Lawmakers opt for study over elimination of jail, prison fees

Safia Abdulahi/Capital News Service | 3/31/2022, 6 p.m.
Incarcerated people and their loved ones will continue to pay fees that advocates and some lawmakers say are too stiff.

Incarcerated people and their loved ones will continue to pay fees that advocates and some lawmakers say are too stiff.

Senate Bill 581, introduced by Sen. Joseph D. “Joe” Morrissey of Richmond initially proposed to eliminate jail fees related to the costs of an inmate’s keep, work release or participation in educational or rehabilitative programs. Additional costs include telephone services, commissaries and electronic visitation systems.

Paulettra James, the co-founder of Sistas in Prison Reform, said she spent thousands of dollars providing funds for her son and husband, both of whom are incarcerated. Her husband is currently incarcerated at Deerfield Correctional Facility in Southampton County and her son is at Coffeewood Correctional Center in Culpeper. The fees go toward commissary expenses, phone calls, stamps and taxes, Ms. James said.

“One thing statistics and science have shown is that individuals who have constant contact with their loved ones are less likely to recidivate,” Ms. 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 back that up. Incarcerated people, along with their families and loved ones, also have better health and improved school performance when they have familial contact.

Delegate Patrick Hope of Arlington introduced a companion bill with identical objectives to Sen. Morrissey’s measure, but it added language incorporating prisons.

Lawmakers made several amendments to Delegate Hope’s bill, which resulted in the development of a workgroup study led by the state Department of Corrections.

Sen. Morrissey’s amended bill established a workgroup led by the State Board of Local and Regional Jails, which will involve law enforcement organizations and advocacy groups.

“Although a workgroup was not the ideal scenario, I look forward to reviewing the outcome of the published study,” Sen. Morrissey stated.

The Senate bill was drafted by Shawn Weneta, a policy and advocacy strategist with the Virginia ACLU. Mr. Weneta served approximately 16 years on a 30-year embezzlement conviction and was pardoned by former Gov. Ralph S. Northam.

The measure would have cut hidden taxes, increased public safety and kept families connected, according to Mr. Weneta.

“The people that can’t afford to send the least to somebody that is incarcerated are having to pay the most,” Mr. Weneta said. “It’s predatory profiteering off the backs of people who can least afford it.”

The incarcerated are a “captive market,” which gives the state government control over the price of goods and services, according to legislative liaison Ben Knotts with Americans for Prosperity in Virginia.

“When we told the committee that in some cases they were charging $40 for 100 count of Advil in some of these jails, I mean their mouths literally hit the floor. They were shocked,” Mr. Knotts said.

Sen. Morrissey said he introduced the bill to regulate and decrease costs within jails, including costs related to phone calls, emails and commissary items.

“These high-priced items and services do not simply bur- den those incarcerated. These costs fall mostly on the shoulders of an inmate’s family and loved ones,” Sen. Morrissey stated in an email. “We, as members of the General Assembly, cannot let these practices continue.”

A commission is earned from commissary sales, which include items such as toothpaste, feminine products and food.

Benjamin Jarvela, deputy director of communications with the Virginia Department of Corrections, stated that the department takes a 9.5 percent commission from commissary sales. The rate is expected to drop to 9 percent by this summer.

VADOC commissions “are among the lowest in the country,” according to Mr. Jarvela, who stated that commissary commissions in several other states exceed 30 percent, or more than triple Virginia’s rate.

Commissary sales fund programs and “quality of life services” for inmates, including travel assistance for families of inmates who qualify, according to Mr. Jarvela. The funding also helps cover cable TV and recreation equipment costs, he stated.

VADOC takes about a 5 cent commission for every email sent, according to Mr. Weneta.

The email fees are used to supplement funding for inmate post-secondary educational programs and vocational education, according to Mr. Jarvela. There are glaring disparities between jails across the state in how much inmates are charged for a 15-minute phone call, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.

Hampton City Jail and the William G. Truesdale Adult Detention Center charge about $11 for a 15-minute call. Many other Virginia jails charge around $4 or less, according to 2019 data from Prison Policy Initiative. Inmates housed in jails around Virginia that use the telephone provider service Securus often pay the highest rates, the report shows.

Telephone service providers collect about $2 for phone calls to Hampton City Jail while family and friends of inmates are charged about $10. This leaves the sheriff to collect about $8 per 15-minute call, according to Mr. Weneta.

“What’s happening is that the sheriff is artificially quintupling the price of a phone call and collecting an 800 percent commission on that call,” Mr. Weneta said.

Advocacy groups such as the Humanization Project, Worth Rises and Americans for Prosperity researched where the imposed fees went.

“We discovered that in the last five years, the sheriff’s offices in Virginia have collected over $183 million in commissions, yet only spent about $9 million of that in programs to benefit people who are incarcerated,” Mr. Weneta said.

The Virginia Sheriffs’ Association supported the legislation and will take part in the workgroup to “address any issues that are documented which reflect excessive charges,” stated Executive Director John W. Jones. The authorized fees allow jails to provide inmates with virtual visits from families and support inmate work programs, which allow sheriffs to locate employ- ment opportunities for the formerly incarcerated, according to Mr. Jones.

“All of the money collected under the Code are used exclusively for the benefit of inmates in the care of sheriffs,” Mr. Jones stated in an email.

Some fees are targeted to harm the people who cannot afford them, Mr. Weneta said. For example, it costs $6 to deposit $25 into an inmate’s trust account, but only $10 to deposit $300, he said.

The introduced legislation proposed that fees charged when depositing to an inmate’s account could not exceed 3 percent of the amount received.

Prison vendors take advantage of families with low incomes and limited financial means, according to Bianca Tylek, executive director of Worth Rises. The nonprofit organization is focused on dismantling what it said is a multibillion-dollar exploitative industry. Ms. Tylek has led several campaigns to make jail phone calls free.

“We know that people often don’t have $300 to put on an account, and so typically those who are making deposits that are in much smaller amounts are getting exploited the most,” she said.

Many families of the incarcerated deal with financial burdens to communicate through email and phone calls. More than a third go into debt attempting to pay the correspondence fees, according to the Who Pays Report. The report was a national community-driven 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 contact with an incarcerated loved one, and those fees were most egregious in the jails,” Mr. Weneta said.

Mr. Knotts said that a woman in his congregation helped raise her incarcerated daughter’s son.

“She can barely afford diapers. We’ve had to help her cover the cost of diapers and essentials,” Mr. Knotts said. “One of the things that she really struggles with is the amount of money it costs to talk to her daughter.”

The study report is expected to be completed in December.

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Robertson School of Media and Culture.