Families ask lawmakers to lower cost of prison phone calls, products: ‘It’s ridiculous’

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Paulettra James’ unconventional love story comes with an unwelcome cost. 

James met her husband while he was incarcerated with her son at a state prison in Virginia. She says she has spent about $40,000 over a six-year period to keep in touch with both of them behind bars. 

“It’s astronomical the amount that I’m paying to stay in touch with my loved ones and to ensure that they can eat decent food,” James said. “It’s certainly a financial strain for me, especially when I’m in a single income home.”

For Santia Nance and her fiance, who is also serving time in a state prison, that strain was underscored by the coronavirus pandemic. Video calls were as close as they could get to an in-person visit. 

“It costs $20 to talk to someone on what looks like a 2005 web cam,” said Nance, co-founder of “Sistas in Prison Reform.”

Nance has also noticed unusually high prices for certain commissary products. She points to a pack of Pop-Tarts that costs her $3.50. The same item at Kroger is $2.49. A serving of Knorr Pasta Sides runs $4.50 through the prison but, at Walmart, it costs $1.48. 

“Some special granola bars or a special bag of chips can cost up to $4 and $5 for something we would pay a dollar for out here, which is just ridiculous,” Nance said. 

Shawn Weneta, a formerly incarcerated individual who now works as a policy strategist with the ACLU, said these examples are part of a nationwide problem. In Virginia, he said both state and local corrections facilities have the power to impose large commissions that inflate the cost of goods to gain additional revenue. He described it as an unchecked tax on a largely low-income population. 

“I challenge anybody to find a tax that is more onerous or more regressive than that,” Weneta said. “One in three families go into debt just trying to communicate with their incarcerated loved ones.” 

It’s an issue several bills in the 2022 General Assembly session are seeking to rein in but changes won’t happen overnight–if at all.

A bill from Senator Jennifer Boysko (D-Fairfax) would allow families to communicate with incarcerated loved ones in state prisons without cost. Video calls and emails would be available to all inmates for a fee not exceeding the price of the operating system. She said state prisons don’t charge commissions on phone calls anymore but the legislation would restore oversight of commissary contracts to prevent markups greater than 10% of the product’s average market rate at outside major retailers. 

Another proposal from Senator Joe Morrissey (D-Richmond) aims to eliminate certain fees within local jails, including those related to commissary and various forms of communication.

The Senate Rehabilitation and Social Services Committee advanced the bills but only after tacking on a clause slowing down implementation. Before the provisions can move forward, a work group of stakeholders needs to come back to the committee with recommendations in Oct. 2022. The General Assembly would then have to vote again in the 2023 session for the changes to take effect. 

In defense of his bill, Morrissey pointed to a 2018 survey from the Prison Policy Initiative that shows vast disparities in what jails across the country are charging for phone calls. It says, while Richmond City Jail was charging $1.05 for a 15 minute call, at least seven Virginia facilities were charging more than $10. 

“That’s a big delta, it’s a big profit margin, it’s unseemly and it’s un-Christian,” Morrissey said. 

John Jones with the Virginia Sheriffs’ Association doesn’t believe those rates are currently accurate but, in an interview, he couldn’t say conclusively whether the numbers were false. One facility, the Alexandria Detention Center, said their present rates are much lower than the database suggests. Others didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment. 

“I’m not seeing unreasonable fees, but again, that’s a part of this study to take a look at it,” Jones said. 

Historically, Jones said added fees have helped many local jails make ends meet during years of under-funding from the state.

“It would be improper and illegal for anyone to make money on these programs. All the money has to go to support inmates. It can’t be used for profit,” Jones said. “ I think, in an ideal world, you wouldn’t have to charge anything and everyone would get a free ride. That’s not the case. The Commonwealth of Virginia pays $4 per day per inmate to sheriffs.” 

Lawmakers are currently considering bills to increase reimbursement rates for local jails that house state inmates. There are also significant raises on the table for correctional officers and sheriffs deputies. 

In committee, the Virginia Department of Corrections raised concerns about the stability of their current contracts if this bill takes effect too soon. VADOC declined to comment further on Monday.

Republicans like Senator John Cosgrove (R-Chesapeake) said slashing fees could mean cutting back inmate education, job training and mental health programs. 

“If we start really whittling those down, those are going to go away,” Cosgrove said. “I think it’s shortsighted.” 

However, data compiled by various advocacy organizations from past “Annual Jail Revenues and Expenditures Reports” shows, of the $38,534,977 raised in commission in FY2020, just $2,150,894 was spent on “inmate programs.” It says 41 facilities reported reinvesting $0 in inmate programs. That trend is mirrored in data going back to at least FY2016. 

Jones said that’s likely due to differences in how jails are defining inmate programs.

Weneta said, “Unfortunately, the truth is in their own reports. We do believe that they are spending money on programs. However, it is not coming from the commissions. They are doing that from the money that they already have. They should not be collecting as much money as they are.”

If Virginia were to implement these policies, it would be among the first in the nation. According to Worth Rises, a non-profit advocacy organization dedicated to reforming the prison industry, Connecticut recently became the first state to make all communication in prisons and jails completely free. A handful of cities have taken a similar approach.

The bills have also won the support of Americans for Prosperity, a free market advocacy group that takes issue with the “captive market” created by the lack of competition and regulation of these services in corrections facilities. 

James said taking the cost burden off of families has benefits for public safety too, as frequent communication with loved ones has been linked with a decreased likelihood of drug use, a greater chance of finding work and lower recidivism rates. 

“Knowing they are loved, knowing they are wanted, knowing someone cares about them is what is going to change their mindset,” James said.

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