Those incarcerated and their loved ones will continue to pay fees that advocates and some lawmakers say are too high.
Senate Bill 581, introduced by Sen. Joseph Morrissey, D-Richmond, originally proposed to eliminate prison fees related to costs of custody, work release, or attendance at educational or rehabilitation programs of an inmate. Additional costs include telephone services, commissioners and electronic visitation systems.
Paulettra James, co-founder of Sistas in Prison Reform, said she spent thousands of dollars to fund her incarcerated son and husband. Her husband is currently incarcerated at Deerfield Correctional Center in Southampton County and her son is at Coffeewood Correctional Center in Culpeper. The fee is used to cover commissary expenses, phone calls, stamps and taxes, James said.
“One thing that statistics and science have shown is that people who have constant contact with loved ones are less likely to reoffend,” James said. “It’s important for families to stay in touch with their loved ones, it gives them a sense of hope, a sense of stability and a sense of being loved.”
Findings from the nonprofit research and advocacy group Prison Policy Initiative confirm this. Prisoners, as well as their families and loved ones, also have better health and better school results when they have contact.
Of the. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, introduced a companion bill with identical goals to Morrissey’s measure, but added language incorporating prisons.
Lawmakers made several amendments to Hope’s bill, which resulted in the development of a task force study led by the Department of Corrections.
Morrissey’s amended bill created a task force led by the State Board of Local and Regional Prisons that will involve law enforcement organizations and advocacy groups.
“Although a task force was not the ideal scenario, I look forward to reviewing the results of the study published by the task force,” Morrissey said.
The Senate bill was drafted by Shawn Weneta, a political and advocacy strategist with the ACLU of Virginia. Weneta served about 16 years on a 30-year embezzlement conviction and was pardoned by former Governor Ralph Northam.
The measure would have reduced hidden taxes, increased public safety and kept families connected, according to Weneta.
“People who can’t afford to send the least to someone who is incarcerated have to pay the most,” Weneta said. “It’s predatory profiteering on the backs of the people who can least afford it.”
The incarcerated are a “captive market” that gives the state government control over the price of goods and services, according to Ben Knotts legislative liaison with Americans for Prosperity in Virginia.
“When we told the committee that in some cases they were charging $40 for 100 accounts of Advil in some of these prisons, I mean their mouths literally hit the floor, they were shocked,” Knotts said.
Morrissey said he introduced the bill to regulate and reduce costs in prisons, including costs for phone calls, emails and police items.
“These expensive items and services are not just a burden on incarcerated people; these costs fall primarily on the inmate’s family and loved ones,” Morrissey said in an email. “We, as members of the General Assembly, cannot allow these practices to continue.”
A commission is taken on sales from the commissary, which include items such as toothpaste, feminine products, and food.
Benjamin Jarvela, assistant director of communications for the Virginia Department of Corrections, said VADOC takes a 9.5% commission on the office’s sales. The rate is expected to drop to 9% by this summer.
VADOC commissions “are among the lowest in the country,” according to Jarvela, who said commissioner commissions in several other states exceed 30% or more of triple the VADOC rate.
Commissioner’s Sales Fund programs and “quality of life services” for inmates, including travel assistance for families of eligible inmates, according to Jarvela. The funding also helps defray the costs of cable television and recreational equipment, he said.
VADOC takes about 5 cents in commission for each email sent, according to Weneta.
Email fees are used to supplement funding for post-secondary education and job training programs for inmates, according to Jarvela. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, there are stark disparities between prisons across the state in how much inmates are charged for a 15-minute phone call.
Hampton City Jail and William G. Truesdale Adult Detention Center charge about $11 for a 15-minute call. Many other prisons in Virginia charge around $4 or less, according to 2019 data from the Prison Policy Initiative. Inmates housed in Virginia prisons who use the Securus phone provider service often pay the highest rates, according to the report.
Phone service providers charge about $2 for phone calls to the Hampton City Jail, while family and friends of inmates pay about $10. That leaves the sheriff collecting about $8 per 15-minute call, according to Weneta.
“What happens is the sheriff artificially quintuples the price of a phone call and gets an 800% commission on that call,” Weneta said.
Advocacy groups such as the Humanization Project, Worth Rises and Americans for Prosperity have researched where the imposed fees went.
“We found that over the past five years, Virginia Sheriff’s Offices collected more than $183 million in commissions, but spent only about $9 million on programs to benefit incarcerated people.” , Weneta said.
The Virginia Sheriffs’ Association did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Some fees are meant to hurt people who can’t afford them, Weneta said. For example, it costs $6 to deposit $25 into an inmate’s trust account, but only $10 to deposit $300, he said.
Legislation introduced proposed that the fee charged when depositing into an inmate’s account could not exceed 3% of the amount received.
Prison vendors take advantage of low-income families with limited financial means, according to Bianca Tylek, executive director of Worth Rises. The non-profit organization is focused on dismantling what it sees as a multi-billion dollar exploitative industry. Tylek has led several campaigns to make prison phone calls free.
“We know that people often don’t have $300 to put in an account and so you know, usually those who make deposits of much smaller amounts are the most exploited,” Tylek said.
Impact on families
Many families of incarcerated people face financial burdens to communicate via email and phone calls. More than a third go into debt trying to pay connecting fees, according to the Who Pays report. The report was a national community-based research project with multiple partners.
“What we found in our research is that one in three families go into debt just trying to stay in touch with an incarcerated loved one, and those costs were highest in prisons,” Weneta said. .
Knotts said a woman in his congregation helped raise his incarcerated daughter’s son.
“She can barely afford diapers, we had to help cover the cost of diapers and essentials,” Knotts said. “One of the things she really struggles with is the amount of money it costs to talk to her daughter.”
The study’s report is due in December 2022. Morrissey hopes the task force will help lawmakers draft legislation next year that would better regulate costs, he said by email. .
By Safia Abdulahi
Capital News Service
Capital News Service is a program of the Robertson School of Media and Culture at Virginia Commonwealth University. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.