Los Angeles County Jail Exploits Prisoners, Families with High Phone Costs
by Derek Gilna
Officials with Los Angeles County’s jail system have been criticized by County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky for exploiting prisoners and their families by charging excessive phone rates. “Everyone’s making a lot of money at the expense of inmates’ families,” Yaroslavsky said.
Prisoners’ rights advocates, including Prison Legal News, have cast a spotlight on exorbitant prison and jail phone costs for years, but reform has come much too slowly. [See: PLN, Dec. 2013, p.1; April 2011, p.1]. Meanwhile, county sheriff’s offices around the country have long enjoyed a steady revenue stream from inflated jail phone rates, including L.A. County.
According to a September 8, 2014 news report, under its current contract with phone service provider Global Tel*Link, the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department receives 67.5% of the revenue generated from jail phone calls in “commission” kickbacks, with guaranteed minimum annual payments of $15 million. Global Tel, an Alabama-based company, provides the county’s jail system with about 5,000 pay phones.
One prisoner’s mother, Kim Iannone, said that after her son was arrested she received an automated call from the company requiring her to set up a prepaid account to accept phone calls from the jail. The cost to fund the account? At least $25.
Her son made one call for about six minutes and Iannone was charged $3.15. After he was released she presumed her money would be automatically refunded, but that was not the case. She was told she had to pay a refund fee of $5.00. She wasn’t happy, saying: “The Los Angeles jail system steals from us.”
Global Tel*Link took over the county’s jail phone contract in 2008 without the benefit of competitive bidding. At that time the company’s rates were $3.54 for the first minute and $.10 for each additional minute, but Global Tel later lost the contract to Public Communications Services (PCS), which cut the rates to $1.25 for the first minute plus $.15 per additional minute. Global Tel then acquired PCS and regained the county’s jail phone contract in September 2011.
L.A. County Sheriff’s Department spokesperson Karen Dalton said commission payments from the phone contract are used to fund education programs and upkeep at the jail, and if the county didn’t “have those dollars, we wouldn’t be able to provide life skills [programs] and other resources.” However, Yaroslavsky noted that just because people are incarcerated, “That doesn’t give us the right to fleece them.”
The situation in Los Angeles County, unfortunately, is only the tip of the iceberg. Across the U.S., county sheriffs receive substantial amounts of money from phone service providers at the expense of a captive audience and their families – which explains why groups such as the National Sheriffs’ Association (NSA) have opposed prison and jail phone reforms.
For example, on October 30, 2013, the NSA, American Correctional Association and Major County Sheriffs’ Association submitted a joint letter to the Federal Communications Commission, expressing “extreme disappointment and fundamental concern” with the FCC’s order capping interstate prison and jail phone rates, and stating the FCC had “failed to appreciate the complex and specialized environment in which inmate calling services are offered.”
The organizations wrote they were not opposed to “reasonable regulation of [phone] rates and fees that inflate the cost to the consumer.” However, they apparently objected to regulations that reduce the amount of commission kickbacks received by sheriff’s offices.
Los Angeles County has the largest jail system in the nation, and the minimum $15 million in annual commission revenue the county receives under its contract with Global Tel is more than the phone revenue received by any state prison system except Ohio.
Sources: Los Angeles Times, Topeka Capital-Journal, www.dailykos.com
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