We, the concerned citizens throughout the Commonwealth of Virginia, petition you to restore parole and serving 65% of time for the following reasons.
The money spent building new prisons to house those serving long sentences could be better used in three ways: to fund rehabilitative programs for inmates in the prisons, to fund re-entry programs for those leaving prison, and to fund education in...
We, the concerned citizens throughout the Commonwealth of Virginia, petition you to restore parole and serving 65% of time for the following reasons.
The money spent building new prisons to house those serving long sentences could be better used in three ways: to fund rehabilitative programs for inmates in the prisons, to fund re-entry programs for those leaving prison, and to fund education in Virginia to prevent children from going to prison.
The Virginia Department of Corrections is the state’s largest governmental department and spent $956,957,693 for fiscal year 2007, with an anticipated increase in spending for fiscal year 2008 and subsequent years.
Virginia is honeycombed with a staggering thirty-one major prisons, sixteen work centers and field units, eighty local and regional jails, twenty-three juvenile detention centers, ten Day Reporting Programs, five Division Centers, four Detention Centers, 43 Probation and Parole District Offices, as well as an array of contractual Adult Residential and Transition Facilities.
Prior to the abolishment of parole there were roughly 18,000 prisoners in the state of Virginia. Out of those 18,000 there are approximately 9,000 still in the Department of Corrections under the old parole law. Some of these 9,000 are first time offenders. To say the parole law was ineffective or will not work is just wrong. With abolishing of parole, the prison population grew from 18,000 in 1994 to 36,000 in 2005. This caused larger portions of government funds to go to prison construction and the gradual elimination of college and vocational programs from prisons in Virginia. In 2000, Virginia was spending 112% more money on prisons than in earlier years.
In fiscal year 2003-04, 794 adult offenders completed the functional literacy program, 1,477 earned vocational certificates, 360 received job title certificates, and 83 completed apprenticeships. In 2003, 771 adult students passed the G.E.D. exam. Compare these numbers to the over 40,000 prisoners locked up in Virginia now. The existing programs don't even begin to reach the majority of that population.
Since 1995, a year after the Virginia Assembly passed legislation to abolish parole, Virginia has built thirteen new prisons and an unknown number of jails. Lawrenceville Correctional Center is one of them—a privately operated prison which opened in 1998 after the Virginia Department of Corrections secured a contract with the largest private prison corporation in the United States: the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). CCA was one of the first corporations to enter the private prison business and can be traded on the stock exchange with ten other private businesses, all of which generate about a billion dollars a year in revenues. Wallens Ridge State Prison, which opened in 1999, is owned by the Big Stone Gap Redevelopment and Housing Authority and will be conveyed to the state upon repayment of bonds. It was built at a cost of $75 million.
The 2005 Agency Strategic Plan of the Virginia Department of Corrections states, “Capital expenditures for all capital maintenance reserve projects, including bed space construction, have ranged from $9.5 million to $148 million per fiscal year since 1995, with an average of $45 million in expenditures per fiscal year.” That same report also discloses that “Funding for two new major facilities, the expansion of one major facility (Deerfield), and the completion of one replacement facility (St. Brides) was authorized in 2004 with a total appropriation of $196,581,000. In the 2006 biennium, funding for two new major facilities was requested, totaling $172,424,000. As of December 2005, the Virginia Department of Corrections was responsible for the supervision of approximately 89,000 state responsible offenders, of which 53,000 are under probation or parole supervision, and 36,000 are in state custody.
In the corrections “Master Plan” population forecasts, prisoners in Virginia are expected to increase by about 5,000 by 2010. This anticipated increase in the number of people in prison is consistent with the state plans for constructing more prisons beginning with the two newly opened prisons in Pittsylvania County and Mt. Rogers Planning District, along with a 1024-bed, $100 million prison in Grayson county, and another prison in Charlotte County. The Grayson county prison has yet to be opened and is costing taxpayers 750,000 a year just to be maintained (see photograph).
The planned construction for more prisons is based on reports by the Virginia Department of Corrections that state, “The D.O.C. is overcrowded.” This “overcrowding” is in reality due to out-of-state prisoner contracting, which brought in an estimated $100 million for Virginia in 2001, with the housing of prisoners from New Mexico, Connecticut, Hawaii, The Virgin Islands, Vermont, and Wyoming. In 1995, Virginia used the same reasons to further expand prison growth, stating its own expansive population of “violent predators” would be overflowing the state’s prisons and these predators needed to be imprisoned immediately “to prevent a forest fire of crime in Virginia.”
The abolishment of parole and the imposition of mandatory sentencing obviously leads to the expansion of the prison population; however, this prison industrial complex has not helped prevent crime any more than it did prior to 1995. It was never about crime prevention and rehabilitation. It was about private corporations feeding the punishment industry and the punishment industry yielding enormous profits for private corporations.
According to the Center for Media and Publice Afrairs, crime coverage was the number one topic on the nightly news over the past two decades. From 1990 to 1998, homicide rates dropped by half nationwide, but homicide stories on three majory networks rose fourfold. During the same period that crime rates were declining, prison population soared.
In 1994, the Virginia General Assembly, under pressure from then Governor George Allen who abolished parole the following year, changed state law to allow for “joint ventures” between Virginia Correctional Enterprises (VCE) and private businesses. “Virginia’s Prisons, they are wide open to business,” proclaimed a promotional brochure and trade magazine advertisements. Featuring a photo of a prison guard tower, the advertisements boasted of “willing, experienced workers,” and “no employee benefit packages to fund.” The advertisement also boasted no pensions, health insurance, vacations, or sick leave.
VCE was created in 1934 and reported that in 2001 it operated fifteen industries in the sixteen state prisons. The industries range from wood furniture, vinyl binders, silk screening, and custom painting, as well as office furniture, optical devices, and automotive parts. VCE reported $33,987,011 in sales for fiscal year 1999. Prisoners employed in VCE are paid wages that start at 55 cents an hour and go no higher than 88 cents an hour.
In 2002, American prisoners produced $1.5 billion dollars worth of goods and services. Delco, Dell, TWA, Wal-mart, Toys ‘R’ Us, Chevron, IBM, Microsoft, Boeing, and Nintendo are only a few of the major corporations that have employed inmate workers. Even local and state governments are using convict labor for data entry, record keeping, and call center operations. In Linn County Mills in Oregon, Honda autoworkers lost their jobs to prisoners who were paid one-tenth of the salary of former employees.
The inequity of correctional business does not end with these examples. In recent years, businesses have discovered prisoners’ families as a major source of revenue. Prisoners can only earn 23 to 45 cents per hour, but some prisoners at least have relatives and friends who want to relieve the misery of their incarcerated loved ones. This has led to another business opportunity for companies and their allies inside the Virginia Department of Corrections. Entrepreneurs and prison administrators have siphoned money away from prisoners’ families by privatizing the commissary in 2003. Virginia Department of Corrections contracted with Keefe Corporation to run commissaries in all but six of the correctional facilities. This action runs counter to nationally-cherished “free market” principles: Keefe has been granted monopolistic control over the “stable” and “secure” investment climate of prison commissary operations in Virginia.
After securing a contract with Keefe in 2003, the Virginia Department of Corrections in 2004 reduced the already miniscule food portions for prisoners by one meal, to just breakfast and dinner on weekends and holidays. Furthermore, the Virginia Department of Corrections began feeding prisoners a very monotonous and limited selection of the poorest quality food they could obtain in order to stimulate commissary sales at Keefe. The Virginia Department of Corrections remains deliberately indifferent to the dietary needs of prisoners, knowing prisoners will seek amelioration of their condition by asking for more money from their loved ones. The Virginia Department of Corrections and Keefe Commissary, therefore, work together not only to exploit the dependency of prisoners, but even more shamefully, the sentiments of their loved ones on the outside.
Unlike other states that allow prisoners’ families to send them care packages that consist of items such as soups, long johns, t-shirts, socks, boxer shorts, etc., prisoners and their families in Virginia are forced to buy care packages at monopoly prices from Keefe. To further assist Keefe in financially exploiting prisoners, the Virginia Department of Corrections has devised a policy scheme in which prison rules discriminate against certain property items in an arbitrary manner that varies from prison to prison. So, upon transfer, the “prohibited property” of a prisoner is officially confiscated and the prisoner is then forced to spend more money on new commissary items that are similar to the items just confiscated.
Another method of financially exploiting prisoners’ loved ones is through correctional centers’ telephone services. In many states, prisoners are allowed to make only collect phone calls, with all manner of fees and surcharges added on by corporations such as AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and Global-Tel Link. As a result, the prison telephone business is worth $1 billion per year. In Virginia, the thirty-plus thousand inmates housed in state penitentiaries (as opposed to local jails) each generate an average of $225 million annually for MCI World. For the privilege of gauging them, telephone companies pay Departments of Corrections 40 to 60 percent. The state of Virginia receives $6 to $7 million a year. To maximize both the company and the Virginia Department of Corrections’ income, prison officials deliberately rejected an earlier proposal that offered lower rates.
A typical fifteen-minute long-distance phone call made from a Virginia correctional center in Pocahontas cost $9.20. In the Federal Bureau of Prisons, phone companies are not allowed to overcharge prisoners’ relatives, so that same fifteen-minute phone call costs only $3.00. Price disparities such as these led the Virginia State Corporation Commission (SCC) to order MCI to lower its rates. A special bill sponsored by State Senator Thomas K. Morment, however, caused the General Assembly to retroactively remove the correctional telephone contract from the SCC’s jurisdiction, thereby nullifying its ruling against MCI. MCI, meanwhile, gave Morment the third largest campaign contribution of any legislator in the current political cycle.
Keefe Commissary Network also continues to give corporate support to the Virginia Association of Regional Jails’ Vice President Lou Barlow; the Virginia Department of Corrections; the Virginia Correctional Association(VCA); and Virginia Sheriffs Association and Institute.
Numerous studies and statistics demonstrate that the costs of imprisoning people far exceeds the financial costs of educating or sending people to college. This begs the question why do lawmakers in Virginia continue to press for wasting tax dollars and valuable human lives to incarcerate increasing numbers of people and “throw away the key”? Lawmakers drain our tax dollars through the building of more prisons and the housing of more prisoners with no chance of coming home. These same lawmakers cut teachers’ salaries and public school funding while spending billions a year just to maintain an extensive prison infrastructure at the same time that the Virginia Lottery boasts of “helping Virginia’s public schools.” The educational needs of the Commonwealth cannot be met by exploiting the aspirations and compulsive behavior of dispirited working people by encouraging them to spend their wages on false hopes. Education is the key to crime prevention, incarceration, and our social economic problems. To neglect educational funding and continue to funnel money into the mass incarceration of people in order to profit monopoly businesses is not only unethical, it is fraudulent, hypocritical, and shameful.
If the children of politicians and the wealthier classes commit crimes, they have many more avenues to assist them in avoiding incarceration than those people in urban and rural poor communities. In most cases, poor people commit crimes not because they are violent predators, but because they are uneducated and do not have the same opportunities as other more privileged classes. Furthermore, these people are usually policed more heavily than people who live in middle and owning-class neighborhoods.
What are we to think of laws that allow corporations to take jobs overseas then create an inflated criminal population that is used as a “replacement industry” for domestic production? In Virginia there are now increasingly significant numbers of people whose livelihoods have become directly dependent on arresting, detaining, managing, supervising, and surveillance of people. Prison policies seem to be increasingly designed to facilitate the corporate exploitation of prisoners and their families. The massively disruptive effect of the prison industrial complex on poor communities has exacerbated the already harsh conditions in which people live. Through these prisons, our collective wealth and resources (human, financial, intellectual) are extracted from our own communities and diverted to corporations such as Keefe Commissary, Worldwide Automotive, Global Tel-link, the Corrections Corporation of America, and many other enterprises.
The owners, stockholders, and investors of these institutions are insulated from the realities of poor, working class communities. They and their colleagues enjoy the privileges of college education, large salaries, health care, and living in crime-free and environmentally-safe neighborhoods. They are far removed from people in prison, they benefit from the present prison system, and they, therefore, have little interest in more rational and humane prison policies that focus on rehabilitation. The communities they live in do not have to confront the hopelessness and desperation of people returning to the street in worse condition than when they went into prison. The benefits that would come from parole or early release, prison programs that include college education, art classes, vocational training and the overall space for prisoners to develop their human potential in a positive, community-based direction are not of interest to those who profit from the present prison system.
What is particularly distressing is that Virginia state officials entrusted with the duty and responsibility of fulfilling their obligation of accountability to the public have often opted to pursue their own desires in the form of corporate kickbacks and other incentives.
This petition seeks to restore parole and the 65% law because it is more beneficial to society and the prisoners. Restoration of the parole law and 65% will allow for the closing of unnecessary and costly prisons. The money saved from these closings can be used to provide educational classes that would promote global awareness, anti-sexist attitudes, prevention of rape and domestic abuse, human dignity and self-respect, and classes that would in general instill prisoners with values that uphold social justice.
Prisoner visits and phone calls should no longer be a privilege. This legal status hurts the valuable relationships between prisoners and their loved ones. Any truly rehabilitative agenda should make healthy relationships between prisoners and family members a right. This would not only be humane, but also practical. Healthy family relationships create healthy members of society. Prisoners who feel they can take an active part in the lives of their loved ones—their children in particular—develop a greater sense of responsibility.
Prisoners should no longer be exploited by corporations who pay them slave wages to perform jobs that would otherwise require a living wage. Keefe Commissary should be abolished. A publicly-owned commissary operated by the Department of Corrections is sufficient to meet the needs of prisoners. Any private vendor should only serve as a wholesale supplier to the Virginia Department of Corrections. Contracts with local state vendors should be sought out. Prisoners’ families should be allowed to send commissary boxes to prisoners containing food, underclothing, and sneakers every ninety days. The Virginia Department of Corrections should secure a contract with a phone company to establish a flat rate fee system for phone calls. Furthermore, with the extensive use of cell phones prevalent in today’s society, prisoners should be allowed to purchase calling cards so they can make phone calls with those family members who do not have land lines.
As concerned, taxpaying citizens, we strongly urge you to investigate this situation and take remedial action immediately by demanding education and rehabilitation of prisoners and giving them second chances. We are all human and we all make mistakes. Requiring convicted felons to serve at least 85% of their sentence is inhumane and costly both in money and to society as a whole.
Because of the circumstances outlined in this petition, we, the undersigned taxpayers, registered voters, and citizens, believe prisoners’ rights in Virginia have been violated, and that fairness, equality, and justice is not being served. We hope serious consideration will be given to our petition and we call for fair and consistent change.
Concerned citizens of the Commonwealth of Virginia