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California Class-Action Suit Reinstates $1.5 Million Illegally Siphoned From County Jail Inmate Welfare Fund

California Class-Action Suit Reinstates $1.5 Million Illegally Siphoned From County Jail Inmate Welfare Fund

by John E. Dannenberg

Santa Clara County, California (SCC) agreed to settle a class-action lawsuit seeking recovery of funds unlawfully taken from its jails’ Inmate Welfare Fund (IWF) between July 2003 and January 2008 to pay guards’ salaries. The $1.5 million lump sum ordered paid into the IWF will be used to fund programs directed at prisoner rehabilitation and reintegration.

The lawsuit was filed in 2005 by the Public Interest Law Firm and Fenwick & West on behalf of 4,600 prisoners housed at the County’s Main and Elmwood jails, after prisoner programs were cut in response to budget problems. While surcharges on prisoner phone calls and commissary sales were still collected, the funds were redirected. The recovered $1.5 million, added to an existing $4 million IWF balance, will provide individual and group counseling for 800 prisoners who have suffered from abuse and trauma. Another 500 prisoners, in maximum security, will gain the Roadmap to Recovery program.

Additionally, literacy classes will be provided and subscriptions to the San Jose Mercury News will be reinstated.

$100,000 of the settlement was earmarked for the non-profit group Friends Outside to pay for a third employee to aid jail prisoners in successfully reintegrating upon their release.

Friends Outside assists prisoners in cleaning up loose ends in their personal affairs, such as recovering their cars that were left on the streets, packing their belongings for storage and aiding financially stranded family members. Friends Outside also delivered 2,654 books and 696 pairs of reading glasses to jail prisoners in the past year. Dave Gonzales, Director of Friends Outside, said that its programs have notably reduced tension in the jails.

The court order expressly enjoins SCC from using any IWF funds towards prisoners’ incarceration, meals, clothing, housing, or medical services. Also banned are payments for booking officers, visiting staff, mandated services for pro per prisoners, disciplinary hearing functions, ADA requirements, court-mandated services and programs, translator costs, religious services, kitchen officers, commissary delivery guards, rehabilitation guards, and landscaping. From this list it is apparent that SCC had become quite creative in snatching IWF funds, when no court oversight was in place. To maintain the status quo, an audit process and IWF Committee were ordered put in place for five years. Moreover, any kickbacks from telephone companies (estimated at $200,000) were to be paid to the IWF, not to the SCC general fund. Finally, the 21 page settlement agreement provides for a “needs assessment” team to determine the best use of IWF funds for rehabilitative purposes.

The SCC settlement may spawn similar recovery suits throughout California because prisoner welfare fund accounts are controlled by state law (Penal Code § 4025). Most jurisdictions have felt free to dip into such funds to pay for self-justified “emergency” needs. However, the law requires such funds collected from prisoners to be used solely for their direct benefit. The settlement agreement requires that SCC amend its internal operating policies to comply with the law. This includes capping SCC’s internal administration costs of these programs at 31% of IWF funds expended annually.

The prisoners were represented by attorneys Kyra Kazantzis and James Zahradka of the Public Interest Law Firm. The settlement provides that class counsel may additionally seek an attorney fee award up to $450,000. Further, the several individual named plaintiffs in the class action are to be awarded $1,000 each. See: Hopkins v. Flores, Santa Clara County Superior Court Case No. 1-05-CV035647 (January 2008).

Other source: San Jose Mercury News

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Related legal case

Hopkins v. Flores