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Charleston jail has fund meant to help inmates. Who benefits is not always clear.

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A portion of every Honey Bun, bag of chips and pair of socks bought by people held at the Charleston County jail is earmarked for their benefit.

Since 2015, those inmate purchases have generated more than $2.8 million for the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office, which runs the jail, records show.

While that is small compared to the facility's $40 million annual budget, the money made from inmate purchases has few restrictions. The only requirement is that the profits be used for "overall inmate welfare," according to South Carolina law. 

In Charleston, it is not always clear who benefits.

The Sheriff’s Office used the majority of its recent profits to pay for inmate services such as drug and alcohol counseling and the salaries of a programs manager and jail chaplains. But records show it also spent hundreds of thousands of dollars since 2015 to outfit and train a special team of detention deputies designed to handle minor skirmishes as well as potential uprisings. That includes paying for ammunition and overtime expenses. 

Other jails in the state also use their profits to make large purchases, like facility upgrades, laundry equipment and vehicles to transport inmates. But the sheer amount of money Charleston receives eclipses that of other large jails.

That has created a constant flow of money into an account which some see as having few rules limiting what it can be spent on, no matter what benefit it has for inmates. 

Although the fund is no secret, some local defense attorneys said they were unaware that it existed until they were contacted by The Post and Courier.

Cameron Blazer, a Mount Pleasant attorney, said she would like more of the money to go toward expanding the jail's substance abuse and mental health programs.   

"If the powers that be at the jail would welcome suggestions about how my clients' welfare could be improved, I’m happy to provide a list," Blazer said. "And riot teams aren’t at the top.”

In recent interviews, top Sheriff’s Office leaders acknowledged that the restrictions governing the fund are vague, giving them leeway to spend the money as they see fit. But they insisted they have done nothing wrong and are using the profits to benefit inmates. They pointed to payments for job training and for medical and religious supplies. 

The money spent on the specialized team of officers helps make the jail safer overall, they said, for both staff and inmates.

"I don’t know of anything that is more important than creating that sense, and the fact that the inmates are safe in the facility," Sheriff Al Cannon said. 

K9 .jpg

Detention Deputy David Samios walks with Trout, a contraband dog, as they patrol the perimeter of the Charleston County jail on Thursday, Sept. 10, 2020. Veterinary bills and other expenses for the dog are paid for with money from the Charleston Sheriff's Office inmate welfare fund. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

‘Nice to have’

All jails in South Carolina are allowed to spend profits from items sold to inmates in the convenience store-like operations they run in jails, called commissaries or canteens. For large facilities like Charleston, it presents a lucrative opportunity.

Located in the state's third-most-populous county, the Charleston jail houses a steady number of people on state charges. The Sheriff’s Office additionally brings in millions of dollars annually to detain people accused of federal crimes. It also makes money on what those inmates spend.

Inmates have accounts, which can be replenished by loved ones, to buy items from the commissary. Along with food and drinks, those in the jail can order T-shirts, holiday cards and reading glasses using an electronic kiosk system in housing units. They can only spend a maximum of $100 per week.

Still, the profit on inmate purchases is large. The agency makes 44 cents for every dollar spent on commissary items, Willis Beatty, the jail’s administrator, said.

During the most recent budget year, commissary sales generated more than $620,000 for the inmate welfare fund, a 25 percent increase from four years earlier. That came even as the jail saw a drop in its overall population due to the coronavirus pandemic.

McDaniel Supply Co., based in Georgia, runs the commissary sales for the jail. Beatty’s wife, Janene Prock-Beatty, works as an account manager for McDaniel. She said in an interview Wednesday that she is not personally involved in the company’s handling of the Charleston account.

Mitch Lucas, the county’s assistant sheriff, said all of the money from the fund is spent to benefit inmates, going above and beyond what the facility already provides. The Sheriff's Office purchases bus passes for people getting out of jail and computers for inmate training with the money, according to interviews and records.

"Typically, this is not the 'have-to-have' list, but this is the 'be-nice-to-have' list,” he said. "If we didn’t pay any of the expenses out of here, the jail would still run."

But money from the fund also has paid for services with less direct benefits to inmates.

In 2016, it was used to buy Labrador retrievers for the jail that were trained to detect drugs and cellphones. The fund was later reimbursed for the dogs, according to the Sheriff's Office. But the fund has been used to cover more than $17,000 in follow-up veterinary care and supplies for the dogs, along with cellphone charges and membership fees to a professional group for their handlers, records show.

Beatty said the dogs keep the facility safe by reducing the presence of contraband.

"If somebody was to (overdose) in here because of drugs, we’d be really trying to explain that one to everybody," he said.

As of Sept. 1, the dogs had found four cellphones since 2016, according to the Sheriff's Office, and uncovered drugs on 20 occasions. 

Special Operations Group.jpg

Special Operations Group team members Capt. Lindsey Fickett and Anthony Fishburne walk the halls of the Charleston County jail on Thursday, Sept. 10, 2020. Some of the team's training, overtime and equipment expenses are covered by the Charleston Sheriff's Office inmate welfare fund. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

Riot control

Charleston officials have used the inmate welfare fund to cover large expenses for the jail’s 12-member Special Operations Group, a full-time outfit similar to a SWAT team.

The total is more than $438,000 since July of 2015, which includes payments for gear, uniforms, and training sessions for riot control, "Dynamic Cell Extraction" and "High Risk Security Patrol," records show. 

The team’s training alone has led to hundreds of thousands of dollars in expenses, not just for instruction but also for overtime racked up by the group’s members.

But the money spent for the team from the inmate welfare fund in recent years is even larger: The agency also uses it to pay for employment benefits, like insurance, accrued by members during that overtime. The total amount of those benefits could not immediately be determined, as it was not itemized in county and Sheriff’s Office records reviewed by The Post and Courier.

Joseph Garcia, who has led training sessions for the special operations team at the jail, did not respond to multiple efforts to reach him by phone and email. His current company, Corrections Special Applications Unit, touts its ability to “understand and mitigate inmate insurrection and emergencies.”

Garcia has also trained officers at jails in other states, according to media reports.

In 2009, Garcia was in Charleston for a three-week training for the jail's newly created Special Operations Group, according to a Post and Courier article at the time.

During a demonstration, he advised officers to first talk with an inmate during a tense situation. If the inmate was not following orders, he advised the officers to use a laser pointer on their shotgun. 

If that didn’t work, the officers could load their shotguns.

"Once we do that, the inmate knows we are not playing," Garcia said at the time.

Records provided by the Sheriff's Office show that team members respond to requests to restrain inmates along with other incidents, including assaults and suicide attempts. 

Lucas, the assistant sheriff, was the jail’s administrator when the Special Operations Group was formed. In an interview, he said the deputies on the team are like cops on the side of a busy highway: They can deter law-breaking behavior just by their presence.

"It more than paid for itself, as far as I’m concerned," Lucas said of the team.

Beatty, the current jail administrator, said the special operations team is not just for deterrence. Its members are there to quell a riot that might break out in a housing unit, where an unarmed officer can be stationed alone with 64 inmates.

Unlike at other jails in the state, where that officer would have to wait for aiding deputies to don equipment, Charleston’s special operations team can respond immediately, he said.

"Put yourself in an officer’s position,” Beatty said. “Can you realize how long a minute is waiting on somebody to arrive to help you put that fight down?"

Kristin Graziano, a Charleston County deputy who is running against Cannon for sheriff, said the money spent for the team is "totally inappropriate," adding it appeared Sheriff's Office leaders use the profits as a "slush fund." Cannon placed Graziano on leave in February, saying her decision to run against him poses an inherent conflict that undermines his programs and policies.

Cannon has faced little political opposition since he was first elected in 1988.

Few restrictions

Other jail administrators in the state use significant portions of their inmate welfare money on large expenses, such as buying and outfitting vehicles used to move inmates, interviews and records show. But Charleston is unusual in using its money to pay for a Special Operations Group team and for contraband dogs.

Commissary .jpg

Inmates can order food and other items from the Charleston County jail's commissary using a kiosk inside their housing units. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

The Spartanburg County jail, like Charleston, also has a dedicated special operations team. But if team members need new boots, the money comes out of the Sheriff’s Office budget set aside for uniforms. The same goes for training, said Mark Freeman, an administrative lieutenant at the Spartanburg jail. 

Also, profits generated from the jail’s commissary sales go to the county, not to a dedicated inmate welfare fund, Freeman said. Spartanburg does not have a police dog dedicated to the jail. 

Neither does Greenville County's jail, which is run by county officials, not the Sheriff’s Office. Even though the county has more residents and makes a higher profit on each commissary item sold, its inmate welfare fund brought in 30 percent less money than Charleston's during its most recent budget year, records show. 

John Vandermosten, an assistant Greenville County administrator, said he will ask the Sheriff’s Office to send a dog to the jail a couple of times a year to do searches. The facility does not have a separate special operations team, he said, but has deputies who are trained to respond to a major incident.

The Berkeley County Sheriff's Office used its fund only four times during its last budget year: for a down payment on a temporary kitchen, disinfectant spray for the coronavirus, and the salary for a jail chaplain. The total spent was just under $50,000, according to records the agency provided. In past years, the Sheriff's Office has used the fund for facility renovations and legal assistance for inmates.

Inmate welfare funds “shall be used for overall inmate welfare” and jail administrators "shall have final authority on expenditures," according to the state's minimum jail standards. 

Robert Benfield, director of risk management services for the South Carolina Association of Counties, wrote in an email that as long as jail officials "can articulate that the use of these funds benefits the safety, security, and overall welfare of the inmates," they are in compliance.

The Charleston County Sheriff's Office has a policy for its fund that says the money shall be used "for the benefit and welfare of the inmate population," be spent for inmate programs and be available in the event of a natural disaster or emergency. For example, officials used the fund for a disinfecting machine and other cleaning supplies this June in the midst of a rapid rise in coronavirus cases in the region, records show.

Lucas, the assistant sheriff, said all of the money spent from the fund has to be approved either by him, Beatty or Cannon.

"We’ve done what we’re supposed to do and within the confines of what restrictions there is on it, which are very little," Lucas, a former president of the American Jail Association, said.

Still, Graziano, the sheriff candidate, contends there are "no checks and balances" on the fund. 

The last time the fund was audited by the county was 2001, which Lucas said he was unaware of. "It was an oversight on our part," he said. “And we’re going to correct that very quickly.”

Shirene Hansotia, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina, said it appears the law "was written to be purposely vague, creating leeway for jails to use these funds for almost anything."

The fund can create an incentive to hold more people in jail, whether officials intend to do so, or not, she said.

"I think most detainees would argue that the Special Operations Group and contraband dogs are not there for their general welfare," Hansotia said.

Paying for work

Some Charleston County inmates also receive a share of the commissary profits, in exchange for work they do in and out of the jail.

Since 2015, the Sheriff’s Office has used more than $146,000 of the money to pay for inmate labor, records show, which includes laundry work, mopping floors and cleaning other parts of the facility, Beatty said.

The amount would have been higher if not for a reduction in the jail’s overall population, along with limits on what jobs inmates can work because of the coronavirus pandemic, Beatty said.

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An inmate picks up snacks he got through the commissary at the Sheriff Al Cannon Detention Center on Thursday, Sept. 10, 2020, in North Charleston. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

Lisa Foster is co-director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center, a Washington, D.C., organization. It calls for the elimination of criminal justice fees and for equity in how fines in the system are imposed and enforced.

She was surprised that profits from the commissary sales are used to pay for inmate labor, since it was likely that the people making the money would turn around and use it to buy snacks and other goods. That would mean some inmates are essentially working for free, since the money they make might go straight back into jail coffers.

"We shouldn’t be forcing the people who are inside the system to pay for the system," she said.

Foster questioned the very idea of inmate welfare funds, which pay for programs out of inmates' own pockets, many of whom have little money to spare. 

Lucas said the agency is not trying to run the facility to make money.

"We’re just trying to run a good jail," he said. 

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Fleming Smith covers crime and public safety for the Charleston area. A native Georgian, she previously covered breaking news and features for The Wall Street Journal and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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