Jail officials are taking a month to ponder eliminating a $1 daily fee charged to most inmates to offset the cost of their keep.
Col. Martin Kumer, superintendent of the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail, told the jail advisory board that the money comes from inmates’ “canteen” funds, money donated to the inmates by family, friends and others.
He said a contract negotiated last year with the jail’s commissary provider has generated enough money for the jail that the fees can be waived without hurting the jail budget in the next fiscal year.
“It’s a humanitarian issue to me,” Kumer told the board. “The $1 is not coming from the inmate but from friends, family, churches and nonprofits that are trying to make a difference and help them out.”
The inmate canteen funds may be used to buy candy, snacks, art supplies, playing cards, hygiene products and clothing at the jail commissary. It also helps pay co-pays for medical treatment received by inmates.
Inmates also can use money from their account to purchase phone time credits or prepaid phone cards in order to make outside phone calls to friends and family members.
The jail gets a cut of the proceeds from those sales.
Income generated by commissary sales, by law, must be spent on activities or programs that the jail is not required to provide. That includes most education programs, recreational equipment and other programs not related to health, room and board.
The $1 daily fee currently generates more than $80,000, about half of the amount inmates actually owe at $1 a day.
Kumer said he has talked to inmates’ relatives and others over the years who have said they will not give to an inmate’s canteen fund because they don’t want to pay the $1 a day fee.
“It’s anecdotal, but I’ve heard it a lot,” he said. “The fee punishes inmates and families who can least afford it, who had nothing to do with the inmate being in jail and who are trying to help.”
State law allows jails to charge between $1 and $3 a day from inmate funds to pay for room and board. If an inmate does not pay the fee, the jail can suspend the inmate’s access to phones and commissary.
Inmates who are trustees or work for the jail are not charged a daily fee for staying at the jail in exchange for their labor.
A different law allows jails to charge inmates in work release programs a daily fee for room and board. The jail currently charges $8 per day. The board decided more than a year ago to drop it from $9. The money comes from work release inmates’ paychecks and is not included in the commissary charge.
Kumer said the jail recently contracted with a new commissary provider and that the contract has given the jail a larger commission on sales. That could allow the jail to make up funds lost by dropping the fee.
“I believe that if this $1 a day fee is eliminated, friends and family of inmates will be more inclined to put more money on the inmates’ accounts,” Kumer said. “The jail earns a commission on both the commissary and phone system and the loss of revenue could be offset by an increase in sales at the commissary. I can’t say that for sure, but I think it’s likely.”
Albemarle County Sheriff J.E. “Chip” Harding said he was ready to vote after Kumer’s presentation.
“So a person can come into jail and if he’s poor and his family is poor, he can’t use the phone because he can’t pay that $1 a day fee,” Harding said. “But if he’s rich, he can use the phone all day with no problem because he’s got the money? I know how I’m going to vote.”
The jail board was not prepared to approve Kumer’s recommendation, however, preferring to wait until the board’s March meeting and do more research.
Some board members suggested maintaining the $1 fee along with the added commissary commission income while others sought more information on the fees charged to inmates.
The board will meet March 14 to consider Kumer’s proposal and the rest of the jail budget for the next fiscal year that begin in July.