Correctional officers stand at the entrance to the Greensville Correctional Center on Nov. 10, 2009, near Jarratt, Virginia. Greensville is home to the state’s execution chamber. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
A Republican-led committee in the House of Delegates voted Monday to reject two prison reform bills, one that would have created an independent ombudsman office to provide extra oversight and another that would have given inmates access to free phone calls and emails to allow them to better communicate with the outside world.
The House Appropriations Committee blocked both measures with little discussion after a Virginia Department of Corrections (VADOC) representative said the agencies opposed the proposals due to cost concerns. Senate Democrats had included funding for both bills in that chamber’s version of the state budget that’s supposed to be finalized before the legislature adjourns Feb. 25.
Prison reform advocates have led a multiyear push to restrict prison and jail administrators from charging excessive fees for goods and services inmates and their family members purchase. Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Loudoun, had zeroed in on communication-related fees only in state prisons, introducing a bill that would require the state to provide the services “free of charge.”
“Making communications free or reduced is the most cost-effective rehabilitation program the commonwealth could implement,” Boysko told the committee, saying the often low-income families of incarcerated people shouldn’t be expected to shoulder most of the cost of something she said benefits the state as a whole.
The Senate’s pending budget proposal includes $5 million in funding the prison system can use to make communication services cheaper, regardless of the bill’s failure. That funding also includes an instruction to VADOC to consider switching to a fixed-cost system for communication fees as opposed to usage fees like per-minute charges for phone calls. According to state records, phone fees at the rate of a little more than 4 cents per minute added up to $10.9 million in the most recent budget year. Those fees are charged by the system’s phone vendor, Global-Tel Link. The state pays the company a licensing fee but no longer charges its own commission as part of the contract.
VADOC estimated the bill would come with a fiscal impact of at least $15.4 million per year and could require the agency to hire more correctional officers and investigators to handle a higher volume of phone calls, emails and video visitation calls.
Though VADOC has indicated free communications could raise security concerns for its facilities, VADOC legislative liaison Jerry Fitz said the agency’s opposition is primarily about the price tag.
“Our concern is more so just making sure those costs are covered,” Fitz said.
The bill failed on an 11-10 vote along party lines.
A separate proposal creating a prison ombudsman met the same fate, despite getting bipartisan support when it passed the Senate 39-0 last week.
Sen. Dave Marsden, D-Fairfax, the bill’s sponsor, praised VADOC as a “very sound” agency whose success is reflected in the state’s low rate of offenders who commit new crimes after reentering society. But, Marsden told the committee, the state currently doesn’t have an outlet for “quality of life” concerns from both inmates and correctional officers that may go unnoticed by high-ranking administrators and political appointees.
“I think what it will do is cut down on the $2 million we pay every year for outside counsel with the attorney general’s office to settle lawsuits,” Marsden told the committee. “I think a lot of these can be short-stopped by an ombudsman.”
As envisioned by Marsden, the prison ombudsman office would advise inmates on their rights, ensure prisons are complying with laws meant to guarantee baseline living standards, issue regular inspection reports and develop a uniform system for fielding prison-related complaints.
The ombudsman, who would be allowed to serve up to two six-year terms, would be selected by and answer to a 13-person Corrections Oversight Committee made up of legislators, advocates, health professionals and formerly incarcerated people. The committee would also have two nonvoting slots for current or former VADOC employees.
The Senate budget includes $750,000 to cover the costs of setting up the ombudsman office.
But Fitz, the VADOC liaison, told the committee the costs of implementing a more robust oversight system would be unknown.
“What it would create is another layer of government,” Fitz said.
Both bills the committee rejected were supported by the Virginia chapter of the National Coalition of Public Safety Officers, an advocacy group for correctional officers.
The push for stronger prison oversight in Virginia comes after several headline-grabbing controversies, including the 2019 strip search of an 8-year-old girl who was trying to visit her incarcerated father, an alleged choking incident in 2018 involving an inmate who was already physically restrained and an $85,000 judgment in favor of a former employee who sued over the prison system’s policy of treating visitors’ and employees’ tampons as potential sources of drugs and other contraband.
In 2021, VADOC Director Harold Clarke said staffing shortages were making state facilities less safe and overburdening workers.
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