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Some Agencies Balk at Releasing Prison Phone Data

by Mike Rigby

It is common knowledge among PLN readers that prison and jail phone rates are priced far above those in the free world. But just how overpriced are they? What is the average kickback (commission) rate provided by phone companies, and how much in kickbacks is paid each year nationwide?

In an effort to obtain a comprehensive overview of the prison phone market, I was hired to help acquire phone contracts, rate information and commission data from all 50 state prison systems as well as the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) and selected county jails. I requested the same data from all agencies yet the responses, and what was initially produced, varied widely.

Responses to the requests for phone data were varied, but the norm was a mixture of bureaucracy and indifference. I was often routed from department to department, from one person to another, before reaching someone who had the authority or initiative to provide the requested information.

For example, the Alabama Department of Corrections (DOC) readily produced its commission data, but obtaining the prison phone contracts from the uncooperative state purchasing department took multiple calls and emails to 5 different agency officials.
Actually obtaining copies of the documents entailed having a local supporter go to their office in Montgomery, Alabama to photocopy the documents since the agency refused to photocopy and mail, or scan, fax or otherwise release the documents to me. They would only provide them for “inspection” in their office. In seeking the Kentucky documents I was channeled through 4 separate state agencies and instructed to file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request through the Finance Cabinet (which turned out to be the wrong department) before finally receiving some but not all of the data. Agencies in Pennsylvania and Iowa sent my requests to their legal departments.

A fairly common practice was to charge a fee for the requested documents. Some agencies waived the fees, but several demanded payment even after being informed the information would not be used for commercial purposes. These included agencies in the states of Ohio ($17.05), Illinois ($22.50), Delaware ($25.00), Idaho ($38.40), Oregon ($75.00) and Maryland ($78.00). Washington State and North Carolina provided the records for nominal fees of $1.25 and $5.00, respectively.

The Good

A minority of agencies quickly and freely provided the requested data and expressed a desire to know how their phone rates compared to those in other prison systems. Among the most cooperative were agencies in Alaska, Kansas, Colorado, Massachusetts, Montana, New Hampshire and Nevada. The Nebraska Department of Administrative Services was also helpful, noting that Nebraska’s prison phone rates were among the lowest in the nation because the state does not receive commission payments.
In subsequent follow-up emails, state officials in Louisiana, North Dakota, Indiana, New York, South Carolina, Idaho, Maryland and Hawaii were helpful in supplying additional information.

The Bad

A number of state agencies and DOCs behaved like recalcitrant children, shouting “no, no, no!” to repeated requests to waive fees or produce the records in electronic format at reduced rates. Among the most uncooperative and bureaucratic were agencies in Arkansas, Hawaii (initial requests), Iowa, Kentucky, Alabama, New Mexico, New York (initial requests), Oregon, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia and the BOP (which eventually produced rate information but no data concerning commissions). Some of these agencies simply ignored the requests. To acquire the Iowa documents, for example, it took no less than 10 phone calls and emails to the same DOC contact person. In seeking the West Virginia data, over a dozen calls, emails and voicemails went unanswered.

The Ugly

Deserving special mention for their unfriendly attitudes are the Arizona and Mississippi DOCs. Arizona prison officials were completely unwilling to help and demanded an outrageous fee of $651.00 for production of their phone contract data. Thanks to the assistance of the Arizona ACLU who assisted us with the request by having one of their employees go to the DOC headquarters and copy the requested documents, we were able to obtain them. They refused to waive the fees or copy only certain parts of the contract at a reduced price and then only with a personal representative physically going to their office. The Arizona DOC further claimed they do not track commission revenue; in other words, they allegedly have no idea how much the state makes off prisoners’ phone calls.

Even worse, the Mississippi DOC refused to produce the requested information under any circumstances. After ignoring multiple requests for phone-related records, the DOC’s FOIA officer produced a court order from an earlier case “barring release of the information.” PLN then had to file suit against the Mississippi DOC and its prison phone service provider, Global Tel*Link, to eventually obtain the documents.

For those states that are reluctant to provide copies of their prison phone contracts and commission data, which are public records, one must wonder what they have to hide. See this issue’s cover story for the results of PLN’s prison phone research project.

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