The Business of Incarceration: How a New Bill Could Mitigate Unjust Fees on Incarcerated Individuals
A bill in the Virginia House of Delegates authorizing a work group to thoroughly evaluate how to best reduce or eliminate private fees levied on individuals currently incarcerated in the Commonwealth is heading to the Virginia Senate for approval.
HB1053 passed by a unanimous vote through the General Assembly last Friday, merely a week after passing unanimously through the Committee on Public Safety.
For many, the Virginia Department of Corrections’ policy of contracting out services such as food provision, transportation and medical care is not shocking information, nor is it inherently a harmful practice. Yet, the specific practice of allowing privatized businesses to provide food and other commissary items to those currently incarcerated now leaves such individuals forced to pay 2x, 3x, sometimes over 10x the amount they would for the same product on the outside.
A recently released thread by the American Civil Liberties Union comparing the price of a product in a correctional commissary at New River Regional Jail to the average price of such a product at Walmart demonstrated the drastic differences in price.
If an incarcerated individual drinks coffee, 4oz of Folgers will cost them $7.90 compared to $3.34 at Walmart. A tube of toothpaste fares slightly better, priced at $6.65 in the commissary and $4.48 at Walmart. The most flagrant upcharge listed by the ACLU is for ibuprofen — a particularly cruel upcharge given the product’s function in alleviating pain — which goes for $1.98 per 100 tablets at Walmart and $32.50 at New River Regional Jail.
The costs don’t end with food. A 2018 Prison Policy Initiative study recorded that those using a phone in a Virginia jail pay as much as $14.65 at the Lebanon Community Correctional Center or $14.30 at the Culpepper County jail for a 15-minute phone call. It’s important to note that at any time, over 45 percent of those detained in a Virginia correctional facility are there pre-trial — meaning they have not yet been found guilty of any crime.
This isn’t the first time private, for-profit prisons and jails — or the privatization of certain facets of incarceration, as HB1053 addresses — have been challenged by state legislators. Most recently, Senator Addam Ebbin put forth a bill during the 2021 legislative session entitled the “Corrections Private Management Act,” which would have forced the Director of the Department of Corrections to stop entering into contracts with outside contractors “for the operation of prison facilities, including management, custody of inmates, and provision of security.”
Ebbins’ bill died by a vote of 11-4 in the Senate Rehabilitation and Social Services committee last session. Nine of the eleven state Senators who cast ballots against Ebbins’ bill in committee last year had received donations ranging from $250 to $1,000 from GEO Group Inc. during the 2020 election cycle, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.
In a Jan. 2022 opinion piece for the Virginia Scope, State Senator Boysko and Del. Patrick Hope joined forces with the Humanization Project and SALT to shed light on what they see as the perceived inhumanity of the present state of fees facing those incarcerated in prisons and jails throughout the state.
To illustrate their point, the authors highlight quantitative evidence of the impacts of incarceration on families. One in three families with an incarcerated family member at some point fall into debt to communicate with them, two-thirds of families with an incarcerated member have trouble covering basic expenses, and on average an incarcerated individual spends $188 per year on commissary goods in a Virginia correctional facility, according to the piece.
Boysko and Hope join the 98 additional Delegates who support convening a work group to investigate the state and burden of such fees. If passed in the Senate, the bipartisan workgroup will include one formerly incarcerated person and one family member of a currently incarcerated person, giving voice to those whom prison profiteering impacts the most.
Additional members include at least one representative from various stakeholder groups — “the Virginia Sheriffs' Association, the Virginia Association of Regional Jails, the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, Worth Rises, Social Action Linking Together, Justice Forward Virginia, the Sistas in Prison Reform, Americans for Prosperity, a vendor that provides telephone services to local correctional facilities within the Commonwealth, and a vendor that provides commissary services to local correctional facilities within the Commonwealth,” according to the legislation.
It is the hope of Boysko and Hope that legislators from across the aisle will come together to support such an initiative. The bill would, at the very least, provide an opportunity to honestly and thoroughly evaluate the ways in which the ever-increasing privatization of Virginia’s correctional facilities serve as a “regressive tax on the Commonwealth’s most vulnerable people, disproportionately harming families and children.”
The views expressed above are solely the author's and are not endorsed by the Virginia Policy Review, The Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, or the University of Virginia. Although this organization has members who are University of Virginia students and may have University employees associated or engaged in its activities and affairs, the organization is not a part of or an agency of the University. It is a separate and independent organization which is responsible for and manages its own activities and affairs. The University does not direct, supervise or control the organization and is not responsible for the organization’s contracts, acts, or omissions.