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October 18, 2022

This month a state working group delivered a report to the Virginia General Assembly with policy recommendations for eliminating or reducing the costs and fees of products and services, like commissary goods, phone calls, and emails for incarcerated people and their families as mandated by bipartisan legislation passed in the 2022 General Assembly session.

Compiled by advocacy groups including ACLU of Virginia, Americans for Prosperity, Sistas in Prison Reform, Social Action Linking Together, and Worth Rises, the report’s recommendations center on changing the business model that underpins the delivery of essential goods and services in prisons. These changes are expected to lower the cost of these services while increasing connection between incarcerated people and their loved ones.

“The costs and fees the report examines are largely paid by families of incarcerated people, disproportionately low-income families of color,” said Shawn Weneta, a policy strategist for ACLU of Virginia who co-chaired the working group. “Inflated costs of goods and services aren’t a necessary price of doing business in carceral settings and continuing with a status quo that negatively impacts public safety is simply not a viable option, as the legislature recognized in asking for this study.”

With recommendations across multiple issues, the total cost of implementing every recommendation outlined in the report is estimated at approximately 2 percent of the Virginia Department of Corrections’ (VADOC) annual budget. VADOC participated in the workgroup, serving as its convener, but none of the feedback that the agency provided contained support for any of the bipartisan report’s final recommendations.

A key recommendation of the report is providing communications at no cost to incarcerated people, as states like Connecticut and California have already passed legislation to do. Calls from Virginia prisons currently cost more than in other comparable states: phone calls from Illinois prisons, for example, cost about 20 percent of the price of calls in Virginia. The report recommends that the Commonwealth move to a per-device basis for paying for voice, video, and text communication, as other localities have seen significant savings by doing.

The report also highlights the need to end commissions on goods sold in prisons. VADOC currently collects a 9 percent commission from selling goods, such as hygiene items, clothes, and food, in its prisons, while commissions on email communications can reach up to 20 percent. Some prison services are paid for solely by the incarcerated population and their families, resulting in what is essentially a regressive tax on some of the most socioeconomically vulnerable people in the Commonwealth.

“Having multiple loved ones incarcerated is twice the financial burden for myself and others like me,” said Paulettra James, a co-author of the report and co-founder of Sistas in Prison Reform. “I had hoped that VADOC would see that the recommendations of the work group would bring financial relief to families of incarcerated people, which would not only help families attempting to remain connected, but would also facilitate the incarcerated person's post-release success.”

The last major recommendation of the report is for VADOC to increase its budget for food in prisons from $2.20 per day per person to $4 per day, which would lower Virginia’s spending on prison medical services by reducing the number of incarcerated people suffering from diet-related diseases. Before the pandemic, VADOC spent over $7,000 per incarcerated person on medical expenses every year; in 2021, that number increased to over $10,500. VADOC spends roughly ten times more on medical expenses per person than it does to feed them.

Taken together, the report’s recommendations would increase connection between incarcerated people and their loved ones, which studies have shown increases prosocial behavior and engagement in rehabilitation while lowering recidivism for the incarcerated person. It also reduces the risks of negative social, emotional, academic and health challenges for the children of incarcerated parents.

For more recommendations and to read the full report, go here.

To read the letter, see the PDF below.