The county has a contract with Securus Technologies, which operates phone systems in 2,200 jails and prisons across 44 states. The county’s contract with Securus guaranteed a 57.5% kickback commission from gross phone revenue, which translated to around $300,000 per month.
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle led the charge to lower the jail phone rates. She said she thought it was wrong to view prisoners as a revenue source. For one thing, the people who must pay the high cost of prisoners’ phone calls are often already poor; she noted that many prisoners in the Cook County Jail cannot afford to post bond.
“The county pays $143 a day to keep someone in jail. That’s a high cost for taxpayers to pay because defendants are too poor to make their bond payments,” said Preckwinkle.
Poor and working families in Cook County have been hit hard by the high phone rates, too. Monica Ingram, a nurse who provides homecare, was distraught when she realized, after spending $60 on calls in one week, that she would have to start ignoring her incarcerated son’s phone calls because she could not afford to accept them.
Cecily Cortez, a housekeeper and mother whose fiancé is incarcerated at the Cook County Jail, has also had a hard time paying for calls. But she maintains phone contact because “You get to hear his voice, feel his emotions through his words and pretty much it’s just more contact rather than something written.”
The high jail phone costs resulted not only from the per-minute rates and a surcharge to set up a phone account. Additional options, such as the $9.99 charge to make a collect call to a cell phone, drove up costs from expensive to simply unaffordable.
The county’s new agreement with Securus will allow prisoners to make more calls at a lower cost. The rates were cut in half, and calls can now be twice as long (paid calls have been extended from 15 to 30 minutes). Instead of a free five-minute call at booking, arrestees will get 15 minutes of free phone time. Also, the arrangement eliminates surcharges on jail phone calls and offers reduced connection fees.
Preckwinkle said that under the new rates, a 30-minute call will cost $7.00 compared to the $30.00 it would have cost previously. A 15-minute call will now be $4.00 instead of $10.00 or $15.00.
As part of negotiations with Securus, the county agreed to extend the current jail phone contract to December 2014. However, a new Request for Proposals (RFP) will go out in 2013. Preckwinkle promised that under the next contract, the phone rates will only cover the cost of installing and operating the jail phone system. In other words, there will be an end to profiting off prisoners and their families.
“My office will continue to work with the President’s office to implement the approved changes without compromise to the security and daily operations of the Department of Corrections,” Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart said. “Costs for communication to inmates should not be excessive or burden families wishing to speak with them.”
The reduction in phone costs is a welcome contrast to previous challenges to the prison phone system in Illinois. In 1999, a class-action lawsuit was filed by prisoners, prisoners’ families and a legal services organization; the suit alleged they were forced to pay exorbitant phone rates as a result of high costs driven up by exclusive contracts awarded to monopolistic telephone companies. The case was dismissed under the “filed rate” and “primary jurisdiction” doctrines, with the court deeming the matter more appropriate for the Federal Communications Commission and Illinois Commerce Commission. On appeal in 2001, the dismissal of the plaintiffs’ federal claims was affirmed on the merits. See: Arsberry v. State of Illinois, 244 F.3d 558 (7th Cir. 2001), cert. denied. [PLN, Aug. 1999, p.10; June 2000, p.19; Feb. 2001, p.19; May 2002, p.12].
For another recent victory for lower prison phone rates, see the article on reduced telephone rates for Louisiana prisoners in this issue of PLN.
Sources: Chicago Sun-Times, WBEZ Chicago, www.securustech.net, press release from Cook County Board (Dec. 18, 2012)
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