by Christopher Zoukis
The ACLU of Nebraska issued a report on November 30, 2017 detailing the cost of telephone calls made from county jails in the state, concluding that phone rates remain “unconscionably” expensive. Profits for some sheriffs are so high that the ACLU compared the practice to “for-profit debtors’ prisons” of the Victorian era.
According to Omaha.com, the ACLU’s report included a cartoon used by telecom firm Encartele to promote its jail phone services. The image showed a sheriff sitting in a pile of money – the kind of money that could be obtained by contracting with the company.
Encartele is one of three for-profit firms that provide phone services to jails in Nebraska. Protocall and Securus are the other two. The companies are making so much money on phone services that they can afford to kick back huge “commissions” to county sheriffs. In Douglas County, for example, the exorbitant fees charged for jail phone calls earned the county $617,062 in 2016. Lancaster County received $397,566.
The ACLU said a prisoner in Douglas County making four 15-minute calls per week would pay about $42 a month – a little less than $3 per call – though it is typically family members, not prisoners, who pay those costs. In Saunders County the same number of calls would run $168 a month, while in Saline County the cost would be $318 – almost $20 per call.
The average cost for a 15-minute call from a jail where Encartele provides phone services was $7 to $10; for Protocall it was $14 to $19, and for Securus it was $8 to $14 – not including various ancillary fees.
In Nebraska state prisons, where phone commission kickbacks have been banned, a 15-minute call costs just $1.50.
“Phone companies should not be able to profit off incarcerated people trying to be good parents or good family members,” the ACLU stated. “Steep prices mean many prisoners will not be able to call home as often as they would choose. This is no way to achieve our shared goal of public safety.”
Don Peeler, a director with Encartele, justified the fees his company charges by citing the cost of kickbacks to county sheriffs as well as the fact that all phone calls must be recorded. He also said damage to jail phones results in increased costs – though calls from Nebraska prisons, which are much less expensive, are also recorded and phones are damaged in the prison system, too.
“Certainly we’re not for excessive fees,” said Peeler. “In my opinion some of our competitors are charging excessive fees.”
The ACLU’s 28-page report, titled “Profiting Off Lifelines,” noted that “[i]ncarceration should never be a profit generator for the government.” Lincoln County Sheriff Jerome Kramer agreed, and said he recently changed the phone service provider at his jail to limit extra fees charged to prisoners when they make calls. The new provider is Prodigy Jail Services.
“We’re not in the business of fleecing the public, even if they are inmates,” he stated. Lincoln County received $37,470 in phone kickbacks in 2016, which Kramer said was used for programs and activities to benefit prisoners.
“Jail phone service is a classic case of market failure, in which regulators must step in to ensure fair pricing and adequate functionality,” the ACLU concluded in its report. “In this broken ‘market,’ specialized phone companies use monetary commissions to entice government officials to sign monopoly contracts. Meanwhile, the people who actually use these telephone systems – incarcerated people, their families and attorneys – are shut out of the contract negotiations and must suffer the inflated phone rates and limited functionality that result from a market that prioritizes commission revenue over price and quality of service.”
Currently, prison and jail intrastate (in-state) phone rates are completely unregulated on the federal level, while interstate (long distance) rates have been capped by the Federal Communications Commission at a maximum of $0.25 per minute for collect calls and $0.21 per minute for debit and prepaid calls. [See: PLN, July 2017, p.52].
Sources: www.omaha.com, www.aclunebraska.org
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