By Liesl Graber, contributor
As some in Harrisonburg call for criminal justice reforms, debate over a fee in local jails has opened up wider conversations about how best to help those caught up in the legal system.
According to Virginia law, the county sheriff can charge inmates up to $3 a day toward the cost of keeping them. Middle River Regional Jail in Verona charges $3. Rockingham/Harrisonburg Regional Jail charges $1 a day, which is linked to getting access to the commissary.
The “keep fee,” as it’s called, has drawn attention from local activist groups, most prominently during the Criminal Justice Board rally in October. The group Faith In Action has made eliminating the keep fee part of its 2018 campaign. The activists say the fee creates an added and unnecessary financial burden on inmates and their families.
But Sheriff Bryan Hutcheson said the Rockingham/Harrisonburg jail “keep fee” amounts to an annual average of $125,000 in potential revenue for the jail―if each person held in the jail elected to pay the fee.
“It’s a minor, not unreasonable, attempt at cost recovery,” Hutcheson said. “It’s not an attempt to be unfair.”
Inmates do not have to pay the fee, he said. “The fee just makes them eligible for the reward [of access to the commissary],” he said.
And once someone leaves the jail, the debt does not follow.
“I’m not going to send them a bill for $30. It’s only a debt in the walls of this building,” he said. The debt resurfaces only if inmates return to the jail because of another run-in with the law.
Without the fee, inmates have access to the basics: three nutritionist-approved meals a day, basic hygiene facilities and medical care. With the fee, inmates can access items in the commissary.
“They usually buy things like Ramen noodles, honey buns,” Hutcheson said.
No obvious replacement
Rockingham/Harrisonburg jail inmates access $8,000 worth of commissary items on average per week, he said. If inmates cannot afford to pay the $1 fee, then the commissary charges should be lower, Hutcheson said. “The numbers just don’t support that argument.”
City council member Richard Baugh said the fee is a residual effect of a 20-year-old system.
“The majority of City Council would like to see the fee go away,” Baugh said. However, it’s not the council’s call, but is the sheriff’s decision.
Earlier this year, the City Council informally approached Hutcheson about “absorbing” the annual $125,000 generated by the keep fee. Hutcheson declined.
“I assume that means it’ll come out in taxes,” Hutcheson said. “How can I explain that to a victim? There are at least two guys upstairs right now who murdered somebody. They pay the keep fee. They order from the commissary. How do I explain to the victim’s family that they are now paying for those guys’ honeybuns?”
Hutcheson didn’t slam the door on the idea of eliminating the fee.
“If someone can give me a practical idea that doesn’t involve taxes, I’m all ears,” he said.
Hutcheson said concerned community members should investigate practical solutions to “absorb” the fee, such as establishing a fundraiser or a sponsor-an-inmate program.
“Let’s think about what an actual solution could look like,” he said.
Costs of being in jail keep ‘adding up’
Jane Meiser, whose son was housed in the Rockingham/Harrisonburg jail, said the fee was punitive. She described her experience with the keep fee while her son was incarcerated for 7 months.
“Money just went very quickly,” she said. “All of it fell on the family, adding up and adding up.”
She tried purchase items for her son from the commissary.
“You can’t hardly get any money to them. And when you do, you’re buying the travel-sized bottles of toothpaste, shampoo, soap, all at what ends up to be regular price. There’s an extra $4 fee for cash deposits to his account and $6 for using a credit card,” Meiser said. “The least they can do is take away that extra dollar. It adds up.”
Kim Kenyon found herself in Rockingham/Harrisonburg jail facing charges related to embezzlement.
“I wasn’t even found guilty yet,” she said.
Jails are short-term facilities that house persons awaiting trial or sentencing, and persons sentenced to one year or less, usually for misdemeanors. Prisons, by contrast, house inmates serving sentences of more than one year.
“I didn’t expect it to be as horrible as it was,” Kenyon said. “The support of friends and my church is what kept me sane. A lot of people don’t have support like that. The jail environment is all they have. They say they’re not coming back, but then they go home to parents who give them drugs, and they end up right back here.”
Recidivism is one of the biggest problems facing local jails, including Rockingham/Harrisonburg. Of the 586 inmates held there Sept. 27, 494 — 84 percent —had been in the jail before, according to jail records provided by the sheriff’s office.
Hutcheson said he has seen no connection that paying the fee causes financial problems that lead people to commit more crimes and land back at Rockingham/Harrisonburg jail.
“The cycle happens when they go home to the same crew, the same bad influences,” Hutcheson said. “It’s not a system problem. It’s a society problem. Whatever happens to bring them back, happens on the sidewalks of our community.”
Paying for jail time ‘forever’
Hutcheson said the goal is not to lock up someone “and throw away the key.”
“We want them to succeed,” he said.
Baugh echoed Hutcheson’s assessment.
“It’s in our best interest for all members of our community to be successful,” Baugh said.
But the current system most businesses use for hiring employees puts anyone who has served time at a disadvantage.
“We ask the question: Do you have a criminal record? If the answer’s yes, there’s a disconnect. Move on to the next applicant,” Baugh said. “Some of this is on us.”
After finishing her sentence, Kenyon took work with LLC Communications, binding books in the local a publishing press, consistently lifting 75 pounds of book materials and operating machinery.
“It wasn’t the kind of work I was cut out for, but I knew they hired felons, so I went for it,” she said. “There was no interview.”
Before officially going full-time with LLC, Kenyon fractured her finger in a machine and was on medical leave for a year.Kenyon applied for Aramark, Marshalls, Coca-Cola—trying to use her college degree in marketing.
“They loved me. Well, until the background check at corporate office,” she said.“As if doing time is not enough, we must pay for it forever.”
Eventually, Kenyon found a job with Virginia Panel Corporation in Waynesboro, where owner and president was willing to talk with her in person. “Someone finally gave me a chance,” Kenyon said.
Meiser’s son struggled to find a job post-incarceration too.
“He took temporary work. He even got some job interviews,” she said. “But as soon as they saw the felony… It makes it hard.”
Baugh said he supports the “ban the box” campaign, which advocates for making the job application process easier for those who have served time. The “box” on applications asks applicants whether they have committed a felony.
“It starts a winnowing out process, puts them right on the reject pile,” Baugh said. “Removing the box removes a substantial barrier.”
Doing so would allow a person who has made a mistake more quickly get on new path.
“It gives them,” he said, “a fighting chance.”