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By Nan L. Haynes

Last month Erie County Comptroller David J. Shenk reported that the county Sheriff’s Office spent nearly $780,000 derived from prisoners’ telephone calls on “law enforcement needs” such as Chevy Tahoes and office furniture instead of programs to benefit prisoners. The comptroller is correct when he states that the sheriff did nothing illegal; he did, however, violate the spirit of two state laws.

One is a statute that prohibits the state Department of Corrections from making a profit from prisoners’ telephone calls, and requires that it set telephone services for prisoners in state facilities at the lowest possible cost to prisoners. The purpose of the law is to ensure that inmates can maintain contact with their loved ones without creating an undue financial burden on the inmate or the recipient of inmate calls.

The law doesn’t cover county facilities such as the Holding Center or the Erie County Correctional Facility in Alden. Thus, the sheriff is free to contract with a telephone provider without regard to the rate prisoners in his custody are charged for telephone calls. The result is that prisoners in Erie County jails who want to maintain contact with their families face the financial burden of paying a $1.75 connection fee and 10 cents a minute for each local call. Since they are not allowed to have cellphones, prisoners have no choice but to pay this exorbitant price.

The other law is a state regulation that mandates any profit made from the sale of food and personal care items to prisoners be spent on programs to benefit prisoner welfare and rehabilitation. The regulation is part of a statutory scheme to secure the humane and economic administration of jails. It ensures that profits from the sale of goods to prisoners, who have no choice about where to shop, are used to benefit the prisoners.

The sheriff’s office made $507,362.80 from prisoner telephone calls in 2011. Yet it claims it doesn’t have funds to finance much-needed programs for prisoners at the county jail and the Holding Center.

As vice chairwoman of the Erie County Community Corrections Advisory Board, I know that there are virtually no programs at the Holding Center and that there are very few at the county jail. I also know that educational and vocational training programs reduce recidivism and increase employment prospects upon release.

If the sheriff chooses to make a profit from telephone calls made by prisoners in his custody, then he ought to spend the money on programs that benefit prisoners and, by extension, taxpayers. We all have an economic stake in making sure that prisoners released from our jails don’t return.

Nan L. Haynes is vice chairwoman of the Erie County Community Corrections Advisory Board and a member of the University at Buffalo Law School faculty.