HELENA — The Montana Department of Corrections promised Tuesday to pay back the Inmate Welfare Fund after a June audit uncovered at least $98,000 in questionable purchases made by the department and its facilities over a three-year period.
For the most part, money for the Inmate Welfare Fund is generated by incarcerated people through phone call and canteen purchases. The money is meant to go to the benefit of the people imprisoned in DOC facilities and their families. However, the Montana Legislative Audit Division questioned whether the state made inappropriate use of the fund to pay for things such as basic hygiene items and computers for incarcerated people to do legal research.
DOC Chief Financial Officer Natalie Smitham told the Legislative Audit Committee Tuesday the department was correcting the spending errors.
“By the time we have closed the fiscal year end, 2022,” Smitham said. “Which will take place next month, those errors will be corrected, and those funds will be returned to the IWF.”
In the DOC’s response to the audit’s findings, DOC Director Brian Gootkin said the department would review and update the Inmate Welfare Accounts Policy to clarify what are appropriate expenses.
During the State Legislature’s Interim Law and Justice Committee meeting Monday, Sen. Tom McGillvray, R-Billings, said he would ensure the money was repaid to the Inmate Welfare Fund.
“Because if you take something that’s not yours illegally,” McGillvray said. “That money should be put back.”
Josh Butterfly, who spoke at the audit committee meeting Tuesday, was previously incarcerated at the Montana State Prison. While still serving his sentence, Butterfly representative the incarcerated population in discussions with facility administrators about the use of the Inmate Welfare Fund.
The audit division said one of the ways the Inmate Welfare Fund can be used is to help people with transition costs after they are released from prison. Montana DOC policy also said the fund can be spent on rental assistance. However, Butterfly brought in documents from between 2007 and 2016, which he said showed how the department often used the fund to just buy bus tickets for people it released.
Incarcerated people pay into the fund and the money is supposed to help set them up for success when they reenter society, Butterfly said. People coming out of prison need clothing, housing, and maybe a phone, Butterfly said.
“We just want to make sure that the communities understand what this fund is for,” Butterfly said. “And we don’t want that burden to be put on the community because the funding is already there.”
Between 2019 and 2021, the Inmate Welfare Fund generated on average about $650,000 per year in revenue, according to a fact sheet the DOC provided to legislators.
The audit flagged as questionable the DOC’s use of the Inmate Welfare Fund to buy basic hygiene items for indigent people in prison. Between 2019 and 2021, DOC spent about $28,000 per year on these “indigent kits," amounting to an estimated total of about $84,000 over three years across five facilities.
DOC prisons provide people with an initial “indigent kit” when they first arrive at a facility, said Carolynn Bright, DOC communications director. While the contents of the kits varied, in general it contained a toothbrush, toothpaste, soap, a comb, shampoo, deodorant, lip balm, flexible pen, notebook paper and five pre-stamped envelopes, Bright said. After that, incarcerated people purchased hygiene items either through the facility canteen or they applied for indigent status to continue to receive the kits.
While DOC policy allowed the department to use Inmate Welfare Fund for these kits, the Legislative Audit Division said the state is responsible for basic hygiene and legal communication items. In response to the audit, Gootkin said the department was not funded for indigent kits and DOC would request this funding. If the funding was not provided, the DOC would reexamine its budget, Gootkin said at the audit committee hearing Tuesday.
In 2019, the DOC also spent $12,000 of the fund on 13 computers and printers for incarcerated people to access department policy and do legal research. The audit said this was a questionable purchase as “it is well-established that adequate access to the courts for inmates is a state responsibility.”
The last purchase the audit highlighted was Crossroads Correctional Center’s use of the fund to twice pay for a $1,350 annual license renewal for the GED study program. The total cost to the fund for the two years was $2,700. The audit division said Crossroads should have paid for the license renewal out of its budget.
The audit looked at purchases made across all five DOC secure facilities. This included the Montana State Prison, the Montana Women’s Prison, Pine Hills Youth Correctional Facility, as well as the DOC’s two contracted secure facilities, Dawson County Correctional Facility and Crossroads Correctional Center.