Montana Correctional Services promises to refund poorly spent inmate welfare funds

HELENA — The Montana Department of Corrections promised Tuesday to reimburse the Inmate Welfare Fund after a June audit found at least $98,000 in questionable purchases made by the department and its facilities over a three-year period. year.

Most of the money for the Inmate Welfare Fund is generated by inmates through phone calls and canteen purchases. The money is intended to benefit those imprisoned in DOC facilities and their families. However, Montana’s Legislative Audit Division questioned whether the state misused the fund to pay for things like basic hygiene items and computers for incarcerated people to do research. legal.

DOC chief financial officer Natalie Smitham told the legislative audit committee on Tuesday that the department was correcting spending errors.

“By the time we close the end of the fiscal year, 2022,” Smitham said. “Which will take place next month, these errors will be corrected and these funds will be returned to the IWF.”

In the DOC’s response to the audit findings, DOC Director Brian Gootkin said the department will review and update the policy on inmate welfare accounts to clarify what expenses are appropriate.

During the state Legislature’s Interim Law and Justice Committee meeting on Monday, Sen. Tom McGillvray, R-Billings, said he would ensure the money is returned to the Inmate Welfare Fund.

“Because if you take something that doesn’t belong to you illegally,” McGillvray said. “That money should be returned.”

Josh Butterfly, who spoke at the audit committee meeting on Tuesday, was previously incarcerated in Montana State Prison. While still serving his sentence, Butterfly represented the prison population in discussions with the institution’s administrators about the use of the Inmate Welfare Fund.

The Audit Division said one way the Inmate Welfare Fund is used is to help people with transition costs after release from prison. Montana DOC policy also stated that the fund can be spent on housing assistance. However, Butterfly brought documents dating from 2007 to 2016, which he said showed how the department often used the fund to simply buy bus tickets for people it released.

Those incarcerated contribute to the fund, and the money is supposed to help them succeed as they reintegrate into society, Butterfly said. People coming out of jail need clothes, housing and maybe a phone, Butterfly said.

“We just want to make sure communities understand what this fund is for,” Butterfly said. “And we don’t want that burden to be placed on the community because the funding is already there.”

Between 2019 and 2021, the Inmate Welfare Fund averaged about $650,000 a year in revenue, according to a fact sheet the DOC provided to lawmakers.

The audit flagged as questionable the DOC’s use of the Inmate Welfare Fund to purchase basic hygiene items for indigent people in prison. Between 2019 and 2021, DOC spent about $28,000 per year on these “needy kits,” an estimated total of about $84,000 over three years across five facilities.

DOC prisons provide people with an initial “indigent kit” when they first arrive at a facility, said Carolynn Bright, DOC communications director. Although the contents of the kits varied, they generally contained a toothbrush, toothpaste, soap, comb, shampoo, deodorant, lip balm, flexible pen, notebook paper and five pre-filled envelopes. stamped, Bright said. After that, those incarcerated purchased hygiene items either through the facility’s canteen or applied for destitute status to continue receiving the kits.

While DOC policy allowed the department to use the Inmate Welfare Fund for these kits, the Legislative Audit Division said the state was responsible for basic sanitation and legal communication items. . In response to the audit, Gootkin said the department was not funded for indigent kits and the DOC would seek that funding. If the funding was not provided, the DOC would reconsider its budget, Gootkin said during the audit committee hearing on Tuesday.

In 2019, the DOC also spent $12,000 of the fund on 13 computers and printers allowing incarcerated individuals to access department policy and conduct legal research. The audit found it to be a dubious purchase as “it is well established that adequate access to courts for detainees is a state responsibility”.

The final purchase highlighted by the audit was Crossroads Correctional Center’s use of the fund to pay twice for the $1,350 annual license renewal for the GED curriculum. The total cost to the fund for the two years was $2,700. The auditing division said Crossroads should have paid for the license renewal from its budget.

The audit examined purchases made at DOC’s five secure facilities. This included Montana State Prison, Montana Women’s Prison, Pine Hills Youth Correctional Facility, as well as the two DOC-contracted secure facilities, Dawson County Correctional Facility and Correctional Center of Crossroads.

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