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Massachusetts DOC Fails to Spend Nearly $2 Million Surplus in Prisoner Benefit Funds

A report compiled by a well-respected prisoner group indicates that while the Massachusetts Department of Corrections (DOC) is diligent in collecting profits from prisoners' commissary purchases, it has failed to spend those funds on prisoner benefit purchases, as required by state regulation -- to the tune of a $2 million surplus for the fiscal year ending in June 2015.

The stunning revelations are contained in a report authored by Gordon Haas, Chairman of the Norfolk Lifers Group, a prisoner group that has operated in Massachusetts prisons for several decades, advocating for better conditions and the protection of prisoners' rights. Lifers Group is comprised primarily of prisoners serving life sentences at the maximum security MCI Norfolk and has long examined the Massachusetts DOC's abuses of its fiscal responsibilities. In October, 2015, lifer Gordon Haas and his group published a report on the DOC's income and expenses relating to accounts funded primarily by commissions from prisoner commissary purchases via the Keefe Commissary Network (KCN).

Massachusetts regulations 103 DOC 476.10 and 476.11 dictate that the Department of Corrections maintain certain accounts that are intended to provide services or benefits to prisoners. The accounts are funded by monthly assessments of fixed percentages from the revenues taken in by each institution. One account, the Program Account (103 DOC 476.11(1)), receives 10 percent of said revenues each month; the Law Library Account (103 DOC 476.10(2)) receives 35 percent. These funds are tracked by monthly reports by each institution and the DOC. A third account, the Central Inmate Benefit Fund, is also used for the funding of prisoner programs and services.

As is the case at many prisons across America, revenues at the institutional level come courtesy of the monolithic KCN, which provides commissions to the prisons from the sales of items to men and women behind bars, like commissary items (food, snacks, hygiene items, and over the counter medical supplies), clothing, and other services, like MP3/MP4 music sales. While Massachusetts prisons also reap revenue from other sources such vending machines, visitor locker rentals, and interest, the revenue collected from KCN usually comprises over 90 percent of the monthly income received by the prisons.

The funds collected in these accounts can be substantial, leading one to conclude that prisoners are enjoying great benefits from the power of their KCN purchases, which amount to many millions each year. But this is not the case. According to DOC figures obtained by Lifers Group and Lois Ahrens of the Real Cost of Prisons Project, the funds are not being spent:  on June 30, 2015, a surplus of $1,978,446.54 remained in the three accounts. Unspent, collecting interest for the DOC. The numbers are particularly jarring when one considers that a total of $985,763.86 was deposited into the accounts -- and that only $781,631.84 was spent from the three accounts in the same period.

Why the DOC is hoarding funds required to be spent on prisoners is not clear, but the Lifers Group study makes one fact indisputable: massive amounts of revenue are being squeezed from prisoners and their families by their jailers, and that giant corporations like Keefe Commissary Network are reaping huge profits.

Source: A Report on the Income and Expenses from the Massachusetts Department of Corrections' Central Inmate Benefit Fund, Central Law Library Account, and Central Program Account, published by Lifers Group, October 2015.