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Fredericksburg-area, state officials debate fees paid by jail inmates

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Rappahannock Regional Jail

State and local officials are looking at the fees paid by inmates at facilities such as the Rappahannock Regional Jail in Stafford County.

Law enforcement officers in the Fredericksburg area are asking local governments to keep inmate fees in place at the Rappahannock Regional Jail for what they deem as luxury items while a state-appointed group determines if costs charged to inmates for housing, work release, rehabilitative programs or telephone services should be reduced or dropped altogether.

The Rappahannock jail serves Fredericksburg and the counties of King George, Spotsylvania and Stafford, and three representatives from each locality comprise a board that governs the facility. The sheriff in each locality, as well as Fredericksburg’s police chief, are on the board, along with elected officials and city or county employees.

King George Sheriff Chris Giles chairs the Jail Authority Board and on Sept. 6, he made a pitch to the King George Board of Supervisors that he hopes will be repeated throughout the region. King George officials agreed, at his request, to write their legislators and ask them to not reduce or eliminate the fees being reviewed by the work group.

“Honestly, a lot of the things we’re talking about, frankly, are not necessities,” said Supervisor Annie Cupka, a former police officer in Northern Virginia. “I’m sorry, but if you do the crime, you pay the time, and it doesn’t have to be luxurious.”

She also said that the loss of fees generated—from inmate purchases at the commissary or for using tablets to stream movies or FaceTime with their families—would have to be made up by localities. She estimated King George’s share of the lost funds would equate to almost another penny on its real estate tax rate.

“That’s a big impact to our law-abiding taxpayers to have to fund some of these niceties, luxury items for those we house,” Cupka said.

But advocates for criminal justice reform argue that the inmates’ family members, who are primarily women of color, are paying inordinate amounts for meals, phone calls and web-based services that are for the most part free to everyone else. This year, the Virginia ACLU and Americans for Prosperity, a conservative political advocacy group, worked with members of the General Assembly to address what they call “prison profiteering.”

The discussions resulted in the passage of Senate Bill 581 in April. It calls for a work group, composed of law enforcement officials, criminal justice advocates, vendors who provide services to jails, one formerly incarcerated person and a family member of someone currently in jail to make recommendations by Dec. 1 on whether the fees should be reduced or eliminated.

That’s what spurred the local Jail Authority Board to turn to area governments for support. The Stafford Board of Supervisors will consider the matter on Tuesday and Spotsylvania officials, sometime soon. The issue is still being discussed internally by city officials, said Sonja Cantu, Fredericksburg’s public information officer.

Localities pay a percentage of operational costs based on how many residents are housed in the facility with Stafford having the most and King George, the least, said Col. Kevin Hudson, jail superintendent.

The formula for the current fiscal year shows Stafford paying 38.04% of operating costs; Spotsylvania, 34.25%; Fredericksburg, 22.48%; and King George, 5.23%.

Meanwhile, the money the jail makes from optional purchases through the commissary goes into another fund which state law mandates must be used solely to benefit inmates. Items paid for by the fund range from seemingly basic necessities to rehabilitative and educational services.

The list includes mattresses, linens, wash cloths and towels, razors and soap; shoes and gloves for inmate workers; salaries for chaplains who lead religious services; and programs for inmates to earn their GEDs or get mental health services. Also included are fees for interpreters; X-rays; sanitary items; appliances such as televisions, microwaves and icemakers; basketball hardware and workout and fitness equipment.

For the fiscal year that ended in June, the fees the jail earned on commissary purchases made by inmates totaled $625,576, Hudson said. He also said the jail spent more on the items listed above than the revenue generated by the commissary fees. When it’s the other way around—and not all the commission fees are spent—the revenue rolls over to the next year, Hudson said.

Then there’s another category that nets even more money: the fees inmates pay for housing, use of telephones and tablets, medical co-pays, hot meals through a vendor, community corrections intervention, drug court, work release and electronic monitoring.

Those fees generated $2.7 million in fiscal year 2022, and all that revenue went into the general fund to offset facility operations, Hudson said.

Programs for inmates covered by this fund were canceled during most of 2020 and 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but all were put back in place by July 1, 2022, except work release, Hudson said. There’s no timeframe on when it will be reinstituted.

The extra fees charged to inmates, and paid for by their families, total about $3 billion a year in the United States, according to Worth Rises, a New York-based nonprofit working to expose the commercialization of the criminal justice system.

Fees paid privately by family members are in addition to almost $81 billion in tax money that goes toward prisons, jails, parole and probation, according to a 2017 report by the Prison Policy Institute.

A June story in The Free Lance–Star spelled out some of the costs paid by local families and the rates received by the Rappahannock Regional Jail. According to contracts with various vendors, the local jail gets 45% of net web sales made by the company that provides commissary services and 95% of the revenue billed or prepaid for phone calls.

Shelley Tibb told The Free Lance–Star earlier this year than when her son used a tablet to call her from the jail, it cost $6 for 15 minutes. Emails he sent were billed at 25 cents per word. He had to pay a $2.50 daily housing fee and $4 for a hygiene kit.

“It really is a money pit in there,” she said.

A 2015 report called “Who Pays? The True Cost of Incarceration on Families,” noted that women are primarily responsible for supporting their loved ones in jail 87% of the time. Because Black, Hispanic and indigenous people are disproportionately represented in jails and prisons, those families are disproportionately bearing the burden of cost, said Bianca Tylek, executive director of Worth Rises.

“This issue of the cost behind incarceration becomes not just a criminal justice issue, but also an economic justice issue, a racial justice issue, and gender justice issue that we need to take a look at,” Tylek said during a panel discussion hosted by the ACLU of Virginia earlier this year.

Meanwhile, the other side of the coin is the view of law enforcement officials such as King George Sheriff Giles, who says there’s supposed to be a consequence to breaking the law.

“Jail is supposed to be a deterrent,” he said, “and if you can go in there and live your life as normal, that’s not a deterrent.”

Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425

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