The Erie County sheriff has been spending a pot of money derived from inmates – hundreds of thousands of dollars – on general law enforcement needs rather than on inmate-betterment programs, the county comptroller says in an audit he made public Thursday.
County Comptroller David J. Shenk said the money derived from the premium that inmates pay to place telephone calls has gone to buy a new computer system for the sheriff’s Jail Management Division, new Chevrolet Tahoes and trained police dogs for the sheriff’s road patrol.
Telephone revenue also went for furniture for the sheriff’s new office in the Ticor Building near Old County Hall and for new “cut-down knives” – the knives used to quickly cut nooses when inmates hang themselves – because the old set had become dull, according to both his auditors and sheriff’s officials.
However, Shenk agreed that while he thinks the money should go to inmate-betterment programs, the state does not place such a restriction on a jail’s telephone profits, so he could not say that Sheriff Timothy B. Howard’s team has violated state law.
The state Commission of Correction does require that a jail’s “commissary” profits – from the sale of snacks, candy, clothing, reading materials, batteries – must be used for 'prisoner welfare and rehabilitation,” and those dollars were, for the most part, used properly, auditors found.
Shenk’s auditors were following up on an audit from 2007. At that time, county auditors asserted that more than $900,000 from the commissary fund went toward expenses that should have been paid from the general fund. This year, auditors looked at $3 million in sheriff’s spending – backed by both commissary revenues and telephone revenue – over 17 months, from Jan. 1, 2011, to May 31 of this year.
They found that 74 percent of the spending was proper. But they found that 26 percent – nearly $780,000 – was “questionable” or “unacceptable” in part because it was backed by telephone revenue and, in their view, should be directed toward prisoner welfare and rehabilitation, not the sheriff’s general operations.
Though there is no such restriction, the Sheriff’s Office still argued that the purchases promote inmate welfare, rehabilitation or safety. For example, the sheriff and his immediate staff are moving into the Ticor Building to make room for an expanded health center in the downtown jail, the Erie County Holding Center. Therefore, Undersheriff Mark N. Wipperman said in a letter to auditors, the $6,655 spent on furniture for the new office could be linked to inmate needs and therefore was not “unacceptable,’’ as the auditors labeled it.
He justified the “questionable’’ purchase of another $131,000 of furniture for the Erie County Correctional Facility in Alden as necessary because it replaced 25-year-old stock that was considered dangerous to both staff and inmates.
Similarly, he reasoned that $271,700 from inmate-provided revenue that was spent on new patrol vehicles was an acceptable expense, rather than an unacceptable expense as the auditors termed it, because road patrol vehicles are often used to drive inmates to court appearances and medical visits, and the Chevrolet Tahoes are safer for inmates than the high-mileage fleet of Ford Crown Victorias.
Trained dogs can find drugs being spirited into the jails, making the surroundings safer for inmates, Wipperman said.
He justified the $162,700 spent on an electrified sensor wire at the correctional facility as better for inmates because it spares them from razor-wire injuries.
The nearly $14,000 spent on inmate ID bracelets, Wipperman wrote, ensures that “they are not delayed in facility movement, medical call, court appearances, etc.’’
Most of the purchases were made after sheriff’s officials were denied money by the county executive or, in the case of the new vehicles, from the state-appointed financial control board.
As for the new cut-down knives, those were an emergency purchase, Wipperman said in his letter to the auditors.
The Holding Center often leads the state in its suicide rate, and the jail’s rate of inmate deaths drew special attention from the U.S. Justice Department when it sued to improve inmate conditions and installed a new system designed to thwart suicide attempts and better identify suicidal defendants.
In recent years, the jail has had anywhere from two to five suicides or attempted suicides annually. Jail deputies who spot a hanging inmate immediately try to free them by cutting the sheet or the shoelace used to tie the noose.
“The Sheriff’s Office made an emergency purchase of several ‘cut-down’ knives to be used in incidents of attempted inmate suicide,” Wipperman explained in his letter to the auditors. “The existing knives were dull and had to be replaced immediately.”