RICHMOND — It was an offhand question, for sure. But during an early-morning briefing by the Virginia Department of Corrections this week, Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, recalled eating the food served to inmates at Red Onion State Prison during a site visit to the Southwestern Virginia supermax facility several years ago.
How much, he asked, does the department spend feeding the men and women under its care?
The answer: $2.10 per day.
“Just as a comment,” he said, “we are thrifty with what we fund this agency, but for $2.10 a day, the food is not close to gourmet. It’s quite far.”
It is a serious issue. Two years ago, an inmate sued the department, alleging a diet high in processed meats and grains put him at high risk for obesity, cancer and other chronic conditions. (The DOC responded that their food is actually quite healthy, according to WVTF, which covered the suit.)
Health issues — though none specifically food related — figure prominently in the DOC’s budget this year.
Gov. Ralph Northam proposed a $5.6 million increase in health care spending for the department by fiscal year 2022. Officials say the money is needed to care for a ballooning population of inmates over the age of 50, which is expected to more than double from 8,523 this year to more than 20,000 over the next 20 years.
Officials acknowledged health care cost increases are also driven by a settlement agreement with inmates at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women that mandates specific improvements in health care standards the state has yet to meet.
Northam is also proposing $12 million over the next two years for a pilot program under which the University of Virginia and Virginia Commonwealth University’s hospital systems would take over elements of inmate care with an eye toward more extensive collaboration in the future — something Northam’s administration hopes will address problems with both the quality of care and costs.
The department once again reiterated that it doesn’t believe the care it was providing at Fluvanna was substandard, despite allegations by lawyers representing inmates that more than a dozen women died as a result of substandard care.
But they did seem to acknowledge room for improvement.
“We need to do what we’ve done at Fluvanna throughout the whole system,” said Steve Herrick, the department’s medical director. “And we’d like somebody that’s, basically, not ordered by the court and comes to us as a consultant to tell us what we need to do in the rest of the system.”
To that end, Northam’s budget includes $500,000 to review the department’s entire health care system.
At least one lawmaker suggested legal intervention might have been for the best.
“I do believe deeply that sometimes the courts make us do what we should have done in the first place, and this is an example of that,” said Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax.
Another lawmaker is pushing for additional funding for health care in the system. Ebbin said he put in a budget amendment to provide more counseling for inmates in solitary confinement, a practice he said he hopes eventually will be phased out entirely within the system.
“If you’re not mentally ill when you go into this program, you will be when you visit these cells,” he said.