Inmate Welfare Fund or Discretionary Account?

In the U.S., each county uses the proceeds from the county’s portion of phone and commissary payments to maintain an inmate welfare fund. The funds are typically overseen by the County Sheriff’s office or other official in charge of operating county jails and are designed to improve the quality of life of inmates, provide rehabilitation programs and help to prevent recidivism when inmates are eventually released. The San Diego Union-Tribune recently obtained via public records request a full accounting of how that county’s inmate welfare fund has been administered and found that millions of dollars from the fund have been used to pay for county jail staff and operations, including on out-of-county travel and staff cell phones. 

California code stipulates that inmate welfare funds should be used “primarily for the benefit, education, and welfare of the inmates confined with the jail,” but that funds “not needed for the welfare of the inmates” can be spent maintaining jail facilities.  Sheriffs are ultimately given wide discretion over the use of inmate welfare funds, and as the San Diego Union Tribune’s investigation shows, sheriffs can divert a significant portion of the funds for overheard expenses.  For instance, the analysis of San Diego County records showed that of the $5.2 million reportedly spent on academic and other programs for inmates, $3 million went to employee salaries and benefits, including for a Detentions Bureau sergeant, six deputy sheriffs and various managers.

The Union-Tribune’s analysis is a good reminder to be on the lookout for discretionary accounts controlled by research subjects that are outside of the normal budgeting process, even if they are ostensibly allocated for other purposes.