RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — The cost of talking on the phone and buying basic goods behind bars could be cut if Virginia lawmakers follow recommendations laid out in a new report.
The report released earlier this month includes feedback from various prison reform advocacy groups, formerly incarcerated individuals, members of the Virginia General Assembly and other stakeholders.
It says implementing the proposed policy changes could cost the state more than $28 million annually, much of which is currently coming out of the pockets of incarcerated people and their loved ones.
Throughout the 54-page document, the Virginia Department of Corrections disputed some cost estimates and raised concerns about several recommendations. VADOC declined an interview request on Monday. A spokesperson said the agency has no further comment beyond the initial responses included in the report.
Many of the recommendations focus on making the cost of communication cheaper for those serving time in state prisons.
The report recommends giving each incarcerated person at least 120 minutes per day of no cost phone calls. VADOC said, under their current contract, a phone call costs roughly 4 cents per minute and the state doesn’t collect any commission on those communications.
The report also recommends making video visitation free. These rates were recently cut in half, meaning it currently costs $4 for 20 minutes and $8 for 50 minutes.
When it comes to email services, VADOC collects a 5 cent commission for each outbound message. The report says secure messaging should be unlimited and the state’s commission should be eliminated.
Santia Nance, an advocate with Sistas in Prison Reform, said she spends up to $100 per month staying in touch with her fiancé in prison. She said many families can’t afford it and some go into debt just to keep in contact with loved ones.
“Not being able to talk to your family without paying a ridiculous amount of money is just terrible,” Nance said. “Incarcerated people need to talk to their families in order to become productive members of society because 99 percent of the people incarcerated in Virginia are going to come home.”
In the report, VADOC said inmates continue to use the communications system to engage in illegal activity. The agency said many of the proposed changes would require additional resources, including a substantial increase in security staff to screen messages. State officials said they are continuing to review the recommendations while seeking new contracts with the lowest possible costs.
The report also calls for increasing daily spending on prison food from $2.20 per person to $4.00 per person. Supporters argue it would improve quality, mitigate diet-related health problems and reduce the need to buy extra commissary items.
Meanwhile, the report says the state should end its nine percent markup on items sold in prison stores, such as snacks, basic hygiene products and writing materials. Advocates describe it as an unfair tax on a largely low-income population.
“People are only allowed to make about $50 to $60 a month that are incarcerated no matter what your job is there…They can’t afford anything on their own,” Nance said. “Can’t we find that money somewhere else other than putting it on the backs of the families?”
The report recommends replacing the lost revenue from the commissary fee with a new investment of $4 million annually from the General Assembly, in addition to possible tax refunds for families starting at $500 to offset the cost of commissary purchases.
VADOC said the added fee pays for important programs and resources, including cable TV, faith-based services, appliances and re-entry pilot programs.
“Relying on a taxpayer (general funds) model to replace these funds puts these services at risk when there are significant budget cuts but would still require the VADOC to provide uninterrupted services to the inmate population without adequate funding,” the agency said in the report.
The report touches on some other possible funding sources, such as leasing unused land and seeking federal grants.
State lawmakers ordered this report to get more information ahead of the 2023 session, when there may be further action on these recommendations. Another report focused on local and regional jails is expected to be published by Dec. 1, 2022.