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Pennsylvania County Found Skimming Prisoner-Designated Funds from ViaPath Kickbacks

After a Pennsylvania newspaper’s investigation revealed that Dauphin County officials diverted money intended for prisoners earned from jail phone call kickbacks—spending it instead on staff perks and private contractors—state lawmakers began looking at ways to stop them.

On September 7, 2023, state House Rep. Chris Rabb (D-Philadelphia) introduced H.B. 1649, requiring state prisons and local jails to establish an “Incarcerated People’s Benefit Fund.” With money “from commissary purchases, telephone and internet services, and labor by incarcerated individuals,” the fund may “be used solely for the benefit, education and welfare of individuals incarcerated in state or county facilities.” The law also provides for annual fund audits to ensure compliance with these rules.

State Sen. Amanda M. Cappelletti (D-Delaware/Montgomery) also responded to the news, announcing plans on July 31, 2023, to introduce legislation making phone calls free for those incarcerated in Pennsylvania prisons and jails.

“Placing communications funding under the purview of the state instead of for-profit companies eliminates incentives for law enforcement to collect additional commission by charging higher rates and ensures that inmates and their families are relieved of what can amount to an extreme financial burden,” said Cappelletti.

The legislative action followed a January 2023 report by the Patriot-News in Harrisburg, which found Dauphin County had collected $3.4 million in kickbacks from ViaPath—formerly Global Tel*Link—the private contractor providing phone call services to detainees in the county prison. Despite allowing the firm to charge over $3 per call, a higher rate than neighboring jails, county officials didn’t spend the money for their benefit, as promised.

There were no legal restrictions governing use of the funds, but Dauphin County financial documents said that they were reserved for “county prison and inmate benefit.” Yet county officials spent nearly $300,000 of it on items like gun range memberships for jail staff and even other county employees who did not work at the jail. Funds were also directed toward exercise trackers for guards, employee-appreciation meals and office furniture.

Rabb and Cappelletti said the news prompted them to ensure that funds are directed toward the well-being and rehabilitation of those incarcerated rather than benefiting county officials or private contractors.  


Source: Harrisburg Patriot-News

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