Report: Cutting prison fees could save incarcerated Virginians and their families $28.3M

‘We can find solutions that are both fiscally responsible and humane’

By: - October 5, 2022 12:04 am
Correctional officers stand at the entrance to the Greensville Correctional Center on Nov. 10, 2009, near Jarratt, Virginia. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Correctional officers stand at the entrance to the Greensville Correctional Center on Nov. 10, 2009, near Jarratt, Virginia. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

If the Virginia prison system were to heed the recommendations of reformers who want to make life behind bars less expensive for inmates, it could save prisoners and their families up to $28.3 million per year by shifting those costs elsewhere, according to a new report.

At the General Assembly’s request, a work group has been studying the possibility of cutting costs and fees charged to inmates for making phone calls, using tablets to listen to music or play games, accessing the internet and purchasing food, clothes and other supplies from commissaries.

In a 54-page report delivered Oct. 1, members of the work group who aren’t affiliated with the Virginia Department of Corrections made a variety of recommendations to ease the financial burden on incarcerated people and their relatives, many of whom are low-income. Inmates themselves have little ability to make their own money, the report says, because prison jobs pay a maximum of $54 per month.

Throughout the report, prison officials largely advised against sticking taxpayers with a higher bill and raised security concerns to justify limits on inmates’ contact with the outside world.

The report — the work of VADOC officials, legislators and advocacy groups that work on prison reform and reentry issues — lays out a detailed menu of options for policymakers to consider in future General Assembly sessions, with recommendations from nongovernmental members contrasted with skepticism from prison officials.

 “While we could not achieve consensus on the recommendations, the department appreciates the insight and feedback from stakeholders,” the corrections department wrote in a closing statement.

A VADOC spokesman said the agency was reviewing the report internally and declined to comment further.

The study arose from a bill filed by Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Loudoun. The original version would have implemented many of the cuts the study considered, but legislators decided to take more time to review the topic before taking action. 

“I think that we can find solutions that are both fiscally responsible and humane,” Boysko said in an interview Tuesday, adding that she’s still considering whether she’ll file another bill on the matter in 2023.

Republicans largely backed the study and Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed the bill initiating it, but it’s unclear if something like the original bill could pass with the GOP pushing tough-on-crime, low-tax messaging ahead of next year’s General Assembly elections. 

Boysko noted that the free-market conservative group Americans for Prosperity backed her original bill, and said some Republicans “see this as a real burden.” 

“This is what we call a captive market,” Americans for Prosperity Virginia’s Ben Knotts said during a committee hearing in January. “It is when the government has control over a product and they get to decide the terms of it.”

Democratic proponents of the bill have argued the state’s poorest people shouldn’t have to pay steep bills to stay in touch with their incarcerated loved ones and help them maintain basic standards of living. Some Republicans have seemed skeptical of spending more public money to make life easier for people convicted of crimes, warning against making goods and services in prison cheaper than they would be for those on the outside.

Food

The biggest financial shift the report envisions is upping daily spending on prison food from $2.20 to $4 per person, a change estimated to cost $16.7 million. Advocates say spending more to provide better food would improve inmates’ health and reduce their need to buy extra food from the commissary because the regular meals they’re served “vary in quality.”

“It’s the state’s responsibility to feed people adequately and nutritionally, and that cannot be done for $0.73 cents per meal,” the report says. “Nor is it ultimately cost-effective, since overreliance on both starchy, nutrient-deficient food service meals and packaged and processed commissary items leads to diet-related diseases that taxpayers pay for eventually in medical costs.”

In its response, the Department of Corrections said it hasn’t had time to “analyze the practicability” of those suggestions, while noting it’s already switching from one statewide prison dietician to three dieticians spread among different regions. The agency also defended the quality of its meals and said inmates will buy processed food from commissaries regardless of what’s served in cafeterias.

“Providing and serving food in prisons involves more than nutrition and quality,” the agency wrote. “It also involves security, logistics and complying with constitutional and legal requirements.”

The work group also recommended prohibiting “food-related punishments” like serving worse meals as a disciplinary measure. Prison officials said menu substitutions only happen “when certain foods are unavailable,” when there is a lockdown or “equipment failure” and when uncommon items such as “seasonal farm products” become available.

Commissary markups

The report recommends the elimination of the 9% markup on commissary sales through a phased-in approach that would gradually replace that commission revenue with an extra $4 million per year in the state budget. 

Prison stores are effectively a “government mandated monopoly” that skews prices upward, the report says, leading inmates to pay $2.06 for a package of pretzels, $3.70 for a 4.5-oz can of chicken, $31.33 for a bra, 31 cents for a two-pack of aspirin, $9.87 for a three-pack of men’s boxers and $29.44 for a small fan.

“Incarcerated people and families, many of whom cannot afford to pay these commissions, are currently subsidizing the public safety budget through these regressive taxes on end-users,” the report says.

The roughly $3.68 million the prison system takes in each year from commissary markups helps cover the costs of services provided to inmates, prison officials noted, including cable TV, religious services, barbers and beauty shop equipment, appliances, workout equipment and reentry programs.

“Relying on a taxpayer (general funds) model to replace these funds puts these services at risk when there is significant budget cuts but would still require the VADOC to provide uninterrupted services to the inmate population without adequate funding,” VADOC said in a response.

The report also raises concerns about an alleged lack of transparency about the wholesale costs of commissary items provided by Keefe Commissary Network, the contractor that supplies the stores. The work group requested access to a sample list of how much commissary items cost the contractor, but the company said the information was “proprietary” and wouldn’t be shared.

“VADOC is responsible for negotiating prices for commissary items,” the report says. “And while they claim to seek the lowest possible prices, they have a conflict of interest because they receive commission revenue as a percentage of these prices.” 

The report recommended a pilot program to inject free-market principles into the prison economy, potentially allowing online retailers like Amazon and Walmart or other commissary providers to compete with the state’s sole contractor.

VADOC said having one vendor reduced the amount of time prison officials have to spend vetting supplies coming into prisons for contraband. Allowing online retailers to supply prisons creates a new set of issues, the agency said, since those companies may be unfamiliar with the security rules of prison environments. Because anyone can start selling items on Amazon, the agency wrote, staff would have to check to make sure Amazon sellers don’t have a personal connection to their incarcerated customers.

The prison agency said it would explore the possibility of reducing markups on underwear and other basic hygiene products

Phone/video calls and emails

Under current policy, inmates are charged roughly 4 cents per minute for phone calls, with no commission going to the prison. Advocates say those costs can be “prohibitive,” preventing contact between prisoners and loved ones that can lead to better outcomes upon release.

“Excessive fees charged to incarcerated people for communicating with the outside world are both predatory and counterproductive, from a corrections standpoint,” said Andy Elders, a work group member who chairs the board of the advocacy group Justice Forward Virginia.

The report recommends giving each inmate at least 120 minutes of free call time per day, maintaining a 1:10 ratio of phones to people in custody and increasing the number of phone numbers each incarcerated person can call from 15 to 20.

Agency officials insisted they simply don’t have the equipment or staff to allow that much free call time, which they said would disincentive prisoners from spending time learning skills or participating in reentry programs.

“Inmates have and continue to use the communications system to engage in illegal activity, such as the selling, delivery, distribution and payments involved with drug transactions,” VADOC wrote.

Under the current cost structure, officials said, many prisoners are on the phone “most of the day” and occasionally “extort/bully” other inmates trying to make calls. 

Video calls are available to inmates at a similar cost. The work group recommended making those calls free. Prison officials raised similar concerns about whether that would work in practice, suggesting the “modest fee” for video visitation is still a cheaper option for many than traveling long distances for in-person visits.

Ingoing and outgoing emails through the prisons’ J-Pay vendor require stamps that cost at least 25 cents per message, with a 5-cent commission going to VADOC for each outgoing message. The work group recommended scrapping those commissions, which generate $89,592 annually, and allowing unlimited emails.

“Incarcerated people and families are being charged exorbitant rates to send electronic messages, including additional fees for attachments such as photos, which cannot be received by mail any longer,” the work group wrote.

Prison officials disagreed, saying the agency would have to spend more than $5 million to hire extra staff to monitor emails to ensure they aren’t used for things like sexually explicit content or contacting crime victims.

The agency said it will review the report’s recommendations as it works to secure a new contract that will cover phone calls, music, games and wireless internet. The agency also charges commissions on tablets that allow incarcerated people to listen to music, read news and play games, a system that generated nearly $417,396 in the most recent fiscal year.

Deposit fees

With technology like Venmo making it easier than ever to transfer money digitally, the report also takes aim at fees charged to families for depositing money into inmates’ accounts, which can range from 3% to nearly 24% per transaction.

“In VADOC facilities, the fees for a $300 online deposit are $9.95 while a $25 online deposit will cost $5.95,” the report says. “Effectively, the people who can afford to send the least get charged the most.”

The report recommends directing VADOC to partner with another state agency to develop an in-house system that will make the process cheaper or simply cap processing fees at 3%.

“Payment processing is not complicated and clearly many state agencies have figured it out,” the report says.

VADOC cautioned against the General Assembly getting involved in micromanaging the terms of its contracts with vendors. Rewriting the rules, the agency, could risk “alienating quality service providers” who understand “the specific security needs of the industry.”

“Fees should be addressed during contract negotiations not as part of legislation,” the agency wrote.

Other funding sources

In addition to simply growing the General Assembly-approved prisons budget, the report outlines a few other possible sources of revenue to help make up for lower prison fees.

The non-agency work group members suggested looking at leasing out unused land owned by VADOC and tapping new federal funding meant to expand broadband internet access to “underserved populations.”

If all the proposed fee cuts were adopted, the report says, it would amount to about 2% of VADOC’s $1.4 billion yearly budget.

Shawn Weneta, a policy strategist with the ACLU of Virginia who served on the work group, said VADOC is resisting reforms due to “institutional inertia and incumbency protection for these vendors.”

“It was disappointing given that the legislature made it clear that they were wanting to see recommendations on how to improve the system,” Weneta said, adding Virginia should at least be able to make sure its prison fees are in line with other states. “We shouldn’t be paying four times what another state is.”

A similar study is looking at fees charged to inmates in local and regional jails. That report isn’t due until Dec. 1.

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Graham Moomaw
Graham Moomaw

A veteran Virginia politics reporter, Graham grew up in Hillsville and Lynchburg, graduating from James Madison University and earning a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Before joining the Mercury in 2019, he spent six years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, most of that time covering the governor's office, the General Assembly and state politics. He also covered city hall and politics at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville. Contact him at [email protected]

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