The Marin County Jail reaps a substantial profit every time an inmate calls home or buys a package of ramen noodles from the commissary.
The practice of jails benefiting financially from these necessities disproportionally affects the poor and people of color. Families often struggle to make ends meet without the income of the incarcerated person. When jails and prisons mark up the prices, it adds to their economic burdens.
State law dictates all profits go into an Inmate Welfare Fund for the benefit, education and welfare of the detainees; however, the Marin County Sheriff’s Office, which operates the jail, has been stingy when it comes to spending the money.
During the last fiscal year, the Marin County Jail took in a profit of $360,000. Only one-third of those profits went toward inmate benefits, according to documents reviewed by the Pacific Sun.
Another third of the profits pays the annual salary and benefits for an inmate program coordinator, who manages the Inmate Welfare Fund.
The remaining revenue stays in the fund. While some consider it prudent to save for a rainy day, it appears the Marin County Jail is preparing for a monsoon. The current balance in the Inmate Welfare Fund is a whopping $1.3 million.
The Marin County Jail isn’t unique when it comes to deposits and expenses of the Inmate Welfare Fund. The nickel-and-diming of inmates occurs in most jails and prisons across the country.
“Inmate welfare funds are standard in the industry,” said Captain Mark Hale, who manages the Marin County Jail. “There would be a lack of services without it.”
Still, the markups are substantial, and the jail has also received kickbacks from vendors providing the goods and services, according to activist Frank Shinneman, who has been crunching the numbers related to the Inmate Welfare Fund.
After Shinneman raised the issue with Marin officials last year, a contract between the Marin County Jail and Keefe Commissary, a private service company, was renegotiated in September. The new contract ended up being worse for the inmates.
The Marin County Jail did reduce their commission from 37% to 24%, which means less money goes into the Inmate Welfare Fund. With Keefe paying out less to the jail, lower prices at the commissary should follow. Yet, Shinneman’s analysis of Keefe’s pricing lists shows that inmates are paying 19% more for commissary items under the new contract.
The price increases result in inmates paying more than $711,000 more at the commissary each year of the three-year contract. That amount goes straight into Keefe’s pockets, while the Inmate Welfare Fund took a hit of more than $317,000, according to Shinneman’s calculations.
But there is another viable alternative. Marin County Sheriff Robert Doyle could decide to provide a significant benefit to inmates: make all phone calls free and end the upcharges on commissary items.
The San Francisco Jail was the first in the country to stop charging for phone calls and ceasing markups. Since then, San Diego has also adopted this policy and Los Angeles is seriously considering it.
In Marin, Hale says it’s not possible. Many of the services and products provided to inmates from the Inmate Welfare Fund are important, such as eyeglasses for inmates lacking money, law books for the library and hygiene products.
“The current sheriff is not interested in going away from the Inmate Welfare Fund,” Hale said. “The jail has no way to provide the services paid out of that fund.”
Obviously, the jail shouldn’t eliminate these items. But with a $1.3 million balance in the Inmate Welfare Fund, and only $121,000 going toward purchases for inmates in the last fiscal year, it would take years to deplete.
Another source of funding to replace the fund is Marin County, which is projecting a $51 million surplus in the general fund for the current fiscal year. The County may not always be this flush, but only a tiny fraction of the general fund would cover the commissary and phone call expenses.
It’s been three years since San Francisco nixed the charges. The change took place because the policy of upcharging didn’t align with the city’s values, said Anne Stuhldreher, director of The Financial Justice Project for San Francisco.
“Jacking up the prices is penny wise but pound foolish,” Stuhldreher said. “We don’t take commissions. There are no kickbacks. It earns a little revenue in the short term, but research shows that the more folks stay in touch with their families, the more it helps them succeed.”
Removing this economic burden benefits poor and low-income inmates and their families. Society also benefits. When inmates consistently call home, it reduces recidivism rates and improves parent-child relationships, says the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice. And inmates who maintain family connections in jail have a better likelihood of successfully re-entering society after their release, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.
“Recidivism is the biggest cost driver to society,” Stuhldreher said.
Another reason to stop the extra charges is that 76% of the inmates in the Marin County Jail are awaiting trial, according to the California Sentencing Institute, a project of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. Since they are innocent until proven guilty, creating financial woes for these inmates and their families seems particularly unjust.
Sheriff Doyle will soon retire and it’s a sure bet that Undersheriff Jamie Scardina, the only candidate running, will succeed him. Both Scardina and the Marin County Board of Supervisors should analyze the data to see if it makes sense to get rid of the Inmate Welfare Fund.
“We shouldn’t be penalizing poor people,” said Shinneman, the activist working to bring attention to the issue in Marin County.