Friday, July 29, 2016

[Trinity County] Grand Jury: Inmate welfare fund could be better spent

Finding out how the Trinity County Sheriff’s Office spends inmate welfare funds was a task taken on by the 2015-16 Trinity County grand jury following a suggestion from prior grand juries on topics worthy of investigation.
The Sheriff’s Office is authorized to maintain a fund derived from proceeds from the jail commissary, telephones and other inmate-related commerce to be used primarily to provide welfare and educational programs for the benefit of the inmate population.
In a final report on its findings, the grand jury said the investigation was initiated following an apparent violation of state law requiring annual reporting of the status of the Inmate Welfare Fund to the Trinity County Board of Supervisors after five years’ worth of annual budgets were presented at one time in April 2015.
Required county expenses for jail inmates include meals, clothing, housing and medical services. The Inmate Welfare Fund can be used to provide additional services benefiting inmate health and well-being including education, religion, drug treatment and recreation. It is paid for by the inmates themselves through the purchase of personal items like phone cards, small food or hygiene items.
The grand jury reviewed five years’ worth of accounting records and bank statements, commissary forms, costs and price lists.
It found that a standard markup on jail commissary items is 40 percent and the rates are set by the county sheriff. Though there were some minor irregularities detected on commissary order forms, the grand jury concluded the average markup here is 42 percent with seven out of 10 items marked up more than 40 percent.
It was not clear to the grand jury committee how often the rates are reviewed or with what rationale they are set.
The report concluded that the Inmate Welfare Fund is rarely used for activities, programs or improvement projects designed to benefit the inmate population.
“Rather, in the last five years, the fund has been used almost exclusively for staff time for a Correctional Officer and for the Department Business Manager. Exceptions include GED testing ($430), mattresses ($2,010), clothes ($2,293) and a heated food cart ($6,199),” the report said.
These costs represent 9 percent of the total fund expenditures in the last five years. Overall, 91 percent of the Inmate Welfare Funds are used to maintain the program itself with approximately 59.8 percent of total funds paying for staff time.
The revenues are comprised almost exclusively from commissary sales and phone cards, averaging between $10,007 and $20,374 per year over the last five.
While expenditures for staff time are consistent with the law, the direct funding of staff time listed under penal code is intended for education, drug and alcohol treatment, welfare, library and accounting, according to the report.
The grand jury recommended pursuing alternate vendors for commissary products and distribution to free up staff time, saying the system is far from efficient and requires too much staff time to manage, but commending Sheriff’s Office personnel for their dedication to service in a difficult job with limited budget.
Furthermore, it concluded that the consistency of expending inmate welfare funds over the past five years to pay for staff time “appears to represent the filling of a budget gap that would otherwise be provided for by the departmental budget as allocated by the department head and approved by the Board of Supervisors.
“Rather than relying on inmate funds for such expenses, it seems appropriate to adjust the departmental budget to pay for those services, thereby freeing up funds for alternative expenses that directly benefit inmate welfare. Such inmate welfare expenses could include educational programs, drug and alcohol treatment, medical welfare, library and meeting facilities,” the report said.
July 20, 2016
The Trinity Journal
By Sally Morris

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