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'Inmate Welfare Funds' Have Little Accountability, Group Charges

In most states, inmates and their families subsidize the operation of prisons and jails when they pay for phone calls and commissary items, or make deposits into prisoner accounts.

The money families pay to private forms providing these services is shared with prisons and jails themselves — and kicked back into so-called "Inmate Welfare Funds" with little accountability or transparency, charges a new report from the Prison Policy Initiative titled Shadow Budgets: How mass incarceration steals from the poor to give to the prison.

The organization says that at least 48 state prison systems and the federal Bureau of Prisons have such accounts that bring in millions of dollars each year.

The study says the money is often used to finance capital projects, such as prison construction, or for basic essentials for inmates.

The same practices are common in local jails, the report said. Among examples it offered on how some of the funds are spent:

--$40,000 on gift cards to The Honey Baked Ham Company for jail staff in Atlanta's Fulton County.

--$300,000 on gun range memberships for staff in Dauphin County, Pa.

--$217,000 on guns, bullets, and vests for law enforcement In Pinal County, Ariz.

"Welfare funds are yet another example of how our failed system of mass incarceration burdens the poorest members of society the most," said report author Brian Nam-Sonenstein. "Prisons and jails need to be held accountable for how they use welfare funds to fill budgetary gaps — and when their budgets fall short, they should be incentivized to decarcerate facilities rather than exploit poor families."

In a guide for press, the Prison Policy Initiative encouraged journalists to investigate the welfare funds in state prisons and particularly in local jails.


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A daily report co-sponsored by Arizona State University, Criminal Justice Journalists, and the National Criminal Justice Association

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