RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — A bill to cap what some consider unfair fees in jails was rejected in the Virginia General Assembly, but a push to allow people incarcerated in state prisons to communicate with loved ones for free still has a chance.  

Del. Irene Shin (D-Herndon) said her bill, which was rejected by a House panel on Thursday, would’ve put guardrails on “price gouging” in local and regional jails. She said it would have limited how much facilities can jack up food and hygiene products, while still allowing items to be priced at a maximum of 10% above the typical market rate in major retail stores. It also would have eliminated the cost of phone calls on an inmate’s approved call list.

“The mark up inside jail commissaries is exorbitantly high,” Shin said.

For example, Shin said a care package of candy at the Virginia Beach Sheriff’s Office’s online store costs $21.25. She said she purchased the same items at Kroger for a little over $13.

Advocates argue its a regressive tax on a largely low-income population.

“The problem is that we don’t understand how much sheriffs are making on the fines and commissions of these commissary items and on the phones. We don’t know how much they’re spending on the welfare of the inmate programs which they claim to be doing,” Shin said.

A work group established by the General Assembly last year tried but failed to get that information. Stakeholders on the panel say important financial details were heavily redacted.

“I found it very difficult and challenging to get straight answers and I don’t think I have answers today,” Del. Patrick Hope (D-Arlington) told the House Public Safety subcommittee on Thursday.

“I think it’s appalling,” Del. Angelia Williams Graves (D-Norfolk) echoed. “To send a heavily redacted report that is in essence useless to the committee that has been commissioned by this body I think is a little bit disrespectful.”

Those reactions came just before the subcommittee voted 5-3 to “lay the bill of the table,” a gentle way of killing legislation. Del. Amanda Batten (R-James City), who chairs the panel, said she would send a letter to the State Compensation Board requesting another study.

John Jones with the Virginia Sheriff’s Association opposed the bill during public comment, citing the unknown price tag.

“Again, we would like to know what it is costing and where the money is going, but I can assure you it is going to support programs that are good for the inmates,” Jones said. “We have an automatic incentive to do the right thing to make sure the inmates go back into the community to be productive citizens.”

Norfolk Sheriff’s Office Colonel Michael O’Toole said eliminating fees would have a devastating impact on rehabilitative programs and would force them to cut services.

“If the fees go away, tablets will go away. So will your telephones,” O’Toole said.

With one bill shot down, a similar proposal targetting state prisons still has a chance in the Senate.

If passed, Senator Jennifer Boysko (D-Herndon) said it would allow incarcerated people to communicate with loved ones free of charge. She said keeping in touch with loved ones sets people up for success once they’re released from prison.

Santia Nance, whose fiance is currently incarcerated, is among those who could benefit.

“The incarcerated population, they’re not the ones paying for this out of their pockets. It’s not them, it’s us. It’s the mothers, the fathers, the sisters, the brothers,” Nance said. “They’re paying hundreds of dollars to hear the voices of our loved ones.” 

A budget amendment from Senator Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax) would replace the lost revenue.

The Virginia Department of Corrections has not taken a stance on the bill but a spokesperson said changing to a taxpayer-funded model would cost the state roughly $10 million each fiscal year.