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

Lack of data and cooperation cloud view jail vendor contracts

Imagine for a second that you are locked up at your local jail. You want to make a call or send an email. You're going to need money. Those calls and emails aren't free, and you're going to need money in your account in order to communicate with the outside world. So imagine that a loved one is willing to put $25 in your account using a vendor called J-Pay.

"J-Pay will take $6.95 as an administrative fee on that $25 payment. In what universe would that ever be acceptable," asks Senator Joe Morrissey, a Democrat from Richmond.

This Tuesday, July 3, 2012 photo shows razor wire at the maximum-security Mount Olive Correctional Center in Mount Olive, W.Va. In southern West Virginia, they often go to the coal mines. In the northern counties, they go to the oil and gas industry. But everywhere, corrections officers are fleeing the state's regional jails and prisons for better-paying jobs. With the 49th-lowest starting salary in the nation, it's no surprise. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Steve Helber
Razor wire surrounds a prison facility.

Earlier this year, Morrissey created a work group to take a look at all the fees that sheriffs and regional jail directors assess to people locked up in Virginia jails. One of the chief aims of the work group was to get their hands on all the contracts with third party vendors so they could see how much people who are incarcerated are charged for phone calls and emails and money transfers.

But Republican Delegate Amanda Batten says some sheriffs and regional jail directors failed to hand over the documents. "The state has a responsibility to people who are in the care of the state to make sure that they are not overpaying for services and goods that are essential to their wellbeing, and it's frustrating that we didn't get all the data we needed."

Delegate Batten, who is a member of the work group, says the documents they did receive were so heavily redacted that she doesn't know what to do. "So it's difficult to figure out what type of policy to develop based on this lack of data."

Morrissey says the lack of transparency from sheriffs and regional jail directors won't stonewall his efforts to make sure people who are incarcerated aren't taken advantage of by predatory contracts. "We did not get all the data that we need in order to assess what the problem is. But it is clear from the data that we do have that with telephone contracts, email and commissary that prisoners are paying an exorbitant amount of money in order to make a telephone call, send an email or buy a bag of chips."

Those calls and emails and even that bag of chips comes at a steep cost for the people who are incarcerated and their families. Shawn Weneta at the ACLU says these fees hit poor and minority communities hardest.

"Not only are we impacting the most vulnerable communities in the Commonwealth but we are also extracting the little bit of wealth that is there out of those communities to large vendors that are out of state while at the same time padding the coffers of the sheriffs and the regional jail offices."

Sheriff's offices and regional jails not only get a commission from the contract, but one vendor of telecommunications services provide training junkets on Caribbean cruises. "The sheriffs are actually incentivized to enter into contracts that are best for them and for the vendors because they are paid a percentage of the cost in a site commission," Weneta says. "And they have no incentive to seek the best rate or the best deal or the best service for the people who are actually incarcerated who are in fact the market."

The solution, he says is to ban the practice of sheriff's offices and regional jails from taking commissions, stopping the flow of money that serves as an incentive. "If we take that moral hazard away of the commission structures that they are allowed to engage in right now, they are going to seek the best service for the amount of money they have to spend, same as you or I," Weneta argues.

In the next General Assembly session, lawmakers will be taking a look at a series of recommendations to come out of the work group. One of the key recommendations is to end the practice of charging people who are incarcerated for each phone call, making it free for them to stay connected to their jobs and their families for up to 120 minutes a day.

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

Michael Pope is an author and journalist who lives in Old Town Alexandria.
Related Content
  • The holidays are prime eating time for most Americans –even as food prices have risen, but some prisoners here in Virginia say they’re going hungry. They claim the quality of meals is terrible, portions are inadequate and food prices at the canteen are up.