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Sacramento Sheriff Used Prisoner Welfare Fund for Trips, Salaries and Equipment

by Matt Clarke

According to the Sacramento Bee, Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office employees used money from a fund paid for by profits from the prisoners’ commissary purchases and phone calls to pay for airline fares, hotel rooms, routine jail maintenance, employee salaries, and security-related equipment. The prisoner welfare fund is designed to pay for programs and services that benefit the prisoners such as education and reentry job training.

The Bee requested Sheriff’s Office financial ledgers for fiscal years 2014-2020 under the Public Records Law. In hundreds of pages of documentation, it discovered that the Sheriff’s Office had collected an average of around $5 million each year from phone call and commissary fees, depositing the money in the fund. Each year between 66% and 93% of the fund expenditures were for personnel salaries, benefits, training and facility maintenance. In most years, less than $1 million was spent on programs that directly benefit prisoners such as the law library and education programs. Phone services at the jail are provided by IC Solutions, which in turn is owned by Keefe Group, the prison commissary company.

Prior to 1993, by state law, prisoner welfare funds could “solely” be used for the “benefit and welfare” of the jail prisoners. But Assemblyman Dean Andal (R-Stockton) proposed that the law be changed so that the funds “primarily” be used for programs benefiting prisoners. The new law gave sheriffs coverage to use excess monies in the funds for salaries, maintenance and other purposes “deemed appropriate by the sheriff.” That opened the floodgates for sheriffs to spend the welfare fund monies as they pleased. California is one of the few states to have even this nominal level of regulation. Nationally, so called Inmate Welfare or Benefit Funds operate as an unregulated slush fund for jail and prison administrators to use as they please and also seems to operate as a bottomless pit of unaccountable corruption.

In 1994, the year after the law was changed, the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office used $1.1 million from the fund to pay for in-car computers, justifying it as “backfilling” a hole in the budget. In later years, the Sheriff’s Office became bolder, paying for rooms at the Beach Retreat & Lodge at Tahoe for six people in 2019 at the cost of $2,018. Over the past two years, the office spent at least $12,000 of fund monies for airline flights and lodging, $1 million for parking lot improvements and $150,000 for perimeter fencing. Since 2014, it used $15 million in fund monies to pay employee salaries.

“That needs to come out of his core budget!” said former state senator Holly Mitchell. “How does he justify that, that’s not part of his core budget? That’s what his budget is for.”

Payments into the fund have been growing since 2017. There was a balance of $7 million left over in the fund at the end of fiscal year 2019.

“That sounds to me like a slush fund that they’re just drawing from,” said Kyra Kazantzis, who runs a Bay-area nonprofit that won a $1.5 million settlement after filing a lawsuit against the Santa Clara Sheriff’s Office for similar spending excesses. [See PLN, April 2009, p.22.]

Kazantzis emphasized that the current law requires the funds to be used “primarily for the benefit, education, and welfare” of the prisoners and only allows money not needed for that purpose to be used for maintenance and salaries “deemed necessary by the sheriff.” She noted that the spending on travel expenses was especially bold.

“What I remember saying for a really long time is that there’s never going to be a situation in which those funds are not needed for the welfare and education of inmates,” said Kazantzis. “There just isn’t, you know, a limit on the support that the folks in jail need.”

Steve Meinrath, a former ACLU advocate and legal counsel for the California Legislature, called the spending on travel and infrastructure “revolting.” He was part of the ACLU team that blasted the Butte County Sheriff’s Office for trying to take $650,000 from their prisoner welfare fund to pay for an entirely new jail and the San Diego County Sheriff’s Office for using fund money to buy toilets. His legal analysis for the legislature said the plan was illegal and bad public policy.

“I know the statute gives sheriffs a lot of leeway, but that must be a violation of the law, or the law is utterly meaningless,” said Meinrath, referring to the Sacramento County spending. “Regardless, using money from inmate families for these kinds of expenses that don’t benefit inmates is just disgusting.”

When Mitchell was a powerful Democratic state Senator, she introduced a bill to cap the markup on phone calls and commissary purchases and require the fund monies be used solely for incarcerated people’s benefit. Over 50 legal and justice-focused organizations signed on to SB 555. One opposed it—the California State Sheriff’s Association, which claimed sheriffs would lose fees that pay for some prisoners’ recreational activities, education and personal hygiene items. Nonetheless, the bill was passed in the summer of 2020.

In September 2020, Governor Newsome vetoed the bill, voicing concerns that it would have the “unintended consequence of reducing important rehabilitative and educational programming.”

The funds originated in 1949, when then-California Governor Earl Warren allowed sheriffs to sell tobacco, candy and other sundries in a small jail store with profits going into a fund for the welfare of prisoners. In 1956, then-Sacramento County Sheriff Don Cox used $40,000 from what he called an “embarrassingly large” fund to install a sound system to play AM and FM radio news reports and make announcements in the new jail then under construction.

“It helps to relax some prisoners,” said Cox. “It takes their mind off being in jail for a while. After all, part of our job is to rehabilitate inmates.”

From this inauspicious start in which the sheriff called a PA system a rehabilitation program, jail officials went on to spend $7,500 to provision a 2,500-square-foot recreation room with ping pong tables, weights, a pair of arcade-style video games, and a Foosball table in 1986. But the 1980s soon gave way to the “tough-on-crime” policies of the 1990s and Andal’s amendment to the statute that allowed sheriffs to semi-legally loot the welfare funds.

“It’s been a longtime axe I’ve been grinding,” said Andal at the time. “I really think inmates should pay for more of their upkeep.”

Of course, most jail prisoners are not the ones paying for their commissary purchases or phone calls. Their friends and loved ones are, since the vast majority of prisoners in the jails are not earning an income.

Ironically, the pandemic has been a boon for the funds. Prisoners have been locked in their cells with most programs hindered or cancelled due to the requirements of social distancing. In-person visits have been banned, increasing the demand for expensive phone calls and video visits. Between July 2020 and May 2021, the main Sacramento Jail’s fund deposits increased by over $3 million, a 38% increase over the entire previous year and more than 70% above the year before that. Despite a reduction in the prisoner population numbering in the hundreds, the jail collected double the phone fees compared to the previous year.

Without a law specifically prohibiting it, California sheriffs will likely continue to plunder the prisoner welfare funds for inappropriate purposes while denying prisoners the kinds of programming they were intended to fund. There has been no legislation introduced on the subject since Mitchell’s bill was vetoed. The reality is, precious little concern is shown for prisoners’ actual welfare, and they and their families are seen as profit centers whose very existence is designed to line the pockets of hedge fund owned telecom companies and their government collaborators. 



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