The Cost of Incarceration in West Virginia - Women Beyond Bars
portfolio_page-template-default,single,single-portfolio_page,postid-15763,ajax_fade,page_not_loaded,,no_animation_on_touch,qode_grid_1400,hide_top_bar_on_mobile_header,qode-content-sidebar-responsive,qode-theme-ver-16.8,qode-theme-bridge,disabled_footer_top,disabled_footer_bottom,wpb-js-composer js-comp-ver-7.7.2,vc_responsive

The Cost of Incarceration in West Virginia

In 2017, the West Virginia Department of Corrections spent approximately $26,000 a year to house, feed, and medically care for the inmates in the state prison system. That came to over $183 Million in prison-related expenditures according to the WVDOC annual report. This included personnel services (~$64 Million), Employee Benefits (~26 Million), Inmate Payroll (~485 thousand), and even Inmate Medical (~21 Million). This budget also includes the upkeep and utilities for the prison facilities.

Graphic Source: West Virginia Division of Corrections

The cost of incarceration to the state’s tax payers is only part of the story. In the last 20 years, West Virginia has seen a 142 percent increase in incarceration from 1996 when there were 2,435 inmates in West Virginia prisons to June 2017, when the DOC reported 5,894 inmates. One of the fastest growing populations in prisons is women. The war on drugs, begun in the 1970s, pushed mandatory minimum sentencing laws, which have resulted in longer sentences for non-violent drug offenses, and more women in prison.  Lakin Correctional Facility, West Virginia’s female prison, had 504 inmates in September 2018. It’s full capacity is 543.

Besides the loss of employment income, the families of incarcerated inmates can suffer additional financial burdens when an inmate enters the prison system.

  1. Commissary- In prison, inmates get only what they are assigned when they arrive. At Lakin Correctional Facility , in West Columbia, each woman receives her clothing, sheets, blanket, toothbrush, toothpaste, 3-in-1 soap, deodorant, shower shoes, a pencil, stamps, and envelopes upon arrival to the facility. Any other items that they may need, they are required to purchase at commissary. According to WHO? FACILITY CAN’T TELL YOU THAT.Lakin Correctional Facility, the top paying job pays $1.50 per hour, so it takes women time to earn enough to buy basic hygiene products they need for daily life. If they run out of items, they are responsible to replace those items, either with the money they earn at their jobs, or by having family members send them money. Nancy Nicholas went to prison 3 times over the course of 4 years. She went to Alderson Federal Prison Camp, a federal facility in West Virginia. She went to prison the first time, receiving no commissary. This means that when Nicholas went to prison, she received no extra money, and relied on her job in the prison to purchase the items she needed. She worked 162 hours in the kitchen of the prison and made $14 in that position. Nicholas said, “ My sons, they would send me money. I always felt so bad to have to take money from them…for them to send me $15. I cherished every bit of the help they gave me.” 

Prison Policy Initiative, an organization researching polices that lead to mass incarceration, reported in Illinois and Massachusetts, incarcerated people spent over $1,000 per person in commissaries, over the course of a year. Commissary costs vary with each facility in each state, but in 2016, Prison Policy estimated that prison and jail commissary sales came to “$1.6 Billion per year nationwide, based in part on data from a 34-state survey by the Association of State Correctional Administrators.”  They chose those two states because they were representative of the spectrum, and could give

  1. Travel- Staying in touch with incarcerated family members can be an additional financial burden. Because Lakin is the only women’s correctional facility, family members have to travel from as far away as the Eastern Panhandle, which is around 5.5 hours from the prison. The drive could add more financial burdens including hotel costs if the distance is too far for a single day trip.
  2. The cost of prison phone calls has been in national news as prison reformers have highlighted the high costs of calls causing some families to lose communication privileges. Nicholas says that when she was incarcerated, she was limited to 300 minutes a month to speak to her loved ones. When her son was involved in a car accident, the time wasn’t enough, and she didn’t receive additional time despite the accident. Emergencies such as an accident or a death in the family, can consume the time that the prisoners are allotted, leaving them without communication.

Incarceration can come with some “hidden” fees that go along with communicating and caring for an inmate. These expenses can add up significant amounts of debt for both inmates and their families. While the degree of debt varies from inmate to inmate, most can still expect some sort of cost to come with incarceration.

Nicholas said that she is still working to get back on her feet, two years after her last prison sentence. She maintains her farm of miniature pigs and fights addiction every day. She said that she’s still working on her relationship with her children and grandchildren. She said the biggest cost she’s faced, is trying to fix those relationships that were damaged by her incarceration.

Story, video and graphic by Darren Hartwell

Cultural Costs
addiction, commissary, Department of Corrections, jail, Lakin Correctional Center, Mass Incarceration, prison, Prison Policy, Prison Policy Initiative, rehabilitation, West Virginia, Women, Women Incarcerated, WVDOC, WVU