The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to review all jail programs funded by jail phone calls and commissary profits.

Supervisor Hilda Solis recommended the audit as a next step in a move toward no-cost phone calls and an end to price markups on commissary items, which the board agreed to consider in May.

“While we are recovering from the pandemic, Los Angeles County is also reviewing its status quo infrastructure and systems, in our embrace of a `Care First’ approach — to better serve our hardest hit communities that are disproportionately communities of color,” Solis said.

Call revenues and commissary profits total about $15 million annually, which is split roughly in half to fund jail maintenance and programs intended for the benefit of inmates, according to Solis’ motion.

A private accounting firm is already auditing the use of Inmate Welfare Funds to determine whether they comply with California Penal Code 4025. That work is expected to be completed this month.

Under state law, the money in the fund is to be spent “primarily for the benefit, education and welfare of the inmates confined within the jail. Any funds that are not needed for the welfare of the inmates may be expended for the maintenance of county jail facilities.”

The law gives the sheriff discretion as to what is in inmates’ best interests.

“Inmate welfare funds shall not be used to pay required county expenses of confining inmates in a local detention system, such as meals, clothing, housing, or medical services or expenses, except that inmate welfare funds may be used to augment those required county expenses as determined by the sheriff to be in the best interests of inmates,” the penal code states.

The argument for continuing to charge 25 cents per minute for calls and markup prices on snacks, personal hygiene products and other commissary items is often that those revenues are sorely needed for educational and other programs that benefit inmates.

However, activists urged the county to find that money elsewhere.

“Programs to meet our county members’ health needs or to facilitate diversion and reentry can and should be supported by alternative funding sources,” Adrienna Wong of the ACLU of Southern California told the board. “Otherwise, the county is just undermining its own efforts by (paying for programs with) fees that destabilize families and saddle them with debt that makes returning to the community harder.”

Last month, the county’s auditor-controller reported on the department’s implementation of recommendations made during two earlier audits, finding that seven of 12 ideas had been at least partially implemented.

The Sheriff’s Department said it had been unable to put other recommendations into practice — including one for a multi-year spending plan — because of “staff shortages and other priorities.”

The auditors’ October report also concluded that there are no key performance indicators or evaluations of the programs paid for with the IWF, making it hard to determine whether those programs are wanted, needed or effective.

The new audit will include an accounting of all programs funded over the last three fiscal years, including an analysis of their effectiveness. The board also tasked auditors with evaluating the process for identifying and approving new programs, which is managed by the Sheriff’s Department and the Inmate Welfare Commission.

The commission does not oversee the portion of IWC funds allocated to jail maintenance but receives a report on monthly allocations.

In her motion, Solis said that while that commission provides some oversight, “in practice, it is largely toothless.”

The board also directed the Sybil Brand Commission to coordinate with the Civilian Oversight Commission to survey inmates on the type of programming and services they want.

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