The state Legislature is considering filling funding gaps in county services for former state prisoners with mental illnesses by redirecting millions of dollars raised by taxing prisoners and their families.
The pending legislation, SB 542, would require an unspecified percentage of the Inmate Welfare Fund to be transferred to county probation departments and utilized for the coordination of mental health services after an inmate’s release from state custody.
The funds, now totaling $68 million, are deposited in a California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s (CDCR) bank account and according to law must be allocated for “the benefit, education, and welfare of inmates of prisons and institutions under the jurisdiction of the Department of Corrections.”
SB 542 would amend the code to include “former inmates of institutions” as additional recipients of the benefits.
State Sen. Curren D. Price Jr., D-Los Angeles, who sponsored the legislation, visited San Quentin on April 11 to meet with prison mental health care officials and with a group of students from the Prison University Project, who voiced opinions on how best to use the funds.
Price acknowledged to the group that his office and other interests, which he declined to name, have inquired about the funds. He and State Science and Technology Fellow Dr. Le Ondra Clark listened attentively as seven prisoners voiced their concerns. There were many suggestions, including securing assistance for prisoners with mental health issues, reentry into society, and funding rehabilitation programs inside.
Price told them he wanted “to make sure that inmates are getting the services they deserve.”
The group agreed there is need to provide services for former state prisoners. But they told Price that the IWF should not be used to pay for services that are the responsibility of the state or county.
One prisoner suggested increasing the $200 given to prisoners when they parole “Two-hundred dollars is not enough money to parole with; it isn’t even enough to rent a room nowadays,” he told the senator.
USED FOR PRISONERS
Currently, the IWF is used pay for institutional canteens and staffing and maintenance of hobby craft programs. However, it has been years since inmate committees have had access or been able have input into the use of the IWF, according to prisoners.
The IWF is collected from prisoners and their families who are taxed 10 percent on all goods prisoners are allowed to purchase while serving sentences in state institutions. This tax also collected from the sale of arts and crafts prisoners produce.
The bill was referred to committee. It would allow the IWF to go toward the cost of mental health services for former prisoners, many of whom are under county supervision due to the prison realignment plan implemented by SB109. The services would include providing mental health appointments, transportation, and medications for former state prisoners.
Price gave no indication of what percentage of the IWF the legislation seeks. Some prisoners are concerned that they will be left out of the process and that state officials will raid the funds.
“We want to make sure that the money is being used for what it was intended for,” Price assured prisoners.
Prison University Project Executive Director Jody Lewen, who invited the senator to San Quentin, said, “Just because there are funds and people have a need for them does not mean that they have a right to them. That is the logic of theft.”
After meeting with prisoners, Price attended an April 17 stakeholders’ meeting in the state capital where he recounted his visit to San Quentin, according to those present.
Ninety-one percent of the meeting attendees said in a survey they believed that the funds should not be sent to county probation departments to cover the cost of inmates with mental illness who are in county custody.
One stakeholder wrote: “These funds should not be used for programs the state should be providing with general funds. These funds should be used for things like arts in prison, college textbooks, theater groups, (and) gardening programs.”
In an interview, another person close to the issue commented that the bill is well intended in helping former inmates, but also that the legislation is looking in the wrong place for funding.