Itawamba Supervisors ask jail to change purchase practice

By Adam Armour/The Itawamba County Times

Following a slap on the wrist by the state auditor, the Itawamba County Sheriff’s Department will have to start submitting purchase orders for equipment bought using its general fund account.

It’s not as big a deal as it sounds; more or less, the end result is more paperwork for the jailer.

During its regular meeting last week, the Itawamba County Board of Supervisors discussed at length the method by which the sheriff’s department spends money pooled in its commissary account. It’s not that there was a problem with how the money was being spent per se; it’s just that the county offices have no official records of where the money’s going.

According to board attorney Bo Russell, the county received an audit violation last year because of this. There are no financial ramifications to this warning as long as the violations come to an end. Essentially, it’s a warning.

Now, for a bit of explanation: When a person is arrested and incarcerated in the Itawamba County jail, the inmate or his or her family may give money to the jailer to put into a commissary fund. This money is used to make “privilege purchases” — things that make jail inmates a bit more comfortable. Cigarettes, coffee and snacks are examples of items purchased with an inmate’s commissary money. Each week, inmates are able to select from items on a large list, which are then ordered from Tiger Commissary Services.

When an inmate orders an item from the commissary orders sheet, the appropriate funds are taken from his or her account to pay for the purchases. A portion of that money goes back to the jail itself, which then divides it into two accounts: a general fund — essentially the jail’s petty cash reserves — and the inmate fund, which is used to purchase things that benefit the prisoners directly.

For example, when the jail’s ice machine breaks down, jail administrator Vicky Russell might use the general fund to purchase a new one; if the inmates’ television is on the blink, she’ll use the inmate fund to have it repaired.

In the end, this saves taxpayers from having to make a lot of everyday purchases at the jail.

All of this money is kept in a bank account and all purchases, down to the last Twinkie, are carefully recorded.

But, according to the auditor, the jail will have to start submitting purchase orders for more costly items, just like all of the other county departments.

“We don’t have any problems with how [the jail’s] spending the money; it’s how it’s being documented,” Supervisor Eric “Tiny” Hughes told the board. He then questioned why there was even a need to change anything.

“They’ve been doing a good job with it; let’s leave well enough alone,” he said.

But Russell said “well enough” isn’t “good enough,” and that the jail would have to begin obtaining purchase orders on items bought using its general fund money so that the county could keep those purchases on record with all the rest.

County administrator Gary Franks said the situation “really isn’t a big deal.”

“Procedurally, we just need to get it on our records over here,” he said. “Nobody’s done a thing wrong.”

adam.armour@journalinc.com