Inmates get indulgences, for a price
From hot-and-spicy pork rinds to new underwear, inmates across Hampton Roads must buy it all from their jail's canteen
By Scott Daugherty
CHESAPEAKE — The Chesapeake Correctional Center doesn't allow outside food.
Extra socks from home are also forbidden.
And special soap? Don't even try it.
But that doesn't mean inmates are barred from indulging in some comforts while they sit in jail. They just have to pay extra for them. From hot-and-spicy pork rinds to new underwear, inmates across Hampton Roads must buy it all from their jail's canteen.
While the in-house convenience store programs are popular - sales in Chesapeake exceeded $1 million last fiscal year - inmates and their families are quick to criticize. It's a shakedown, they say.
Inmates have to pay fees to access the canteen, and their friends and family usually have to pay fees to add money to an inmate's account. Then there are the products' prices, which some view as inflated.
A package of chicken-flavored Maruchan Ramen noodles goes for $1, a pack of playing cards for $2.20, a pouch of Fresh Catch tuna in water for $3 and a pair of boxer shorts for $3.85, according to a Chesapeake price list.
"I think it is ridiculous, but that is their way of making money," Sarah Ayers of Chesapeake said earlier this year after her fiance was sentenced on fraud charges. For several months, she had been putting about $20 a week into his account so he could buy extra food.
Sheriff Jim O'Sullivan and other jail administrators stress that the canteens exist for safety reasons.
"When we limit what comes in, we limit the contraband," said O'Sullivan, who doesn't even let inmates wear long johns into his jail for fear they will hide needles in the seams. "It's not that we are trying to make money off of this."
He noted that the jail provides indigent inmates with necessities - such as three meals a day, toothbrushes, toothpaste and shampoo - free of charge. Most jails even give inmates writing utensils, paper and a few stamped envelopes to help them communicate with their attorneys.
Some facilities - such as the Hampton Roads Regional Jail and the Western Tidewater Regional Jail - let families bring extra underwear and socks to inmates, as long as the clothing is new and properly packaged.
Other jails - like Chesapeake and Norfolk - let inmates wear extra layers when they are booked.
"People who know what they are doing will wear five T-shirts, five pairs of underwear and five pairs of socks," said Capt. Michael Keough, who oversees correctional services for the Norfolk Sheriff's Office.
In addition to keeping contraband out, jail administrators said the canteen helps correctionalofficers keep potentially unruly inmates in line.
"Inmates follow the rules because they don't want us to take this privilege away," said David L. Simons, warden of the Hampton Roads Regional Jail, which houses some inmates for Hampton, Newport News, Norfolk and Portsmouth.
"It's the old carrot and stick," Keough said. "If you take away the canteen, it gives them no reason to behave."
Administrators acknowledged the canteens do make money.
Five of the six jails in South Hampton Roads contract with private businesses to operate their canteens. For a cut of the profits - 27.5 percent in Chesapeake, 29 percent in Norfolk and 42.5 percent at the Hampton Roads Regional Jail - the jails give the company exclusive access to the inmates.
Last fiscal year, Chesapeake netted $230,211 from the canteen. Norfolk netted $160,975 and the Hampton Roads Regional Jail netted $302,905, officials said.
Under state law, money spent at the jail must be used to benefit inmates - and not go towardcorrectional officer raises or new facilities.
In 2010, Virginia Beach Sheriff Ken Stolle cut ties with his contractor - The Keefe Group - and opened his own canteen.
"I thought we had the staff to cut out the middleman," said Stolle, who in the past couple of years has launched two other programs to help the jail collect even more money from inmates.
Last year, the Virginia Beach canteen made a profit of about 40 percent, according to statistics provided by the sheriff's office. Under the Keefe contract, the profit margin was 33 percent.
The canteens also help cities collect extra fees from inmates that would otherwise be difficult to recover. The jails are allowed to charge inmates up to $3 a day to help defray the costs of their incarceration.
According to a report compiled by the state's Compensation Board, operating costs at the six jails average between $45 and $76 an inmate.
The daily fees are deducted from the inmate's canteen account, which will accrue a negative balance if the inmate's friends and family don't add money. If inmates want to buy anything from the canteen, they must be current on their fees.
"If that's not extortion, I don't know what is," said William Ganzenmuller VI, 29, of Chesapeake, who has been in and out of trouble with the law several times the past couple of years. He went on to call correctional officers "idiots" if they can't safely get a pair of boxers into the jail.
While a jail can legally charge an inmate up to $3 a day, most charge between $1 and $2. Any more than that, and inmates stop using the canteen, several administrators said. The Western Tidewater Regional Jail is the only local facility that charges $3 a day.
"If I thought I could get $3 a day, I would go for $3 a day," O'Sullivan said, explaining why he charges $1.50.
Stolle recalled when he charged $3 a day for a few months in early 2010.
"We tried that for a while, but it was counterproductive," said Stolle, who quickly decided to go back to charging $1 a day. "We were losing money."
For some inmates, however, access to the canteen is worth almost any price, officials said.
"If you don't have any canteen over there, your life is pretty miserable," Troy K. Merritt of Walt's Bail Bonds said. "Other than a good lawyer, the canteen is probably the most important thing an inmate can have."
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