Commissary fees at jail questioned
Posted: Monday, September 6, 2010 9:06 pm
By JOHN BRANNON
Swanson Services Inc. of Orlando, Fla., is so big, “We’re just a pebble of sand on the Swanson beach,” said Obion County Sheriff Jerry Vastbinder.
Swanson provides commissary services to inmates of the Obion County Law Enforcement Complex, also known as the county jail.
A Swanson website states the corporation has 900 employees who provide commissary service to 110,000 inmates a week from 26 service centers in 46 states.
The tie that binds Obion County to Swanson Services is the inmate commissary “store.” A contract to do so was authorized by resolution passed by the Obion County Commission several years ago.
Not a store
The commissary “store” is not a store in the traditional sense, but a large warehouse in Memphis. It serves several counties in West Tennessee.
The warehouse offers inmates a shopping list of 165 items in five categories. Here are some examples of goods and prices:
• Personal hygiene. Head & Shoulders shampoo, $7.95.
• Candy. Snickers, king size, $2.49.
• Snacks. Moon Pie, $1; potato chips, 99 cents.
• Clothing. Socks, $1.65; slip-on shoes $9.88.
• Miscellaneous. Legal pad, $1.35; copy of the Bible, $8.95; copy of the (Muslim) Koran, $20.
When an arrestee is booked into the county jail, he is assigned a commissary account number, or “jacket number.” Later, upon release or transfer, the jacket number is kept on file. Former inmates who are arrested again and brought to the jail are assigned their previous jacket number.
The commissary system consists of the Swanson warehouse in Memphis and nine touch-screen computers at the county jail.
Eight of the computers are set up in the pods in the inmate holding area.
“Inmates use them to check their accounts, file grievances and place electronic orders with the commissary store,” said Vastbinder.
In Memphis, inmate orders are packaged individually and delivered to the jail each Wednesday. The cost of goods ordered is automatically deducted from the inmate’s commissary account.
Obion County owns the eight computers.
As with any other commercial store, the Swanson warehouse is a for-profit entity. Money is required. But money is a forbidden commodity for inmates in the jail. When they are initially booked, they surrender all property on their persons, including money. The property is held until they are released or transferred elsewhere.
Then how does an inmate get money into his account? By depositing his own money or by having a friend or relative deposit money for him.
The ninth computer, called a “cash kiosk,” is set up in the jail lobby to accommodate visitors. It, too, is connected to the commissary system.
Obion County does not own the cash kiosk. Swanson Services does.
The primary purpose of the cash kiosk is to accommodate visitors who want to deposit money into an inmate’s account. The touch-screen “TV” kiosk resembles an ATM machine, but all transactions are a one-way street: money goes in, none comes out. One-dollar bills are not accepted; but five- and 10- and 20-dollar bills and such are welcome.
A sweet deal
A fee of $2.75 is deducted from each transaction. For example, if a poor family can afford only $5 to put into an inmate’s account, only $2.25 will be credited. And a deposit of $10 is in reality only $8.25.
Who gets the $2.75 fee?
“It doesn’t go to us,” Vastbinder said.
But the cost of electricity and telephone lines required to run the kiosk system are added to the jail’s monthly bill. And that bill is paid by taxpayers.
Vastbinder said he was unaware a $2.75 fee was being charged by the cashier’s kiosk for each cash transaction. “I was thinking the fee was charged only on credit cards,” he said. “It goes to the Swanson company, but I was thinking they only charged on credit card transactions.”
A Swanson official in Memphis declined to go into detail when The Messenger asked why the transaction fee is so high. “You’ll have to talk to the jail about that,” said Tom Cardivus.
Well, how much revenue does that cash kiosk generate in the course of a year?
“I couldn’t disclose that,” he said.
Vastbinder said his office gets 25 percent of all commissary sales each year. The average is about $30,000 a year. In that regard, last year was a very good year.
“Some of our state inmates are poor and don’t keep a lot of money in their accounts,” he said. “But we’ve got some who will spend $100 a week on phone cards and junk food and other stuff. It’s amazing that they can keep so much money in their accounts. It sure helps us.”
He said the cost of operating the jail in fiscal year 2009-10 (July 1, 2009-June 30, 2010) was about $1.2 million. In the same 12-month period, the jail had an income of $1.4 million. Part of the income was $57,815 for the jail’s share of commissary sales.
“It all goes into the general fund,” Vastbinder said. “If it wasn’t for the jail making money, they (the county commission) would have had to raise taxes four years ago because of operating costs.”
Published in The Messenger 9.6.10