Push to limit prison and jail fees hits early obstacle in Virginia House

"It’s punishment enough to be in the system. Why make it even harder for them?” said Santia...
"It’s punishment enough to be in the system. Why make it even harder for them?” said Santia Nance, co-founder of Sistas in Prison Reform, at a news conference calling for cost-free communications for Virginia prison inmates.(Virginia Mercury)
Published: Jan. 19, 2023 at 8:52 PM EST
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At an early-morning committee meeting Thursday, Virginia Del. Irene Shin, D-Loudoun, pulled out packages of Twizzlers, Jolly Ranchers, Skittles, Sour Patch Kids and Hot Tamales and put them in a pile on the podium in front of her.

“Are you trying to bribe us?” a committee member asked jokingly.

“Totally,” Shin said. “Is it working?”

Altogether, Shin continued, the candy trove had cost about $13 at Kroger. But at a jail commissary overseen by the Virginia Beach Sheriff’s Office, she said, the same stuff costs $21.25.

“It’s a huge difference,” Shin said as she presented a bill to limit the price markups and fees charged to inmates and their families for goods and services purchased behind bars.

Shin’s bill, which would apply to local jails, is part of a multiyear effort to limit the amount of money jails and their third-party contractors can make from captive customers who have no other options.

At a news conference Thursday morning, a pair of Democratic senators and a group of prison reform advocates touted a similar bill to require state prisons to give inmates access to free telephone calls and email communications.

“The loved ones of incarcerated people are bearing a huge burden,” said Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Loudoun. “I know one individual who spends more than $10,000 a year communicating with her loved one, caring for him. This is a tax that is put on individuals who do not have a dollar to spare. And we will continue to advocate for them as long as it takes.”

Advocates for incarcerated people say it’s often low-income families, and particularly women, who end up paying for extra food, clothing and hygiene products for inmates. Family members also foot the bill for communication fees, a setup advocates say makes it harder for inmates to maintain connections with the outside world that can help them successfully re-enter society.

“If we’re going to be forced to have tens of thousands of people in these prisons, why not make them a group of more hopeful, more rehabilitated and more connected folks?” said Santia Nance, co-founder of Sistas in Prison Reform.

The reform effort has run into resistance from jail and prison administrators, who have argued a rushed overhaul of their operations could have unknown impacts on their budgets and the security of their facilities.

Boysko’s bill dealing with communication fees in state-run prisons has not yet been heard, but Shin’s bill focused on local and regional jails was voted down Thursday in a Republican-led House of Delegates subcommittee.

The Virginia Sheriffs’ Association, Virginia Association of Regional Jails and Virginia Association of Counties all spoke against Shin’s proposal before the vote.

“What we do know is everything you see here is optional,” John W. Jones, the executive director of the Sheriffs’ Association, said of Shin’s candy display. “We’re going to feed the inmates. They’re going to get three squares a day.”

Shin’s proposal also got a skeptical reception from Republican legislators.


NBC12 is a partner with The Virginia Mercury, an independent, nonprofit online news...
NBC12 is a partner with The Virginia Mercury, an independent, nonprofit online news organization covering state government and policy.(Virginia Mercury)