28 children sit together in class, each striving for academic success. While every individual faces their own challenges in the pursuit of learning, only one must overcome hurdles placed in their way because of someone else’s actions. This is because one in 28 American children has an incarcerated parent, and despite being innocent of any wrongdoing, they must endure the ripple effects of incarceration. Virginia prides itself on individual rights, individual consequences, and individual responsibility. We have looked down on other countries that punish children and innocents because of the actions of a family member. Yet we are doing just that in Virginia in 2022. How so?
For families, incarceration creates immense financial pressure. Families of the incarcerated are disproportionately poor, and the loss of wages and support from a parent often drags families further into poverty, causing lasting trauma for children. The effects are evident; boys that grow up with parents in the bottom 1% are 4000% more likely to be incarcerated as an adult than ones with parents in the top 1%. Despite these facts, jails and prison facilities are engaged in a Faustian bargain with large companies to increase their budgets by financially exploiting these already marginalized families.
One in three families with an incarcerated member goes into debt to communicate with them; two in three struggle to pay for basic expenses. Family contact of any kind reduces recidivism substantially and is one of the best predictors of successful reentry into society. Conversely, reduced contact between children and their incarcerated parents increases the risk of negative social and academic outcomes for the child and the likelihood of reincarceration for the parent. With these facts in mind, a look at the prices of services in Virginia prisons and jails raises concerns.
In VADOC facilities, users must pay $0.04/minute for phone calls, $0.40/minute for video visitation, $0.25 per email, and excessive rates for essentials like hygiene items (toothpaste, deodorant, etc.) and food. The funds mostly go to private corporations. But, VADOC takes a commission on all sales except phone and video visitation. Public entities have the authority to regulate the fees for goods and services in Virginia while also making money from each transaction. This is a clear conflict of interest. Virginians should ask themselves a simple question; when was the last time you had to pay $0.25 to send an email?
Based on FOIA data from several Virginia prisons, private companies extracted an estimated $30 million in revenue from Virginians in Fiscal Year 2021 alone. To be clear, the vast majority of these funds do not come from incarcerated people, but from hard-working, tax-paying families. Last year, VADOC collected $417 thousand in commissions on media sales and millions more in commissary commissions. These funds are supposed to be used for the welfare of incarcerated people. But in prison, anything from basic facility maintenance to security features is often justified as increasing welfare. VADOC collected $188 per incarcerated person in commissions from Fluvanna prison alone in Fiscal Year 2021. That may not sound like a lot to most people, but for the parents already struggling to raise children while their partner is incarcerated, $188 makes a difference. Is the relatively small budget increase from commissions worth the additional harm they cause? Surely Virginia, with its record budget surplus, can fund essential functions without exploiting poor families.
Jails operate on a similar system but each negotiates the terms and pricing for services independently. Phone pricing data demonstrates the variability of prices. According to the Prison Policy Initiative’s 2018 survey of jail phone prices, the most affordable facility is the Richmond City Jail, charging $1.05 for a fifteen-minute call. However, the Culpeper County Jail, charges $14.30 for the same length call, leading former FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn to call the American carceral communication system, “the clearest, most glaring type of market failure I’ve ever seen as a regulator.” It’s difficult to argue with her assessment.
The commissions taken by public entities are a regressive tax on the Commonwealth’s most vulnerable people, disproportionately harming families and children. Legislation will be introduced in both chambers of the General Assembly to end these predatory practices as well as increase funding to ensure we don’t have to compensate budget shortfalls by overcharging families trying to stay connected to their loved ones. Virginia efforts are being led by organizations like Worth Rises, The Humanization Project, Americans for Prosperity, and Social Action Linking Together. We hope every policymaker will seize this opportunity to demonstrate where our values truly lie. Governor-Elect Youngkin and fellow Republicans ran on a platform of cutting taxes and strengthening families. If they’re looking for a tax to cut, this one should top their list.
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