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Sheriff's jail fund is under county review

Questions about how the Sheriff's Office spends profits from sales of candy and other items to inmates in the county jails has prompted county auditors to investigate the fund.

The County Comptroller's review of the commissary fund comes at a time when a citizens jail advisory board has suggested using the money to fund an independent ombudsman who could look into jail complaints.

"We felt it was a good, timely one," said Comptroller David Shenk. "We hadn't really looked into that since 2007."

Auditors plan to review how the Sheriff's Office spends money made from the sale of items to inmates and from charges for telephone calls, as well as whether the prices for both services are appropriate.

Sheriff Timothy Howard has control over the commissary fund, but he is limited by state law to spending the money only on items "for purposes of prisoner welfare and rehabilitation."

The last time the Comptroller's Office audited the jail commissary fund was in 2007, when auditors found that $857,426 from the account had been inappropriately used to pay for inmate prescriptions to help make up for county budget cuts in 2005.

Undersheriff Mark N. Wipperman said the Sheriff's Office is fully cooperating with the latest review and has told the comptroller in a letter that the office is "confident" that it will confirm that the office administers the commissary and telephone funds according to state rules and regulations.

"We welcome it," Wipperman said of the comptroller's review. "If we're doing something wrong, let us know."

Shenk said the latest review was prompted by a letter from an inmate who complained that prices for commissary items sold in the Holding Center and the Correctional Facility were too high, and who asked county auditors to look into how those profits were being spent.

That letter also raised concerns that jail grievances aren't being properly investigated -- a claim the comptroller forwarded to the Professional Standards Division of the Sheriff's Office.

"Standard procedure is if we get a complaint about prisoner treatment, it goes to Internal Affairs," said Michael R. Szukala, deputy comptroller for audit.

Wipperman said items sold at the commissary in the Holding Center and the Correctional Facility are marked up "slightly" to make a profit as allowed under state law. That money is then used to purchase items such as washers, dryers and microwaves that can be used by inmates in some housing areas, as well as other supplies that include law library materials, hair care supplies and flat-screen televisions that inmates can watch, Wipperman said.

The Sheriff's Office also uses a portion of the commissary funds to pay a weekly stipend to clergy who conduct religious services for inmates in the Holding Center and Correctional Facility, Wipperman said.

The Sheriff's Office is in the process of seeking vendors that could operate kiosks within the jail that would allow inmates to order commissary items and to lodge grievances electronically. Wipperman said he expects the county to issue a "request for proposal" for those services within the next few weeks.