© 2024
Virginia's Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The price of life in prison

Denise Holsinger has spent more than 25 years in Virginia prisons, and she says the state provides inmates with little more than three hot meals and a bed to its inmates — what Holsinger calls three hots and a cot.

But inmates say prison fare is high in carbs and often leaves them hungry. Holsinger offers a dinner menu from last week. "Rice, white beans, carrots, a roll. Everything on there is starch," she said.

She claims food is sometimes spoiled or contaminated. "It’s not uncommon to find a bug in your vegetables."

And she can’t always eat the fruit. "I wear dentures," Holsinger noted. "I cannot eat an apple, and that’s most of the fruit they give you."

Prisoner Kristina Pongracz says the proof of chow hall problems is in the trash. "I wish they had a compost pile here!" she says. "I can’t believe the trash that comes out of this place -- the food that’s wasted, because it’s just gross."

At the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, policy strategist Shawn Weneta is not surprised. "The Department of Corrections spends about $2.20 a day to feed an adult," he explains. "That’s three meals, so for context on that — I was in the grocery store the other day and a can of dog food was $2.70."

A spokesman for the Department of Corrections said that number was misleading. By buying in bulk, the state pays much lower prices for food than the average grocery store shopper, and he notes prison farms grow some of the produce served.

Even so, prisoners say they need to supplement meals with food from the commissary, and inmate Holsinger says it’s expensive. Prices rise about twice a year, but prisoner pay does not.

"There’s been no increase in the top pay since before ’96, and that’s when I hit state grounds," she says.

The top pay, by the way, is 45 cents an hour, so prisoners depend on their families to help with the cost of commissary.

Paulettra James has spent $45,000 over the last five years ensuring her husband and son have enough food, clothing and access to telephones in prison.
Paulettra Jones
Paulettra James has spent $45,000 over the last five years ensuring her husband and son have enough food, clothing and access to telephones in prison.

For Paulettra James that’s a struggle. She’s an administrative assistant who sends money to her husband and son who are both behind bars. She recently tallied the cost of food and hygiene products, phone calls, e-mail and clothes over a five-year period.

"They came up to just a little over $45,000," she recalls. "I could have paid my car off twice with that amount."

But she feels there really is no choice.

"My husband was recently transferred. He went from one facility where he was making 45 cents an hour to where he is now, making 27 cents an hour and for 13 hours that he worked last week, it was about $5.51"

Inmates identified as indigent do get soap, toothpaste and other personal hygiene products at no charge, but they say those travel-sized items don’t last through the month.

A committee was established by the General Assembly to study canteen prices. Members like Weneta learned that part of the cost is a fee imposed by the prison itself.

"The Virginia Department of Corrections takes a 9% commission on all goods sold," he says. "The higher the prices are, the greater their commissions are."

And the state of Nevada recently learned that the Keefe Group, which supplies prisons in that state and Virginia was marking-up merchandise by as much as 40%, so Weneta says the work group here made inquiries.

"We asked Keefe for their actual cost of goods, and they refused to provide it to the study group, saying it was a trade secret."

When state lawmakers met in Richmond nearly a year ago, prisoner advocates asked them to regulate the price of goods and services offered behind bars. They noted Virginia prisoners pay four times as much as inmates in another state to make phone calls. Legislators were concerned and decided to set up a committee that could investigate.

The ACLU’s Shawn Weneta was a part of the work group which found Virginia inmates paying just over four cents per minute for phone calls – far more than inmates in Illinois.

“They use the same telephone vendor People there only pay 9/10ths of a cent per minute, so we’re paying four times what they are for the exact same service.”

It’s important, because studies show inmates who stay in contact with friends and family tend to behave better behind bars and are less likely to commit new crimes once they’re released.

"Because it gives them hope. It gives them the feeling of being loved," Paulettra James explains. "They’re staying in touch with their children that they have been separated from."

She sends money to her husband and son in prison – about $9,000 a year to provide things the Department of Corrections does not.

Inmate Denise Holsinger says prisoners get the bare minimum in free, cheaply made clothing and she notes the healthiest foods in the canteen are the most expensive, leading customers to choose cheaper products high in salt, sugar and fat.

"Probably a good 90% of the women here are overweight," she notes. "We have health problems with cholesterol, triglycerides, high blood pressure."

Which might help to explain why the Department of Corrections spent more than $200 million a year on healthcare even before the pandemic.

The work group delivered a 54-page report suggesting, among other things, that state prisons allow free phone calls, video visits and e-mail – something Connecticut, Iowa and California have done.

The Department of Corrections said no.

Officials would not talk with us about that, but they shared written objections with the legislature, so we asked Nick Hagy, an actor with Live Arts in Charlottesville, to read some of the state’s claims.

“Inmates use the communications system to engage in illegal activity such as selling drugs and endangering children through video visitation.”

James, who was on the committee, thought that should not be the basis for making prison policy.

"I’m not going to say that there are not some bad apples in the bunch, but you can’t punish everybody for one bad apple!"

And she was skeptical of a department claim that it would need another $8.5 million to monitor additional phone calls and video visits.

As for telephone charges, the department reasoned they were not a problem, since prisoners were making millions of calls each year.

The report proposed the state offer better quality clothing and serve better meals to reduce reliance on the canteen, give pay raises when prices for products go up and stop collecting an extra 9% on everything sold.

The department replied that it uses the surcharge on prison sales to pay for chaplains, cable TV, recreational equipment, washers, dryers and micro-wave ovens. Officials said they were reluctant to depend on state funding for that stuff.

“Relying on taxpayers would put these services at risk when there are significant budget cuts.”

The state did promise to make sure all inmates receive adequate personal hygiene products and clothing, adding it might be willing to reduce its commissions on certain things. It also proposed a pilot program to introduce competition by allowing Amazon and Walmart to sell in prisons.

As for improving the food, officials argued that was not necessary and would have no impact on health.

“Regardless of the meals served, inmates will still purchase items from commissary with little to no nutritional value,” it said in response to work group proposals.

But it has hired three dieticians to improve the quality and content of its meals and to educate inmates about nutrition.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief
Related Content