Push to limit prison and jail fees hits early obstacle in Virginia House

‘The loved ones of incarcerated people are bearing a huge burden’

By: - January 19, 2023 5:43 pm

“It’s punishment enough to be in the system. Why make it even harder for them?” said Santia Nance, co-founder of Sistas in Prison Reform, at a news conference calling for cost-free communications for Virginia prison inmates. (Graham Moomaw/Virginia Mercury)

At an early-morning committee meeting Thursday, Virginia Del. Irene Shin, D-Loudoun, pulled out packages of Twizzlers, Jolly Ranchers, Skittles, Sour Patch Kids and Hot Tamales and put them in a pile on the podium in front of her.

“Are you trying to bribe us?” a committee member asked jokingly.

“Totally,” Shin said. “Is it working?”

Altogether, Shin continued, the candy trove had cost about $13 at Kroger. But at a jail commissary overseen by the Virginia Beach Sheriff’s Office, she said, the same stuff costs $21.25.

“It’s a huge difference,” Shin said as she presented a bill to limit the price markups and fees charged to inmates and their families for goods and services purchased behind bars. 

Shin’s bill, which would apply to local jails, is part of a multiyear effort to limit the amount of money jails and their third-party contractors can make from captive customers who have no other options.

At a news conference Thursday morning, a pair of Democratic senators and a group of prison reform advocates touted a similar bill to require state prisons to give inmates access to free telephone calls and email communications.

“The loved ones of incarcerated people are bearing a huge burden,” said Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Loudoun. “I know one individual who spends more than $10,000 a year communicating with her loved one, caring for him. This is a tax that is put on individuals who do not have a dollar to spare. And we will continue to advocate for them as long as it takes.”

Advocates for incarcerated people say it’s often low-income families, and particularly women, who end up paying for extra food, clothing and hygiene products for inmates. Family members also foot the bill for communication fees, a setup advocates say makes it harder for inmates to maintain connections with the outside world that can help them successfully re-enter society.

“If we’re going to be forced to have tens of thousands of people in these prisons, why not make them a group of more hopeful, more rehabilitated and more connected folks?” said Santia Nance, co-founder of Sistas in Prison Reform.

The reform effort has run into resistance from jail and prison administrators, who have argued a rushed overhaul of their operations could have unknown impacts on their budgets and the security of their facilities.

Boysko’s bill dealing with communication fees in state-run prisons has not yet been heard, but Shin’s bill focused on local and regional jails was voted down Thursday in a Republican-led House of Delegates subcommittee. 

The Virginia Sheriffs’ Association, Virginia Association of Regional Jails and Virginia Association of Counties all spoke against Shin’s proposal before the vote.

“What we do know is everything you see here is optional,” John W. Jones, the executive director of the Sheriffs’ Association, said of Shin’s candy display. “We’re going to feed the inmates. They’re going to get three squares a day.”

Shin’s proposal also got a skeptical reception from Republican legislators.

Implying the candy prices weren’t exorbitant, Del. Glenn Davis, R-Virginia Beach, asked Shin if she knew what the same assortment of items would cost at a movie theater.

“A jail is more like a theater than a national grocery chain,” Davis said. Shin disagreed, saying people going to a theater are free to bring their own snacks from home, a claim that sparked a brief mini-debate about the ethics of sneaking food into a movie. 

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

Del. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, said for-profit theaters aren’t the same as government agencies that have been given a unique power to raise their own revenue from fees charged to inmates and their families.

“No other agency in the Virginia government has that ability to do that without coming to us first,” Hope said.

The General Assembly created work groups to study fees in both prisons and jails over the last year, but the jail study was hampered by heavy redactions to contracts and spotty numbers on where the money raised from fees and commissions actually goes. Administrators have said the money is used to fund education and rehabilitation programs that benefit inmates, but those claims have been difficult for policymakers to verify due to a lack of solid information about jail budgeting.

The alleged lack of transparency didn’t sit well with Democratic lawmakers in the House.

“I think it’s appalling that agencies would send overly redacted information to the work groups that prevent them from doing their jobs,” said Del. Angelia Williams Graves, D-Norfolk. “It is ridiculous for someone to say that they don’t know where taxpayer dollars go.”

Del. Ken Plum, D-Fairfax, said he sees the entire system as “a bit appalling.”

“We seem to be satisfied that we provide three meals a day,” Plum said. “I suggest to you that life is something more than three meals a day, particularly when we’re talking about rehabilitating people.”

In another reference to the high price of movie theater candy, Del. Michael Webert, R-Fauquier, said he simply chooses not to buy it. People find themselves incarcerated, he said, because of “choices made.”

“There’s a reason that person is sitting there,” Webert said.

There are also other factors that go into the cost of jail commissary items, he said, like the need to inspect everything coming into a facility for security reasons.

Del. Amanda Batten, R-James City, who chaired the public safety subcommittee that rejected Shin’s bill, said she would send a letter to the State Compensation Board to ask if it could do a study of its own and come back with more concrete information about the flow of money in jails.

On the Senate side, Democratic lawmakers didn’t seem phased by the defeat of Shin’s bill.

Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, said he’s filed a budget amendment of $23 million spread over two years to ensure the Virginia Department of Corrections would feel no financial hit from providing cost-free communications to inmates. Even if Boysko’s bill fails, he said, Senate Democrats could still potentially get it done through the bipartisan budget process.

“If we can get this in the Senate budget,” Petersen said, “we can make it happen.”

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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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