BANGOR, Maine — The administration and spending of inmate benefit accounts varies among Maine’s county jails, and oversight of the funds at the state level does not involve close inspection of checks and receipts, according to several sheriffs and corrections officials.
The indictment on May 4 of former Washington County Sheriff Donnie Smith raised questions about how inmate benefit funds are handled in county jails. Smith, 62, of Lubec is accused of illegally us ing money from the fund at the Washington County Jail.
Every jail in the state maintains an inmate benefit fund, according to Kennebec County Sheriff Randall Liberty, the immediate past president of the Maine Sheriffs’ Association. Exactly where the money comes from and on what it is spent differs slightly from one facility to another, but its purpose is the same everywhere.
The money in the funds must be spent to directly benefit inmates, and income may not go to jail operating budgets, according to the state Department of Corrections jail standards. The income for the fund comes from money spent by inmates, primarily on phone calls and in jail commissaries.
Jails tend to spend the money on basic cable television; exercise equipment; haircuts; reading material, such as newspapers and books; and educational opportunities for inmates, according to an informal survey of sheriffs around the state.
“Following best practices and having external controls” has resulted in better outcomes at the Augusta jail, Liberty said.
“I think you will find varying levels of sophistication among the counties,” he said. “Some have a very large staff and overhead, and then some are 20-bed facilities.”
Many inspections — but none close
Oversight of inmate benefit funds is included the yearly inspection of every jail in the state by the Maine Department of Corrections. Each county also conducts an annual independent audit of its finances, which includes the jails.
Those inspections include verification that the funds were included in an audit and that it was performed by a certified accountant, according to Ryan Anderson, manager of correctional operations for the DOC.
The inspections also include a review of a list of expenditures from the inmate benefit funds, which is provided by the sheriff at each facility to verify purchases benefited inmates.
Inspectors, however, do not review receipts or checks and do not keep a copy of the list of expenditures, Anderson said.
A BDN review of recent inspection reports of the Washington County Jail yielded only one mention of the inmate benefits account, which was in 2013, the year after the county investigated the fund and uncovered illegal purchases.
Anderson, who has been in his position since August, had no information about how the firing and resignation of two jail employees in Washington County in 2013 over their handling of the inmate benefit fund might have affected oversight of the jail system.
Ralph Nichols and Bob Lancaster, who retired in July, oversaw inspections between 2007 and 2012. Efforts to reach them for this story were unsuccessful.
The now defunct Board of Corrections also required a separate audit, according to Scott Ferguson, director of the Corrections Service Center in the Maine Division of Financial and Personnel Services.
The most recent audits would have covered the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2014, and likely will be the last, as the future of the Board of Corrections is uncertain given a lack of support from Gov. Paul LePage.
Counties keep tabs
In the Penobscot County Jail, income for the fund also comes from phone calls and commissary sales, Sheriff Troy Morton said. The biggest expense is for educational services. Since the beginning of 2015, the jail had spent $10,400 for an instructor. The jail also spent about $3,800 to maintain the recreational yard and pay for exercise equipment.
“That fund also supports our community service program,” Morton said. “It pays for tools, gas and repairs to the van in which we transport prisoners on work crews. It also pays for the drug test inmates who want to work outside the jail must take before they can qualify.”
The inmate benefit fund, which had a balance on May 6 of about $68,000 at the jail in Bangor, has paid more than $1,500 toward gas and van repairs, according to a report on expenditures obtained by the Bangor Daily News. Nearly $1,100 had been spent on drug tests.
Morton said expenditures from the fund must be approved by the sheriff. Checks are written by his administrative assistant.
The sheriff regularly attends the weekly meeting of the Penobscot County Commissioners and reports large or unusual purchases made from the account such as the purchase of recreational equipment and repairs to the recreational yard.
Last year, the Kennebec County Jail spent $3,000 to purchase a piece of stationary athletic equipment. Before doing so, the chief deputy, sheriff and county commissioners, who by statute have fiscal responsibility over all county operations, must approve the expenditure.
The Kennebec County Jail inmate benefit fund contains about $60,000, the sheriff said.
“And in Kennebec County, the county treasurer reviews [the request] if appropriate, and if a flag goes up, the county manager picks up the phone and calls me,” Liberty said. But for any purchase of more than $500 to $1,000, Liberty said he contacts county commissioners in advance.
Furthermore, he said, an internal audit and an external audit by an accounting firm “look for anomalies” in Kennebec County.
Somerset County Sheriff Dale Lancaster said income for the inmate benefit fund comes from fines levied on inmates for disciplinary infractions and fees for visits by video conference, as well as from commissary and phone call income.
“The fund pays for things the jail is not obligated to provide,” Lancaster said. “In Somerset County, that’s the basic cable TV bill, recreation equipment and newspaper subscriptions. We also contract with SAD 54 to provide educational opportunities so inmates can earn their GED.”
The sheriff said about $36,000 was in the account.
Lancaster also said some money from the fund was used a few years ago to pay for computers to allow inmates to take courses at Kennebec Valley Community College in Fairfield.
Inmates must pay tuition to take classes and cannot use the computers to access the Internet, the sheriff said.
‘Trying to be careful’
In Washington County, income for the inmate benefit fund comes from profits from the jail commissary and the phone calls made by inmates, which must be paid for in advance.
Former sheriff Smith was indicted by the Washington County grand jury on one count each of theft by unauthorized taking, theft by misapplication of funds and misuse of entrusted property between 2007 and 2012 following an investigation by the Maine attorney general’s office.
Smith allegedly spent a little more than $11,700 from the inmate benefit fund for gift cards for corrections staff, charitable donations, Christmas gifts and uniforms, according to Matt Foster, district attorney for Washington and Hancock counties.
Smith lost his re-election bid last fall to current Sheriff Barry Curtis.
Curtis said steps were put in place more than two years ago to change how expenditures from the inmate benefit fund are handled, after two jail employees were accused of using funds inappropriately.
“The sheriff, the chief deputy or the jail administrator can approve the expenditure of funds but we don’t have access to the checkbook,” the sheriff said Tuesday. “Checks can only be written by the county treasurer or the assistant treasurer.”
As of May 11, $82,761 was in the inmate benefit fund at the 46-bed facility, Curtis said.
A copy of spending records at the Washington County Jail between Jan. 1 and April 23, 2015 obtained by the BDN showed revenue of $7,934, primarily from the commissary, and expenditures of $5,893, mostly to operate the commissary and pay for cable TV.
“We’re trying to be very careful in how this money is spent because of the history of how it’s been used,” he said.
BDN writer Beth Brogan contributed to this report.