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Funds on the Run

Money problems, overcrowding cause state of emergency

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It's already been a rough year for the Idaho Department of Corrections, but a recent review of the books at Idaho's prisons has found that the state Department of Correction doesn't always keep tabs on cash flows and the resources don't exist to properly account for all prison funds.

The audit came about the same time that Idaho began shipping prisoners to Texas, to ease overcrowding. That move put prisoners in crowded housing facilities, and many of them complained of unexplained solitary confinement and inadequate resources, according to prison watchdogs and detainees.

On Tuesday, all that changed: after approving an emergency declaration, Gov. Jim Risch and the agency announced that the Texas-based prisoners would be moved again. Also, 100 more prisoners would be sent out of state to relieve other crowded Idaho prisons.

While prisoners were getting the shuffle because of inadequate prison space, the state's audit found that the department doesn't always track its bills. These include bills from agencies that hire inmate labor, and payments from offenders who are expected to pay for part of their parole services. Employee credit card, or "P-card," purchases were not properly accounted for and in at least once case, the cards were used to buy $102 worth of toys and hobby merchandise. The audit of employee travel costs found similar problems. Overall, general accounting practices were not in compliance with Idaho law.

Ray Ineck, Legislative Audits supervisor said that the department's (IDC) P-card accounting practices are similar to the breakdown of internal controls that led to the misuse of city funds by former Boise Mayor Brent Coles and his chief of staff, Gary Lyman. Coles resigned from his post after records revealed that he had taken vacations on the city dime.

"These are problems that are typical not only for state agencies, but for others," Ineck said of IDC's P-card purchases.

State departments undergo audits either annually or every three years, depending on the size of the department. The IDC undergoes audits every three years. That means the problems identified in the most recent audit could have been an issue since the last audit in 2001, Ineck said.

The recent release of the 90-day follow-up report for the 2002-2004 audit highlighted four areas that needed work. At press time, the IDC had solved two of those problems, including how the department tracks P-card purchases, according to Susan Fujinaga, deputy administrator. But Fujinaga couldn't account for the $102 spent on toys. The report notes that the department still needs to find a better way monitor cash flows for parole costs and inmate work projects.

Parolees are expected to defer some of the costs of parole by paying a $40 fee every month. Offenders who are unemployed or indigent are not expected to pay those costs. But the audit found that in some cases, former inmates who should be paying their bills, are not. At the time of the review, $410,000 in payments were four or more months past due. And payments were not always collected from agencies that hire prison labor for projects, such as roadside trash pickup and soil conservation, primarily because a new accounting system had not been fully implemented. Because the whole department was not using the same system, payments of $114,562 and $78,856 were sent to the wrong address.

The audit found that probation officers' large case loads could account for some of the overdue parolee payments. Fujinaga said staffers should have access to a system that better tracks parolee account balances soon. And the department has already implemented measures designed to make easier for offenders to pay that $40 fee. Now the bill comes with a self-addressed return envelope. Parolees just have to put their payment in the envelope, stick a stamp on it and put it in the mail. Better technology and an updated tracking and payment system should also help the department collect payments for prisoner labor, Fujinaga said. But the department has not had the resources needed to access that technology.

"One of the things that's noticeable is repeats of past problems," said Kathleen Pequeño, spokeswoman for the Western Prison Project, a Portland, Oregon-based nonprofit that focuses on prison reform.

Some of the problems identified in the audit that covers 2002, 2003 and 2004 were similar to those revealed in the department's previous audit, that was released in 2001. That report showed a similar trend: It identified nine problem areas that, once again, included poor accounting of P-card purchases, work projects and offender reimbursements for drug testing.

"There's definitely some issues of concern," Pequeño said. "The Idaho Department of Correction has raised concern that they don't have enough money, so it becomes, 'How is the money being spent?'" The problem, she said, is that treatment programs often take the hit when prisons are under-funded or funds are poorly tracked.

The Texas controversy made things worse. Since the transfer, the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho has received more complaints about the Texas facility operated by the Geo Group Inc., than any of the other prison that houses Idaho inmates, said ACLU of Idaho's executive director, Jack Van Valkenburgh. Prisoners have complained about a lack of rehabilitation and academic programs, as well as overcrowding at the Newton, Texas prison. The prison's apparent lack of supervision hit the news last month, when two Idaho inmates escaped from the facility.

Now, with Risch's emergency declaration, the prisoners are on the move again. Corrections director Tom Beauclair said a Texas agency needs the space, and Idaho's prisoners will now move to a yet-unknown location.

"Thank goodness," said Van Valkenburgh Tuesday. "I'd like to think that the governor and the Department of Corrections are feeling the heat."

The ACLU is urging the state to consider better facilities.

"Most, if not all, of those prisoners will come back to Idaho, and they'll be worse, [not better,] for the time they spent in Texas," he said.

A larger question looms: Will their home state's system be ready for them?

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