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May 6, 2024

New Prison Policy Initiative report details “Inmate Welfare Funds" used to cover "prison operations, staff salaries, benefits, and more"

The Prison Policy Initiative this morning released this new report titled "Shadow Budgets: How mass incarceration steals from the poor to give to the prison." This lengthy report subtitle details its findings and themes: "Revenues from communication fees, commissary purchases, disciplinary fines, and more flow into “Inmate Welfare Funds” meant to benefit incarcerated populations. However, our analysis of prison systems across the U.S. reveals that they are used more like slush funds that, in many cases, make society’s most vulnerable people pay for prison operations, staff salaries, benefits, and more." Here is how the report gets started:

Prisons and jails generate billions of dollars each year by charging incarcerated people and their communities steep prices for phone calls, video calls, e-messaging, money transfers, and commissary purchases.  A lot of that money goes back to corrections agencies in the form of kickbacks.  But what happens to it from there?  As it turns out, much of this money flows into special accounts called “Inmate Welfare Funds.”  These welfare funds are supposed to be used for non-essential purchases that collectively benefit the incarcerated population.  In reality, poorly written policies and lax oversight make welfare funds an irresistible target for corruption in jails and prisons: in many cases, corrections officials have wide discretion to use welfare funds as shadow budgets for subsidizing essential facility operations, staff salaries, vehicles, weapons, and more, instead of paying for such things out of their department’s more transparent and accountable general budget.

How do welfare funds get funded?  How is the money used, and who gets to decide?  We analyzed laws and policies governing welfare funds in all 50 state prison systems and the federal Bureau of Prisons to find out.  We identified at least 49 prison systems that have some form of welfare fund, though it’s likely that every system has one.  In most cases, they are funded through communications fees and store purchases, as we mentioned, as well as interest accrued on individual trust accounts.  Some prison systems also fund them with sums of money confiscated from people who escape custody, contraband, or disciplinary fines.

Although welfare funds are generally meant to be used for recreation equipment, entertainment, social and educational opportunities, and other non-essential benefits for the incarcerated population as a whole, prison policies frequently allow them to pay for facility construction and maintenance, hygiene products for indigent people, release-related costs and other goods and services that are supposed to come out of a department’s general budget.  Our analysis reveals that most policies are so vague that prison officials enjoy wide discretion to spend incarcerated peoples’ money as they please — sometimes spending it on luxury perks for staff.

May 6, 2024 at 12:02 PM | Permalink


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