VIRGINIA BEACH — A 2003 Virginian law allows jails to charge inmates up to $3 a day for room and board while incarcerated, but most of that money goes uncollected, according to balance sheets from the Virginia Beach Sheriff’s Office obtained through a FOIA request.
Under Sheriff Ken Stolle, the Virginia Beach Jail has devised a system to make up for those unpaid jail fees without pursuing former inmates.
And like most good ideas, it all begins with food.
The jail has a canteen, where inmates buy items like snacks, toiletries, or clothing. However, it costs inmates to have an account.
“If an inmate wants to buy something from the canteen, a dollar a day is deducted from their canteen accounts,” Stolle said.
That’s how the jail is sometimes able to get $1 of the $3 per day it is legally authorized to charge inmates.
If inmates do not have a canteen account, that $1 per day and the additional $2 are billed to inmates upon their release, which the city rarely collects.
“That money is nearly impossible to collect”
Since 2002, more than 160,000 inmates have been released from the Virginia Beach Jail. Those inmates currently owe the city $8.7 million in outstanding jail fees, according to data provided by Capt. Linda Richie through a FOIA request.
But the jail has not sent those outstanding fees to private collection companies — although it’s authorized to do so — nor does it track down inmates for the debt.
“That money is nearly impossible to collect,” said Kathy Hieatt, spokeswoman for the sheriff’s office. “We could take them to court, but doing so would take a tremendous amount of resources and, even with a court order, people cannot pay money they don’t have, which is often the case.”
The sheriff’s office still collects some of that money through Virginia’s “Set Off Debt Program,” which allows state agencies and localities to collect debt through state tax returns, unclaimed property, or lottery winnings.
The city has collected $183,958 in jail fees through that program since 2002, or 2.1 percent of the total money owed.
Although Stolle does not actively attempt to collect jail fees from released inmates, he did admit to researching the possibility years ago.
“We looked into whether collecting the debt was feasible or not, but the lawyers wanted 50 percent of the debt.” Stolle said.
In the end, Stolle decided that pursuing private debt collection on former inmates just wasn’t right.
“I mean, when are you going to stop sentencing them?” Stolle said. “We hammer them in court, we hammer them in jail. When they’re released, their sentences should be over.”
As a way to balance the millions of dollars in unpaid jail fees, Stolle’s office has figured out a way to make up for that lost revenue.
An online market helps bridge the gap
Caremart is an online market that offers items like hot meals, card games or candy that relatives can buy for inmates.
CareMart does not cost $1 a day to use like the canteen, Stolle said. But families do pay a premium to use CareMart. That premium — fees worked into the prices — goes to the jail.
Since Stolle implemented CareMart in 2010, CareMart fees have generated $10.5 million for the city, according to statistics provided by Hieatt. That far exceeds the $8.7 million in unpaid jail fees owed by former inmates. CareMart money is less restricted than canteen revenue.
“Any profits from the canteen have to be spent directly on inmate services” per Virginia Code, Stolle said. “But that’s not the case with CareMart; we can use that money for operations of the jail,” like hiring new staff or buying equipment.
The online market is also a privilege that can be taken away, which helps incentivize good behavior among inmates.
“It saves the taxpayers money, too,” Stolle said.