Nearly $16,000 in prisoner money is missing from the Allegheny County Jail because of poor bookkeeping, an audit released Wednesday says.
Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner promised to call in police if jail officials can't find the money, which came from a trust account that safeguards prisoners' pocket change until they're released.
Authorities are investigating the disappearance of several laptop computers bought with money meant to benefit prisoners.
"Missing electronics and unexplained accounting differences raise serious red flags about the internal controls at the county jail," Ms. Wagner wrote in a news release announcing the audit. "The jail must investigate these matters until they have an explanation for these missing items and funds or we will have no choice but to refer the matter to appropriate law enforcement."
Inmates at the county prison may have lost their freedom, but they haven't lost their right to money.
After they're brought through the front doors, any cash they're carrying is deposited into a trust account, which they can use to buy goods at the prison commissary.
Family members can deposit more funds, which the inmate is supposed to get back when he or she leaves.
But Ms. Wagner's 22-page audit says that isn't happening, with money slipping through the cracks of the jail's slapped-together computer systems.
She faults administrators for failing to regularly balance the prisoner account's checkbook or give inmates proper receipts for their money.
Her biggest complaint centers on the missing $15,984, which jail officials say went to pay bank fees that were never properly put on the books.
While Ms. Wagner raised the suggestion of fraud, county manager William McKain said the county has traced the discrepancy back to 2005 and believes it was an innocent mistake.
"We have to strengthen our accounting controls to deal with that," Mr. McKain said. "This shouldn't have been carried over."
The bigger concern for Warden Orlando Harper and his deputy, Monica Long, is overhauling the jail's finances at large, combining three computer systems into one and making sure prisoners get their money back when they leave.
Ms. Long has negotiated away most fees with the jail's bank.
Mr. Harper also has taken special care to address the controller's concern over proper receipts for prisoners, a simple practice that was previously neglected.
"People weren't doing what they were supposed to do," he said. "But we're correcting that."
Andrew McGill: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1497. First Published July 17, 2013 1:30 PM