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Virginia DOC Resists Prisoner Fee Cuts

by Ashleigh N. Dye

A report released by the Virginia Department of Corrections (DOC) on October 1, 2022, largely rejected recommendations made by a work group to reduce costs for prisoners in state lockups and their families.

Tasked by the state General Assembly, the work group focused on three major areas: communication fees, commissary fees and miscellaneous financial fees. Its recommendations could have saved prisoners and their families $20.3 million per year. But prison officials and lawmakers pushed back, arguing the public should not pay higher taxes to make life easier for those serving time.

Prisoners in the state are paid a maximum of 45 cents an hour for the work they do, leaving them unable to afford many goods and services without financial help from friends and family, many of whom are low-income.

DOC did not accept most recommendations regarding communications. The work group had proposed more phones, more phone numbers on prisoner contact lists and 120 minutes of free phone time per day. The group also recommended free video calls, scrapping email limits and making email free for prisoners. DOC cited lack of staff and equipment to accomplish most of this, along with security issues and worry that distractions would keep prisoners from learning skills or participating in re-entry programs.

Regarding commissary costs, the work group called for eliminating the 9% commission charged to prisoners on commissary goods. It also asked DOC to explore having more commissary vendors, even retail giants Amazon and Walmart. Citing logistics and security challenges, DOC said it would do little except “explore the possibility of reducing markups on underwear and other basic hygiene products.”

In the area of financial fees, the work group recommended that DOC reduce or eliminate fees for prisoners receiving money, accessing trust funds upon release or having health, medical, employment, and educational and treatment records provided post-release. DOC responded that “[we] shall continue … to leverage the best rates for the services provided. Our mission in obtaining any financial services contract for individuals in our custody considers, when applicable, that cost to friends and families. “

The agency also defended its debit release card program against criticism from the work group, calling it the most efficient way for ex-prisoners to access funds. But it offered a vague promise to “examine the possibility of using alternative methods of providing funds to individuals upon release.”

The nail in the coffin for at least one of the proposed changes was driven by the GOP-led House of Delegates on February 7, 2023, when House Bill 2039 was sent to die in the Public Safety Committee. Sponsored by Del. Irene Shin (D-Herndon), that law was an attempt to shift some of the financial burden of being incarcerated away from the incarcerated themselves by capping commissary costs.

Sources: Virginia Mercury, US News, WVIR, WVTF

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