The Prisoner Benefit Fund, or PBF for short, plays an important role in the daily life of prisoners in the MDOC. The PBF pays for things like:
- Office supplies and materials for approved prisoner organizations;
- Approved self-help programs such as hobby craft, Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), and religious activities;
- Prisoner compensation for verified property losses where the prisoner was not negligent;
- Escort costs for prisoner funeral or sick bed visits;
- Recreational equipment and supplies (e.g., athletic equipment);
- Special maintenance and capital outlay projects;
- Entertainment events;
- Cable/satellite television services.
In practical terms the PBF is responsible for prisoners having any luxury items like weightlifting and exercise equipment; baseball, basketball, soccer equipment including the fields; musical instruments and sound equipment; coffee for AA meetings; basic cable television programming and selected DVD movies.
The money to fund these programs mostly comes from the prisoners themselves. Profits from the prisoner store and vending machines; pop can deposit refunds; photo tickets; confiscated prisoner funds; donations from outside organizations; interest from invested funds; and fund raising are the sources available to the PBF.
According to Policy Directive 04.02.110 FUND RAISING ACTIVITIES Section D states:
“A PBF may be permitted to conduct fundraising activities through which funds may be solicited and collected from other prisoners at that institution. To do so, the PBF must submit a written fundraising proposal to the Warden for review. The proposal must include the proposed use of the funds, a detailed description of the fundraising activity, and supporting documentation if the funds are to be used for a charitable donation. If the Warden supports the fundraising activity, s/he shall forward the proposal to the CFA Deputy Director or designee for final approval. The Warden shall be notified of the final decision and shall ensure the PBF is notified. If approved, the Warden shall designate a staff person to supervise the fundraising activity.”
Fund raising is a very popular idea while I was incarcerated. The minutes from the Warden’s Forum were full of proposals by inmates to raise money. Most of these had noble causes like donations to various charities as the basis for the request, while others were a bit more self-centered. Most fundraising revolved around the sale of food. Pizza, burgers, donuts, and the like were the typical items. Since fundraisers are specific to a prison the sources for goods was generally local as well. Venders like the one that supplied food for the visiting room vending machines were easier to work with because they already have contracts and financial systems for payment already in place. It was much more difficult to try to arrange for other businesses such as a local pizza or sub shop to navigate the bureaucracy for what might be a one-time event.
It was routine for these fund raiser proposals to be shot down by warden. It could be simply that the proposal lacked enough details or that recent behavior by inmates did not merit the privilege. Whatever the reason fund raisers were not a common event. When one was approved it big news. The news would travel through the housing units like wildfire. Gossip always travels faster than facts so it would often be that misinformation would take days to be corrected, as the block reps are besieged by an endless line of inmates seeking clarification. When the official posting went up and the details were finally made known it was never as good as the promise, such as the selection might be less or the prices higher. Inmates can always manage to find something to complain about. But without fail inmates by the hundreds would scrape together enough money in their trust account to fill out the order form and the disbursement.
It would be like having an extra holiday when the big day finally arrived. Like the anticipation of Christmas morning the thoughts of treats that haven’t been tasted in years dance in their dreams. Some see an opportunity to make a little profit by selling these rare items at a premium to those who didn’t have funds in their trust accounts at the order time. A similar phenomenon happens on Super Bowl Sunday when sack lunches are served for dinner with a sub sandwich, chips, carrots & celery, cookies, fruit, and juice.
Movement in prison is controlled. The higher the level the more restricted, so it isn’t as simple as setting up a table in the gym and letting everyone line up. There needs to be order and security. Whenever there are goods involved, they will be targets for theft. The delivery was handled several different ways that I recall. At the multi-level facility, the individuals who had placed orders were called by the housing unit to go pick up their purchase. And if memory serves me correct, at the level 1 facility it was on the daily itinerary call-out sheet. Either way there would be extra officers posted to oversee the distribution. It seemed that every time some little old man who ordered goods would be robbed before he managed to make it back to his bunk. You needed to travel in packs and with bodyguards at times to ensure your safety the same way you would pickup a Secure Pack.
The all-time best idea for a fund raiser that I thought of would be to sell Girl Scout cookies. You might as well back up the semi-truck to the sally port. I can guarantee you that they would break records for fund raising for both the inmates and the Girl Scouts. If there was a downside, I really couldn’t see it. I’m not advocating to send the girls into prison to sell cookies, parents sell cookies for their girls all the time in the workplace. All that would be needed is a very big stack of order forms. The cookies sell themselves; they would remind many in prison of a taste of freedom. The idea for this fund raiser would be that all the prisons would participate with the proceeds distributed to the local Girl Scout organizations. Nothing beats Girl Scout cookies and it would be a great opportunity for those in prison to give back.
But like a lot of great ideas I’m pretty sure the wardens would never go along with it. Luxury items or comfort foods for prisoners aren’t very high on their priority list. They don’t have to give a reason all they have to say is “NO” and dismiss it like yesterday’s trash. While I’m sure that there are a few reform minded wardens in the system who would approve of such a fund raiser most would rather not be bothered since they follow the “all stick and no carrot” philosophy of prisoner management.