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Effort Stalls to Help Virginia Prisoners Overcharged for Canteen Sales and Phone Calls

by Kevin W. Bliss

When the Virginia House of Delegates’ Public Safety Subcommittee adjourned its meeting on January 19, 2023, it failed to advance several proposals for cutting prison and jail canteen costs, as well as one providing access to free communications for all state prisoners.

Virginia Delegate Irene Shin (D-Herndon) came to the meeting with information on canteen costs that prisoners pay compared to similar items purchased at a grocery store. Virginia Beach jail prisoners, for example, pay a 63% markup on canteen purchases.

Other subcommittee members pushed to end fees for prisoner phone calls and email. They argued that the predominately low-income families of prisoners should not be forced to pay exorbitant fees because the state Department of Corrections (DOC) has created a monopoly.

Still more recommendations were presented to the subcommittee in a report compiled by DOC officials on October 1, 2022, which said that increasing the quantity and quality of food served in prisons and county jails would reduce price-gouging occurring in canteens, while also preventing diet-related diseases encouraged by starchy, nutrient-deficient food. The report added that DOC could accomplish this while paying an increase of just 60 cents per prisoner meal. Tellingly, though, that would almost double the current daily cost to feed each of the state’s nearly 24,000 prisoners, from $2.20 to $4.

Opposition came from the Virginia Sheriffs Association, the Virginia Association of Regional Jails and the Virginia Association of Counties. They worried the changes would adversely impact DOC’s security measures and budget. How?

By potentially alienate existing vendors who already understand DOC’s security needs, the group said the agency would need to hire staff to process increased calls and canteen purchases. Moreover, cutting canteen sales would also cut kickbacks DOC receives, which fund things like workout equipment, religious services and reentry programs – potentially blowing a $28.3 million hole in DOC’s budget. State Sen. Chap Peterson (D-Fairfax) addressed that by submitting a budget amendment to bump DOC’s budget $23 million over a two-year period.

That amendment went nowhere in the GOP-led House. The subcommittee meeting also ended without much promise for prisoners and their families. Members instead voted to create work groups to review costing of the proposals, in order to compare them to the status quo.

Source: Virginia Mercury

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