House Bill 2039 could place cap on commissary prices in Virginia jails

Published: Feb. 3, 2023 at 5:22 PM EST|Updated: Feb. 3, 2023 at 6:52 PM EST
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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (WVIR) - Commissary costs are high in jails across the Commonwealth, but a bill in the General Assembly would put a cap on the prices if passed.

“It’s certainly a concern not just for me, but all the jails in in Virginia,” Albemarle Charlottesville Regional Jail Superintendent Martin Kumer said.

Jails in the Commonwealth all choose their own prices for commissioned items. ACRJ buys its snacks from a third party, then ACRJ sells the items to inmates. Jails add a mark-up to the item, to create commission to fund services and programs for inmates. Though some, mark the prices up higher than others.

Virginia Del. Irene Shin, D-Loudoun is pushing to change that. At a committee meeting, she made a comparison of prices by pulling out candy packages, and explaining how they would be more expensive in a jail.

Inmates pay for these additional snacks and also phone calls with money sent to them by family members.

“When inmates come from other facilities to our facility, they do say that our prices are lower than other facilities,” Kumer said. “Total commission on an annual basis is somewhere between $400,000 to $500,000.” Kumer said.

House Bill 2039 would cap or eliminate that up-charge, but Kumer says that would then limit the money for services inside ACRJ. It would be a multi-year effort to help inmates, who have no other option than to pay the listed jail’s commissary prices. 57th District Delegate Sally Hudson is in favor of the bill.

“When you put the burden of the costs on the inmates, it gets easier to turn a blind eye to how much money the system is spending overall,” Hudson said.

Superintendent Kumer says the upcharge helps offset the cost to taxpayers.

“If we don’t have that source of revenue, we will then have to go back to localities and ask for more revenue to fill in some of those gaps,” Kumer said.

“I think the other really important recommendation of the report is reducing the cost of phone calls from inmates to their families outside, that’s a really important part of allowing people to stay connected with their communities, which eases the reentry process is, which is what we should all be invested in. We want people to transition back into their regular lives as connected members of the community,” Hudson said.

The bill would limit the amount of money jails and their third-party contractors can make from inmates.

“From the study that came out this fall, that Virginia’s prisons in jails, our correctional facilities are over reliant on the fees charged to inmates to fund their budgets. And that’s especially hard on the residents, because prison jobs don’t pay as much as work outside,” Hudson said.

Kumer says he negotiates the markup with providers every three years in their contract.

“We put price to the individual first and then commission second,” Kumer said. “[The money] provides programs. Everything from birth certificates for inmates to salaries for substance abuse, counselors, education, recreational equipment, books.”

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