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Wisconsin County Bans Profiteering in Jail Phone Contracts

On September 20, 2007, the Board of Supervisors for Dane County, Wisconsin enacted an ordinance amending the way the county contracts for jail telephone services. The ordinance requires that jail phone contracts (1) must not generate revenue to the county and (2) must be awarded to the lowest bidder consistent with public safety.

In addition to telephone contracts, the jail’s commissary and laundry services were similarly protected from price gouging. The only exception to the county’s amended contract requirements was for fees “associated with security of the jail or electronic monitoring for release programs.”

The county currently contracts with Inmate Calling Solutions, Inc.
(ICSI), which pays the county 57% of profits gener-ated from phone calls made by prisoners at the jail. Under ICSI’s contract, the phone calls cost an unconscionable $4.25 for the initial connection plus $.50 per minute, resulting in an $11.75 charge for a 15-minute call. The county’s jail phone revenue has amounted to almost $1 million annually.
County Supervisor Dave de Felice noted the county had become “addicted to this money,” and said “We’ve lost our moral compass and direction for a million bucks a year.”

Proponents of the ordinance who addressed the Board of Supervisors included student activists, parents with a son in jail and a University of Wisconsin (Madison) Law School professor. They argued that it was the board’s moral obligation to stop profiteering off the families of their poorest and most disenfranchised citizens. Indeed, many prisoners in the jail are pre-trial detainees who are unable to post bail and cannot afford to call their families due to the high phone rates.

Still, wary of the $1 million drop in the county’s $500 million annual budget, the supervisors minimized their pain by delaying the effective date of the ordinance until March 1, 2009, after the current phone contract with ICSI ex-pires. Following heated debate the Board of Supervisors’ vote was 24-11 in favor with two board members absent. The ordinance was approved by County Executive Kathleen Falk on October 4, 2007.

County and state governments nationwide should take note and follow Dane County’s progressive leadership in pro-hibiting exorbitant phone rates that price gouge prisoners and their families. Now it remains to be seen if Dane County will follow through and not change its position between now and 2009.

Sources: The Capital Times; Dane County, WI Ordinance Amend. No. 12, 2007-

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