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Prisons & private profits: Where does the money go?

Randi B. Hagi

In part two of our series on private companies that work in correctional facilities, WMRA's Randi B. Hagi talks with administrators at two regional jails and an activist who hopes to reform the market.

Clay Corbin, superintendent of the Northwestern Regional Adult Detention Center in Winchester, said the commission they receive from commissary products directly benefits the inmates.

CLAY CORBIN: That goes into inmate canteen, and that's a whole separate -- there's many rules that govern that … that's stuff that we buy basketballs and weight equipment, gym equipment … it has to be, basically, a benefit for the inmate and the inmate only.

They use the company Oasis Management Systems, based in Georgia, to provide their commissary services. Corbin said that he and his staff have at times chosen not to receive commissions on certain items, like shoes, so they can keep prices more affordable for inmates.

CORBIN: I think some misconception, too, is people think the jail just solely looks at what's the best revenue for the jail, but we have many conversations about, can the inmates afford this? Is this something good for them? And what all can we do to enhance their experience here too, you know what I mean? We want to keep tension levels low. So the bottom dollar isn't always our top priority.

Both Northwestern Regional and Middle River Regional Jail, in Staunton, have contracts with the Falls Church-based Global Tel*Link, or GTL, for phone services. According to a 2019 contract, the company charges those incarcerated at Northwestern Regional 19 to 25 cents a minute for most calls, and guarantees the jail a monthly commission of at least $42,500. GTL also pays the jail $100,000 a year in 'supplemental payments.'

Corbin said that, with the jail's entire budget, he prioritizes offering more and better programming options, such as a new collaboration with Northwestern Community Services Board on mental health and peer recovery programs.

CORBIN: That's the future of corrections, is programming. So that's what we're trying to do.

According to a June 2020 contract, GTL pays Middle River just over $41,000 a month in commissions. Superintendent Jeffery Newton said he has to balance the costs of running the jail and the costs charged to families, all in consideration of how many services their in-house staff can reasonably provide.

Credit Randi B. Hagi
Jeffery Newton (wearing mask) is superintendent of Middle River Regional Jail.

JEFFERY NEWTON: The telecommunications piece is a real challenge for us, because we get a level of service that we wouldn't be able to provide without the contract. But we're cognizant that the inmate himself is not paying for that service. And so we have had the same rate for a phone call for years, predating my employment. We're very careful to make sure that we keep that rate low -- or, reasonable. I'm not going to say it's low, but reasonable, because we understand who is actually paying that bill.

Phone calls at Middle River cost 13 cents a minute.

NEWTON: … there is income that's generated from that, and so that should come back to the benefit of the facility. And we do use that to help reduce the cost to member jurisdictions.

GTL also has a contract with the Virginia Department of Corrections, but since 2015, their rates in the prisons have been set at about four cents a minute, and DOC does not make a commission on phone calls -- although they do on emails and other digital media, which is provided by the company JPay.

Some advocates are hoping to curtail the revenues that facilities can make from these commissions, and prevent the companies themselves from charging too high a markup. Shawn Weneta is the legislative liaison with the Humanization Project, a group that works to humanize people behind bars in Virginia and beyond. He'd like to see bipartisan legislation in the General Assembly addressing this issue.

Credit Shawn Weneta
Shawn Weneta is the legislative liaison with the Humanization Project.

SHAWN WENETA: In addition to the cost that these vendors charge, the price of these goods and services is then inflated, and then that inflated cost is then funneled into the Department of Corrections under the umbrella of what's called a site commission. So there are millions of dollars that are being collected by the Department of Corrections off the backs of people that are incarcerated, as well as their loved ones.

He said that, if the Department of Corrections has a budget gap, they should come to the legislature to fill it, not vendors. As for the companies providing the services --

WENETA: We're basically saying prices charged for items or services sold in these stores or commissaries, which include the rental or sale of electronic devices or media … soup and hygiene products and tennis shoes and things like that, through any of these vendors contracted with the Department of Corrections, it shall not exceed 10% of the cost of the general market rate for such goods and services.

Weneta said two omnibus reform bills have been submitted for drafting, and patrons include State Senator Jennifer Boysko and Delegates Patrick Hope, Kaye Kory, and Irene Shin – all Democrats -- and Republican Delegate Mike Cherry.

Randi B. Hagi first joined the WMRA team in 2019 as a freelance reporter. Her writing and photography have been featured in The Harrisonburg Citizen, where she previously served as the assistant editor; as well as The Mennonite; Mennonite World Review; and Eastern Mennonite University's Crossroads magazine.
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