The Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office employees booked a trip to the Beach Retreat & Lodge at Tahoe, a laid-back hotel on the south shore that touts beach access, in-unit fireplaces and balconies. There’s a view from every room.
The November 2019 reservation for six people cost $2,018 — paid by Sacramento County’s inmates and their loved ones.
Out-of-pocket fees from inmate phone calls and items such as toothpaste, potato chips and shaving cream have also paid for county employees to fly Southwest Airlines to San Diego and stay at the historic Millennium Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, a Sacramento Bee review of financial records found.
Since 2014, Sacramento County has collected roughly $5 million each year from the phone call and commissary fees at the county’s two jails, records show. That money has been deposited into an inmate welfare fund, originally designed to pay for programs and services that benefit people locked inside — such as education or reentry job training.
But hundreds of pages of financial ledgers The Bee received in response to a Public Records Act request detail how the sheriff’s office over six years has increasingly leaned on the inmate fund to backfill its budgets and buy expensive new equipment. Millions of dollars from the fund have been spent on employee salaries and even facility fencing.
Sheriff Scott Jones’ staff used the fund to purchase a $1.45 million camera system in 2018 — the single most expensive purchase listed in financial records reviewed by The Bee. They also took more than $900,000 from the welfare fund to pay for radio leases, surveillance cameras, and inmate tracking software.
In the past two years, the staff spent at least $12,000 for flights and lodging, apparently for conferences. The spending also has included $1 million for parking lot improvements, $150,000 for perimeter fences, and more than $15 million in employee salaries since 2014.
Those equipment and salary expenses have historically come from the department’s general fund, which relies on county taxpayers, instead of the inmate welfare fund, which is built on the backs of the incarcerated and their families.
“That needs to come out of his core budget!” said Holly Mitchell, a former state senator who has worked on overhauling how the jail funds are spent, raising her voice when told about Sheriff Jones’ spending. “How does he justify that that’s not a part of this core budget? That’s what his budget is for.”
For Mitchell and others, the practice shows the sheriff is profiting from incarcerated people and their families. “Frankly, that’s offensive,” said Mitchell.
Paying for flights with fees from inmates and their families who already contribute to the sheriff’s budget through normal county taxes is “in effect a double tax,” she said.
Nevertheless, it’s also most likely legal, thanks to a tough-on-crime era change in California law. Sheriffs across the state now have significant leeway in how they spend money from inmates and their families — a change that Gov. Gavin Newsom recently chose to leave in place indefinitely after lobbying from the powerful California State Sheriffs’ Association.
The Bee sent the sheriff’s office a list of 10 questions with detailed findings related to the inmate welfare fund. A spokesman declined to comment.
Inmate program spending far less than for salaries
The Bee found that in some years, more than 9 out of every 10 dollars from the inmate welfare fund was spent on personnel salaries, benefits, training and facility maintenance. Salaries and maintenance accounted for between 66% and 93% of the money spent from the inmate welfare fund.
Meanwhile, programs that directly benefit inmates, like the law library and inmate education, account for, at most, 31% of expenses. Most years, those programs cost less than $1 million, The Bee found, and those expenses hardly changed in at least the last two fiscal years.
Revenue generated for the fund has grown in at least three of the last six years. By the end of the 2019 fiscal year, the sheriff’s office had a $7 million fund balance left over.
“That sounds to me like a slush fund that they’re just drawing from,” said Kyra Kazantzis, the head of a Bay Area nonprofit association who previously won a $1.5 million settlement after suing Santa Clara County’s jail administrators for similar spending patterns.
Kazantzis said the expenses in Sacramento — especially the travel — were particularly bold.
She said the challenge then and now is the “gaping hole” in state law. The rules say money must be “primarily for the benefit, education, and welfare” of those locked inside. Any money “not needed for the welfare of the inmates” can be used for maintenance and salaries “deemed appropriate by the sheriff.”
“What I remember saying for a really long time is that there’s never going to be a situation in which those funds are not needed for the welfare and education of inmates,” Kazantzis said.
“There just isn’t, you know, a limit on the support that the folks in the jail need.”
During the pandemic, people in county jails across California were locked in their cells for most of the day. In-custody education and training were hindered or canceled because of social distancing rules. In-person visits were banned for most of the year.
And business was good for the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office.
Ledgers show the county raked in more than $3 million in revenue from the downtown jail store and phone calls between July 2020 and May — a 38% increase from the complete year prior and 70% more than the year before that.
Despite holding hundreds of fewer people, the jail collected more than twice as much in phone fees in the past year as it did in 2018.
Jones derides ‘defund’ push, turns to welfare fund
Local watchdogs across California have routinely flagged sheriffs’ questionable spending from the inmate welfare fund. Grand jurors have said officials in Orange County weren’t spending enough on in-custody services.
They criticized the San Diego County Sheriff’s Office for using the money to buy toilets. And five years ago, the ACLU blasted Butte County officials for attempting to pull $650,000 from their inmate welfare fund to help pay for an entirely new jail.
Steve Meinrath, who previously worked as an ACLU advocate and as legal counsel for California Legislature, said at the time the plan was illegal and bad for public policy.
He called Sacramento County’s spending on infrastructure and travel “revolting.”
“I know the statute gives sheriffs a lot of leeway, but that must be a violation of the law, or the law is utterly meaningless,” Meinrath said. “Regardless, using money from inmate families for these kinds of expenses that don’t benefit inmates at all is just disgusting.”
Standing before the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors at a budget meeting last September, Jones attempted to beat back the growing calls to redistribute his agency’s outsize share funding. Calls were growing to “defund the police” and funnel money instead toward social services.
That was unfair and dangerous, Jones argued. Moving money around wasn’t the answer.
“Importantly,” Jones said, “it means taking money specifically from law enforcement as opposed to any other source and reallocating it for other purposes.”
Ten days later, records show, Jones took $159,000 from the inmate welfare fund and reallocated it to buy a body scanner to help detect contraband being smuggled into the jail. This spring, the sheriff’s office shelled out another $400,000 for security cameras from the inmate welfare fund.
A change in law, and a veto
Gov. Newsom waded into the debate over the use of inmate funds soon after taking office, after Mitchell, then a powerful Democrat in the California Senate, introduced a bill that would have capped the markups on phone calls and commissary items and redefined some aspects of how inmate welfare funds could be spent.
It would have required the money be used “solely” for incarcerated peoples’ benefit.
“You could drive the truck through the current definition,” said Mitchell, now a county supervisor in Los Angeles County, in an interview with The Bee.
More than 50 legal and justice-focused groups signed on to her bill, SB 555. The only opposition? The powerful California State Sheriffs’ Association.
In its letter of opposition, the group argued that the proposed changes would be detrimental to inmates because those fees pay for some recreational activities, education and personal hygiene items.
It would be “highly unlikely,” they wrote, that counties could backfill the lost revenue. And that would inevitably make it more difficult for sheriffs to cover their costs, especially those incurred because of California’s decade-long prison downsizing project, called realignment.
Lawmakers passed the bill anyway last summer. But in September, Newsom vetoed it.
In a letter explaining his decision, Newsom said he supported easing the burdens on inmates and their families. But then he echoed the sheriffs’ opposition: “I am concerned it will have the unintended consequence of reducing important rehabilitative and educational programming.”
“I was mad as hell,” Mitchell said about the veto.
In his letter last fall, Newsom said he was “committed to working with the Legislature and stakeholders” on a solution in the next legislative session.
But this spring, there was no apparent mention of reforming the inmate welfare fund laws in the legislature. Aside from reducing phone call costs at the state’s prisons in March, the governor’s office did not address the issue.
“Legislation was not introduced this year,” a spokesperson for Newsom’s office said in a statement for this story. “The Administration remains committed to addressing this issue, as evidenced by its recent actions on the State level. The Administration looks forward to working with the legislature and stakeholders should legislation be introduced.”
News radio, Foosball and security cameras
The inmate welfare funds have a long history in California that stretches to 1949, when Gov. Earl Warren authorized county sheriffs to run a small store inside the jail that sold tobacco, candy and other sundries. Any profits would go into a new inmate welfare fund.
Seven years later, Sacramento County Sheriff Don Cox announced the first major project he hoped to fund with that money. A new jail was under construction at the corner of 7th and H Streets, and Cox had accumulated an “embarrassingly large” inmate welfare fund, according to archived news reports.
His solution? Install an approximately $40,000 sound system that would broadcast AM and FM radio news reports, music and announcements across the jail. Officials called it a “godsent gadget.”
“It helps to relax some prisoners,” Cox said. “It takes their minds off being in jail for a while. After all, part of our job is to rehabilitate inmates.”
So it went for decades. In 1986, Sacramento jail officials spent some $7,500 from the inmate welfare fund to outfit a 2,500-square-foot recreational room with ping pong tables, gym weights, and two arcade-style video games. It also included a “soccer-type table game most widely known as ‘Foosball,’” news reports said.
But then came the tough-on-crime era of the 1990s.
The night before a major vote on the state budget in 1993, Republicans were threatening to withdraw their support. In a last-ditch effort to win back their votes, Assemblyman Dean Andal, R-Stockton, drafted a plan that would radically change the future of the inmate welfare fund.
Until then, the fund was “solely” for the “benefit, education and welfare” of those locked in jails.
Andal’s proposal called for inmate welfare funds instead to be “primarily” for programs. That subtle change to one word in California law gave the green light for counties to use the money to pay for salaries, maintenance and other purposes “deemed appropriate by the sheriff.”
“It’s been a longtime axe I’ve been grinding,” Andal said at the time. “I really think inmates should pay for more of their upkeep.”
Gov. Pete Wilson signed the changes into law that summer. It’s remained largely the same ever since.
‘A problem that needs to be fixed’
The following year, in 1994, Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office brass spent $1.1 million on in-car computers. They used the inmate welfare fund to backfill the hole in their budget and said it fit squarely within the new law.
They later used inmate welfare funds to pay for a computer service that alerts victims when perpetrators are released from jail. A judge decided it was allowed, partly because there was an option that would allow inmates to receive voicemails, a benefit to them.
And the sheriff came under scrutiny in 2009 when officials spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on security cameras, closed-circuit television and construction at the Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center.
They again said it was well within “the spirit and letter of the law.”
Danica Rodarmel, state policy director for the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, has reviewed spending reports from jails across the state. In the years since that 1993 deal, sheriffs across the state have accumulated massive inmate welfare fund surpluses, paid for expensive projects and let spending on in-custody programming flatline.
She was hopeful change was finally coming last year, until Newsom vetoed Mitchell’s bill.
It’s made clear how badly reforms are needed, she said.
“If sheriffs feel like they don’t have flexible funding to spend on things like that available, that’s a problem,” Rodarmel said. “And that’s a problem that needs to be fixed. But it should not be fixed by egregious prices paid by people who are just trying to keep in touch with loved ones who really can’t afford to pay for that.”