 from inmates so far this year, said Scott Holste, a spokesman for the state attorney general's office.

But such successes often ride on the backs of a few wealthy criminals. Missouri, for example, collected $178,000 this year from George Ramsey, who is serving a life sentence for killing his mother. Ramsey, who has been behind bars since the mid-1980s, was finally forced to pay up this year.

Pay-to-stay programs have also faced court challenges. In Cincinnati, county officials had to refund about $1 million to inmates in 2003 after a judge said pay-to-stay could violate inmates' rights by charging them money before they are proved guilty.

And in a lawsuit filed in Florida's Broward County in the mid-1990s, lawyers for inmates charged that pay-to-stay policies discriminated against the poor. A Florida appeals court ruled against the prisoners.

"Typically, the poorest of the poor are the ones we lock in our jails, and the government is seizing their families' money, as well," said Norm Frink, the attorney for the inmates. "The penalty for a criminal act is the loss of one's freedom. You are already paying with your liberty."

In Klamath Falls, where pay-to-stay began on April 15, Evinger sees it as a way to cover security, utilities, medical care, food and transportation at his 144-inmate jail, which has seen some of its funding frozen at 1999 levels because of budget cuts.

He estimated that the jail could raise $25,000 a year and that the program would cost $10,000 to administer.

Inmates at the Klamath County jail do not begin to pay for their stays until they are released. They are asked whether they can afford to pay in full, would like a payment plan, or are unable or refuse to pay.

Those who choose either of the last two options are taken to small-claims court, where a judge can dismiss the case by finding that the inmate is unable to pay. If a judge finds otherwise, however, the inmate's taxes and wages will be attached.

"I will have the ability to forgive some debt to someone who has really turned their life around," Evinger said. "We don't want to take food out of families' mouths."

Sam King, 44, who is serving time in Klamath County for assault, said most of his fellow inmates oppose the idea.

"The taxpayers are already paying for us to be here," King said. "Why should we have to pay on top of that? It's a crock. How do you get blood out of a turnip? These guys don't have any money."

But George Booth, 42, who is in for violating his probation on a drug offense, said he plans to go on the $20-a-month payment schedule when his time is up.

"I messed up my probation," Booth said. "Who is responsible for myself? I am. Who pays your rent on the outside? Does the sheriff come around and pay your rent? I pay taxes, and I think we shouldn't be pumping so much money into correctional facilities. We should put it back into the elementary school system."

Inmate Sam King sits in a common area at the jail in Klamath Falls, Ore., where officials see the "pay to stay" system as a way to cover costs.