Report on Virginia jail fees hindered by spotty data, redacted contracts

‘Total figures could not be calculated without the data and contracts’

By: - December 7, 2022 4:21 pm

A redacted page of a contract between a Virginia jail and a third-party vendor included in a new report on jail fees and commissions.

A Virginia work group that was supposed to be exploring ways to reduce fees charged to inmates for phone calls, emails, food and clothing ended with reformers accusing jail officials of stonewalling legislative oversight and jail administrators denouncing what they described as a skewed, activist-driven process.

A report the work group released this week said the panel was unable to get solid numbers showing how much money jails are making from fees and commissions because of redactions to jail contracts and scant participation in a survey that sought official data directly from jails themselves. After the survey deadline was pushed back multiple times, the report says, only 28 of the state’s 59 local and regional jails responded, and many responses were incomplete.

Some Virginia jails are making more than $4,000 per inmate per year in commission revenues, according to data cited in the report, or about $12 to $13 per person per day. But those numbers are incomplete, the report says, because they don’t reflect revenue going to third-party vendors that provide services in the jails.

“These total figures could not be calculated without the data and contracts that were requested but not provided,” the report says.

Jail officials and some of their private-sector partners sharply disagreed with almost every conclusion in the report, saying it was based on flawed methodology and a misunderstanding of how jails work.

“The impression is a process clearly filled with bias,” the Virginia Sheriffs’ Association wrote in a formal response disputing the report’s conclusions. “The makeup of the [work group] offered no balance of interests and sought to focus on one belief, that contractors are evil and making money off the backs of inmates and their families. With that focus, the advocates for free services (which are never truly free) far outnumbered jail representatives.”

The report recommended reintroduction of fee reform legislation filed earlier this year by Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, that led to the work group’s creation. That bill will presumably be the starting point as the General Assembly takes up the issue again in the 2023 legislative session that starts next month.

The report also recommends giving jail inmates at least 120 minutes of cost-free phone calls per day and eliminating or reducing a variety of fees and commissions on video calls, emails, text messages, commissary sales and money deposits by inmates’ families. It also calls for the repeal of so-called “pay-to-stay” systems, which allows jail authorities to charge inmates up to $3 per day to help cover the costs of their incarceration.

Jail officials have advocated against shifting more costs onto taxpayers rather than Virginians who may have committed crimes. 

“We strongly urge the workgroup to resist the temptation to ‘hit the easy button’ on an amount of money potentially this significant,” the Virginia Association of Regional Jails said in a formal dissent letter. “The citizens of the Commonwealth deserve better.”

Reform supporters contend there are clear societal benefits from making it easier for incarcerated people to stay in touch with loved ones and not releasing inmates into financial situations made more precarious by high fees that benefit both the jails and their private-sector partners.

“If sheriffs and commissioners will not protect the Commonwealth’s families from rapacious telecommunication, commissary, and other vendors, largely because they are financially benefiting from these arrangements, the General Assembly must step in and do so itself,” wrote Bianca Tylek, executive director of Worth Rises, a national advocacy group that opposes what it calls the “exploitation” of incarcerated people.

In an interview, Morrissey said he felt the work group gathered enough data to show some jails, but not all, are engaging in “price-gouging” that the legislature needs to rein in. Money to fund the state’s jails, he said, shouldn’t come from the pockets of some of the state’s poorest families.

“That’s wrong,” Morrissey said. “That should be done by the state or the locality.”

The report also includes anecdotal information from inmates who say they had to buy extra food and clothing to supplement standard-issue jail provisions that were inadequate.

Daniel Rosen, who said he spent about 18 months in the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center, said inmates had to buy food from the commissary to “stave off hunger,” but a pack of ramen that might cost a dime on the outside cost “almost a dollar” in jail. A 15-minute phone call, he said, cost $3.

“When you add it all up, my 18 months in the Fairfax jail cost my family about $10,000 total,” Rosen wrote in a statement included in the report.

In its response, the Sheriffs’ Association said all the services are optional and inmates and their families “are not required to spend their money.” The report, the organization said, is filled with “unsupported statements, opinions, suppositions, and false information.”

“Any report based on such brings into question its reliability and it should be set aside,” the organization wrote.

More reform-minded work group members said any deficiencies with the report arose from the jail industry’s refusal to offer a full accounting of the money it takes in and how it’s spent.

“We were really disappointed that the sheriffs and the regional jails were unwilling to be transparent in their contracting or in their financials,” said Shawn Weneta, a policy strategist with the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia who served on the work group. “It’s the General Assembly who in fact gave them that authority to enter into these contracts. And this work group specifically was from the General Assembly saying that we want to see your books and see your contracts and evaluate this.”

The report includes several examples of jail contracts that were heavily redacted to protect information jail vendors claimed were protected trade secrets they had a legal right to keep confidential. The redactions hid sections of vendor contracts dealing with “billing arrangements,” “services,” “compensation,” “rates,” “company obligations” and other elements of the deals.

ViaPath Technologies, a company that provides inmate calling services to the Virginia Department of Corrections and several local and regional jails, lodged a formal objection to language in a draft version of the report that suggested the redactions didn’t align with state law.

“The Draft should be revised to note ViaPath’s assertions of confidentiality without making any conclusion regarding the redactions,” the company wrote in a letter attached to the report.

The two sides on the work group also seem to have feuded over the setup of a survey seeking jail data that many jail administrators didn’t respond to.

The report on jail fees comes after a different work group issued similar findings about fees charged to inmates and their families in the state prison system.

The work group looking into jails was bipartisan, and Morrissey said he’s confident a reform bill can clear a legislature where Republicans and Democrats are splitting power.

Free-market group Americans for Prosperity, which typically aligns with the General Assembly’s conservatives, participated in the work group and is backing fee reform efforts in Virginia. Ben Knotts, a legislative liaison with Americans for Prosperity Virginia, said there must be limits to the jails’ “monopoly on people’s loved ones.”

“That’s why it’s so important that the General Assembly functions as a market force to make sure these people are paying for fair value,” Knotts said.

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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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