Reduce or kill inmate fees

Published 6:46 pm Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Bleeding-heart liberalism and law-and-order conservatism sometimes have common interests that partisans don’t want to acknowledge.

Such is the case with an unsuccessful bill in this year’s session of the Virginia General Assembly to eliminate certain fees that inmates pay during incarceration. Senate Bill 581, authored by Sen. Joseph Morrissey, D-Richmond, would have eliminated fees for participation in educational or rehabilitative programs and for privileges like telephone services, commissaries and electronic visitation systems.

Instead, lawmakers opted to study the proposal and take it up again next year.

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Perhaps surprisingly, the Virginia Sheriffs’ Association supported the legislation and will take part in the workgroup that studies it. Many of those responsible for the state’s prisons and local jails understand that inmates’ experience while behind bars has a huge effect on recidivism when they get out.

Paulettra James, the co-founder of Sistas in Prison Reform, told Capital News Service reporter Safia Abdulahi about spending thousands of dollars providing funds for her son and husband, both of whom are incarcerated — her husband at Deerfield Correctional Facility in Southampton County and her son at Coffeewood Correctional Center in Culpeper. The fees go toward commissary expenses, phone calls, stamps and taxes.

“One thing statistics and science has shown is that individuals who have constant contact with their loved ones are less likely to recidivate,” James told Abdulahi. “It’s important for families to stay in touch with their loved ones. It gives them a sense of hope, a sense of stability and a sense of being loved.”

The nonprofit research and advocacy group Prison Policy Initiative backs that up with data showing that incarcerated people, along with their families and loved ones, also have better health and improved school performance when they have contact with one another.

Some of the fees charged inmates or their families are clearly exorbitant.

Ben Knotts, with Americans for Prosperity in Virginia, noted that “when we told the (legislative) committee that in some cases they were charging $40 for 100 count of Advil in some of these jails, I mean their mouths literally hit the floor; they were shocked.”

We hope the studygroup recommends elimination or a significant reduction in inmate fees. An inmate who uses his time behind bars productively is more likely to be a law-abiding citizen upon release. That’s an outcome everyone should desire.