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Nevada Guards Party with Inmate Welfare Fund

The Nevada state legislature made a bold move to "end inmate welfare as we know it" when it passed a bill (AB289) in 1999 stating that revenue from state prisons' Inmate Welfare Fund (IWF) can be used for employee perks. But the law breaks no new ground, rather it makes legal a diversion of IWF money that was already common practice.

In 1992 the Nevada State Prison Board, made up of the governor, attorney general and secretary of state, changed the administrative rules governing the use of IWF money away from prisoners and into staff Christmas parties, summer picnics and other employee benefits.

Money for the IWF comes from visiting room vending machine sales and a markup on prison commissary purchases [in many states prisoner telephone calls are another IWF revenue source]. In other words, the IWF is a regressive sales tax levied against prisoners, their families and visitors.

IWF money was originally intended for buying books for prison law libraries, recreational equipment, and other expenditures to benefit prisoners. In Nevada IWF money has been used to pay for microwaves and refrigerators for guards at their posts, flowers for funerals of deceased prison guards and plaques for retirees.

In early 1999 some Nevada legislators caught wind of the IWF diversions and decided the practice wasn't legal. The Legislative Counsel Bureau, in a legal opinion sought by the Ways and Means fiscal staff, declared the practice illegal under then-current law. But their opinion was trumped by a legal brief issued by Attorney General Frankie Sue Del Papa (who, remember, sits on the state Prison Board) saying that the Prison Board acted within the law.

A subcommittee of the joint Assembly Ways and Means and Senate Finance committees then held hearings. Assistant Prison Director John Neill told lawmakers that the single biggest IWF expenditure is to cover payments for prisoners who can't afford the $2 co-payment charge to see a health care provider. But the committee was also told that more than $100,000 has gone for employee parties and other perks every year, enough to cover 50,000 indigent prisoner health care visits.

Shortly thereafter, the legislature passed AB289 with an amendment tacked on by the Senate Finance Committee making it legal for DOC employees to dip into the IWF. And to ensure that there will be more than enough money in the fund to pay for guards' refrigerators and summer barbecues, the legislature also authorized prison commissaries to increase their markup on sales to prisoners from a current 24 percent to 28 percent next year and 32 percent the year after.

Associated Press, Nevada Appeal

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