Prison windfall BY JEFF HAWKES, Staff Writer
Ever crave a Milky Way? Inmates do, too.
They're also big on Nutty Bars, cheese Danish and hot cinnamon jawbreakers called Atomic Fireballs.
With no store at Lancaster County Prison and vending machines off limits, prisoners shop by phone, via a county-approved vendor.
Last year, inmates spent $818,608, choosing from a list of about 265 items, ranging from a 15-cent golf-course pencil to a $72 pair of Reeboks.
Georgia-based Oasis Inmate Commissary Services fills and delivers the orders, and the county gets a cut: 37 percent of gross sales (after taxes). Last year, the county pocketed $273,794, officials said.
But that's not the only source of inmate-generated revenue for the county. Inmates make lots of phone calls -- nearly 600 a day -- and the county gets 55 percent of the cost of each call. Phone vendor DSI-ITI, in fact, guarantees the county $400,000 a year.
So what does the county do with the money?
Well, that is the $2 million question.
Or to be precise: the $2,006,184.54 question.
Over more than 10 years, while some money was spent, that sum accumulated in what's known as the county's "store account." Over the past five years, in particular, it appears no one was paying attention to the burgeoning store fund and considering how to spend it.
"A lot of us were shocked," said county Commissioner Scott Martin, recalling the moment last summer when he and others on the prison board found out about the store account money. "No one knew the account was that high. At least it wasn't on the prison board's radar."
(Revenue from inmate phone calls goes into a separate "inmate welfare account," from which regular expenditures are made. Last week, the fund's balance stood at $463,450, officials said.)
Going forward, the store account revenue will be spent on improvements to the prison or to benefit inmates, Martin said. It might be used to purchase recreational equipment or to pay for transportation when inmates are released, for example. He added that the funds won't be used outside the prison.
In the county's $162 million general fund budget, $2 million may be chump change. Yet it is a sum equal to what the county budgets for parks, ag preservation and veterans affairs combined.
Considering the $2 million came completely from the surcharges on inmate phone calls and purchases, is a policy of inmate-generated revenue fair and reasonable?
Warden Dennis Molyneaux, in an interview before going on medical leave March 22, said he thinks it is. The revenue eases the burden on taxpayers, he said, yet the costs to inmates aren't excessive.
The popular Nutty Bar, for example, is only 95 cents. An extra large sweatshirt is $14.50. And a 15-minute phone call costs about $2.20, including 11 percent tax.
"When you look at the average price of the calls, I don't believe that would prevent anybody from contacting their family," Molyneaux said "It's not an exorbitant amount."
Tammy Moyer, the prison's director of administration, said the phone -- there are three in each housing unit -- can give an inmate a rate quote before a call is placed.
Molyneaux, who succeeded Vincent Guarini last year, said he'd like to spend the funds on kitchen equipment, boilers and exterior doors.
Every Monday, a truck from Oasis' Altoona facility arrives at Lancaster County Prison to deliver the inmates' purchases.
An inmate may spend up to $200 a week, but the typical inmate spends about $25 a week, drawing from his or her commissary account, which is replenished either by family and friends or through prison jobs. Roughly two-thirds of the prison's 1,100 inmates get something.
Each inmate's order is individually bagged in Altoona for delivery to the housing units. Inmates must keep itemized receipts as proof that items in their cells weren't stolen from other inmates.
"If we didn't have commissary, our misconducts (prison rule infractions, such as theft) would probably be reduced in half," Lt. Cheryl Steberger said.
"There is a problem with thefts," agreed Mike Weidinger, work release administrator, "but without (commissary), there could be problems, too. It's something (inmates) look forward to."
When deliveries arrive, blocks often echo with cries of "Store!"
"They're as happy as little children at Christmas," said Briann Lynn Adams, an Oasis employee known as "Miss Lynn," who has been wheeling the "store" cart from block to block at the prison for over 10 years. "I hear a lot of 'We love you, Miss Lynn.' "
nOfficials surprised to learn inmates' purchases, phone calls generate $2 million for county's "store account."