Ask almost anyone who's spent time in the Durham County Detention Facility what it's like and you'll hear three things: The food sucks, it's cold, and items for sale in the commissary are overpriced.
These complaints are related. Still hungry after dinner? Head to the commissary for an eighty-cent pack of ramen. Chilly? Buy a $6 thermal shirt.
During a public hearing last week on the proposed county budget, five speakers complained that this system places a double burden on people in the jail, a large percentage of whom are being held pretrial, not only because they have to pay for this stuff but because a portion of each sale goes toward what's called the Inmate Welfare Fund, which is used to pay for other items and services in the jail.
"My concern is not where this money is going, but rather where this money is coming from," Delvin Davis told the Durham County Board of Commissioners. "Ultimately, what we have now is a regressive tax that disproportionately costs people of color and criminalizes poverty. ... We're essentially asking people in poverty to pay money toward improving jail conditions—but if not for their poverty, they could afford to not be locked up in the first place."
He and the other speakers raised questions about how Inmate Welfare Fund dollars are generated and spent. These questions grew out of an inquiry into jail contracts by Southerners on New Ground, an LGBTQ organization working to end money bail in Durham and other Southern cities.
Since 2010, the fund has averaged about $120,000 in revenue and $113,000 in expenditures a year—although it has, within the last decade, collected as much as $351,000 and spent as little as $37,000. The Durham County Sheriff's Office, which oversees the jail, did not clarify why the numbers vary so dramatically.
Advocates at last week's hearing asked county commissioners for three things: that purchases currently made with the fund be covered by tax revenue, that they end the fund's commission system on commissary purchases and keep prices as low as possible, and that they audit the fund and related contracts.
Sheriff's Office policy dictates that money in the fund can only be used "on behalf of the inmates' welfare for items or services that directly benefit the inmates." There's currently $381,012 available for future expenditures benefiting the jail population, says David McNulty, finance manager for the Sheriff's Office.
Per the policy, Inmate Welfare Fund dollars can be used for things like televisions, athletic supplies, books, magazines, barbershop supplies, and instruments, as well as programming for detainees. The largest chunk goes to the Durham Literacy Center for GED and life-skills courses—$53,000 so far this fiscal year.
According to 224 pages of invoices reviewed by the INDY, the Inmate Welfare Fund has also been used this year to purchase toiletries, shoes, bedding, towels, and legal books for detainees. Last July, the Sheriff's Office spent $2,105.76 on three hundred towels and $2,112.35 on 963 pairs of shower shoes. Thirty yellow rain suits cost $387.30 in April. Forty-five basketballs totaled $989.55. Six hundred "safety" sheets, designed to mitigate the risk of hanging, cost $3,964.70. The fund was also used to purchase books of Supreme Court opinions and North Carolina laws for the detention center library, as well as copies of the Bible and the Qur'an ($631.76), and a Herald-Sun subscription.
"I was shocked to see that that fund was being used to pay for blankets, sheets, towels, shower shoes—why is that not being provided by the regular cost of running the jail?" asks Judy Kincaid, part of SONG's jail contract research team. "Are they going to charge them for the tables and the chairs they sit on next?"
The average daily population of the jail declined from 560 in 2012 to 480 last year. Yet, in the same timeframe, the Inmate Welfare Fund grew. Since fiscal year 2015, revenues have increased from $118,000 to $139,000, despite a 2016 contract amendment eliminating phone-call commissions that had also gone to the fund.
The amount of the commissary commission depends on the item. For most items, a 26 percent commission is built into the price. Other items, such as fresh food and care packages that can be ordered for detainees, have a 10 percent commission. Stamps and more expensive offerings like radios, which cost $24.99, are commission-free, according to McNulty.
According to a 2016 request for proposals to operate the commissary, detainees spent $491,309.05 on commissary items in 2015—the most popular were jalapeño-flavored Cheetos, chicken ramen, and stamps. A sales report breaks this down to an average of $982 per detainee, a figure those concerned about the Inmate Welfare Fund have used to highlight the burden these costs place on people who don't have access to a few hundred dollars to make bail.
But the calculation is flawed, dividing total sales by the jail population on a single day. With 9,910 people booked into the jail in 2015, the real per-detainee average is closer to $49 in commissary purchases.
Still, speakers at last Monday's hearing said more items should be provided for free, and those that are truly supplemental should be sold for minimal cost.
Right now, the 2.5-ounce Colgate toothpaste sold in the commissary, which is operated by Aramark, costs $2.78, but each tube costs $1.24 when bought in bulk online from distributor Bob Barker Inc. Irish Spring soap is listed for $1.44 on the commissary menu; it is seventy-two cents on the Bob Barker website. (Some basic hygiene items are provided to detainees.)
Davis, an analyst with the Center for Responsible Lending, told commissioners that, of the 7,187 people held in the jail in 2016, 1,732 had bonds of $5,000 or less, including 201 with bonds of $1,000 or less.
"If we can't pay to get out of jail, how can we possibly pay for our own care?" Andrea Hudson, a community activist who has spent time in the Durham jail, asked commissioners. "We can't. So we put that extra burden on our family members who send us money."