Problems: For most consumers, emails and phone calls are “free” with people’s internet or phone service plans. In Virginia’s prisons and jails, those incarcerated are charged excessive fees for communication services and inflated prices for items purchased at commissaries. Emails are $.25 each, if purchased in bulk, or $.39 each if only five emails are purchased. Calls are $.0409 per minute ($2.45 per hour). Video calls are $4 for 20 minutes. The costs are primarily born by the families of incarcerated people. Virginians spent more than $50- million on commissary, telephone calls, video communications and media in VADOC in 2021. One in three families with an incarcerated member goes into debt to communicate with them. Incarcerated people’s families are disproportionately low-income.
Those incarcerated need regular communication with children, parents and loved ones. Regular communication supports the well-being and mental health of those who are incarcerated and reduces recidivism of those who get released because they have been able to maintain family and community ties. Children have less trauma and improved outcomes if they can talk regularly with their incarcerated parents. Discouraging communication because of the exorbitant fees is costly to families and the society and short-sighted in terms of recidivism.
The reason why costs for basic communication and goods in the commissaries are so high is because well-connected firms are allowed to earn extravangant profits in exchange for commissions (kickbacks) to the prisons. Some sheriffs in Virginia have even received training cruises in the Carribean as part of the contracts.
Other states have developed approaches that allow for free or very low-cost emails, telephone calls and video calls, thus allowing those incarcerated to stay in regular contact with friends and family members without creating financial hardships.
Check out VICPP's Prison Profiteering 2023 Fact Sheet and other resources below.
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