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Virginia Sheriff Investigated for Misuse of Prisoner Funds

When prisoners at the Richmond, Virginia jail buy goods from the inmate store, the profits were supposed to be used for the benefit of the prisoners. Instead, an investigation has revealed that Richmond's sheriff, Michelle B. Mitchell, has been spending the money on social club memberships, photographs of herself, and parties and gifts for her deputies.

Virginia state law mandates that store profits "shall be used within the facility for educational, recreational or other purposes for the benefit of the inmates." The store, or canteen, sells food, toiletries and clothes to prisoners. Much of the spending of the store profits did go for items that clearly benefited the prisoners, such as newspapers, fans, and television equipment.

But expense reports show that Mitchell also spent $834 for meals and a membership at a local social club and restaurant, $596 for pictures of herself for use in her re-election campaign, and $525 to buy a Palm Pilot. Mitchell also donated $5,000 of store profits to the Historic Richmond Foundation, in return for which she and other jail official received free tickets to a dinner.

The FBI and Virginia State Police are conducting the investigation into Mitchell's expenditures, which was launched due to information received from an anonymous tipster. Her spending is also under review by city and state auditors.

Mitchell offered this defense to her spending: "As a sheriff, I have prescribed those expenses that in my judgment will benefit the inmates by having a professional, motivated and concerned work force." Mitchell said the social club membership gave her "extra meeting space." She said the Palm Pilot was for jail business and the photos went in the inmate handbook.

The sheriff defends other expenditures under review as necessary to "promote good will on behalf of the jail" by benefiting the community or keeping her deputies happy.

Those other expenditures include $144 for gourmet food and wine for jail staff, $513 for gourmet coffee for staff and visitors, $300 for retirement gift certificates, $120 for guards to attend a barbeque, and $246 to give a painting of a lighthouse to Richmond Circuit Judge Learned D. Barry.

The canteen profits also went to pay for parties, movie tickets and trophies for jail employees; memberships in trade associations; and trips to a law enforcement job fair, meetings and conferences.

The canteen had a profit of over $194,000 on $1.08 million in sales for fiscal year 2000, according to an audit report.

The sheriffs of nearby Chersterfield and Henrico counties say they spend their canteen profits on things that directly benefit prisoners, such as food, clothing and books. They said they have never spent the money on social club memberships, pictures of themselves or gifts to judges and lawyers. "The law says it has to benefit the inmates," Henrico Sheriff Mike Wade said. "And we have only used those funds for items that directly benefit the inmates."

"The law is right there in front of you" said Chersterfield Sheriff Clarence G. Williams Jr. "There [are] no ifs ands or buts about it."

Mitchell has also been the target of an earlier federal investigation for $28,000 the city paid her for vacation time she did not take. She has since put that amount of money in escrow to cover the disputed vacation pay.

Mitchell has also sued the city for a new jail or improvements to the existing one. She complains that the jail open since 1964, has a capacity of 829 but regularly holds more than 1,500.

Mitchell has not responded to repeated requests from newspapers to tour the canteen and interview prisoners.

In the face of seemingly obvious misuse of prisoner funds Mitchell continues to condone her actions. Since she took office in 1993, there have been no escapes or riots at the jail. "I attribute that result in large part to my having adopted a number of motivational programs and practices in order to encourage jail supervisors and staff to take pride in their work. I believe that employee recognition pays dividends - not only to deputy sheriffs whose performance merits recognition, but to the inmates they monitor and protect," Mitchell said.

Despite Mitchell's self-serving attempt at justification, state auditor Walter Kucharski has ordered her to stop taking travel and other expenses from the canteen fund.

Jean Auldridge, director of Virginia Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants, expressed dismay when informed of the expenditures. "The money should go back to the prisoners at the very least to occupy then while they are in there. The money should not be used for the personal benefit of any employee of the city."

Kucharski has finished his investigation and turned his findings over to the state police. The state police and federal authorities, citing the ongoing investigation, have refused to discuss the findings.

Source: The Times-Dispatch

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