by Matt Clarke
In a monthly meeting held in the ballroom of an Austin hotel on August 24, 2018, the Texas Board of Criminal Justice – the agency that establishes rules by which the Texas prison and parole systems operate – voted unanimously to reduce the cost of phone calls made by prisoners from a maximum of $0.26 a minute to $0.06 a minute. The Board also increased the cap on the length of calls from 20 to 30 minutes. The ruling went into effect on September 1, 2018.
The move came as the Board debated a new prison phone contract for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ). The new seven-year contract was awarded in a competitive bidding process to current TDCJ telecom provider CenturyLink, based in Monroe, Louisiana. It requires the company to update existing equipment and install video visitation systems in 12 facilities located in major metropolitan areas. The $0.06-per-minute rate applies both to in-state and long distance phone calls at all TDCJ facilities.
“This is great news for families who are stressed by incarceration both financially and emotionally,” said Jennifer Erschabek, executive director of the Texas Inmate Families Association, who attended the Board meeting and was stunned by the announcement. “I’m still taken aback by the reduction in phone rates. I can’t tell you how much that will mean to families.”
Victims’ rights groups and the Texas legislature had intervened in the award of the original prison phone contract. As a result of a compromise, 40 percent of the revenue from prisoner phone calls goes to the state, with the first $10 million being paid into the Texas Crime Victims Compensation Fund. The remaining revenue is split 50-50 between the compensation fund and the state’s general revenue fund. TDCJ receives none of the money.
In fiscal year 2017, the compensation fund received $14.49 million and the general fund received $4.49 million from prison phone revenue.
“Although legislated decades ago, it is intriguing why the Legislature is benefiting from this scheme and this may receive some legislative attention next year,” said state Rep. James White, who chairs the House Committee on Corrections.
White contacted the Board before its meeting and expressed concerns about the phone contract and need for more affordable rates. After the vote, he lauded the Board for making significant changes that “will impact recidivism, rehabilitation and ultimately will increase” community safety.
Every month, 127,000 Texas prisoners at 104 prisons and state jails use the phone system to contact their family members and friends. They make around 1.5 million calls a year. Under the new rate plan, a 15-minute call will cost just $0.90, down from a maximum of $3.90 under the prior rates. Prisoners and their friends or family members who set up a direct-bill account pay a $2.00 monthly service fee to use the system. All others pay a fee ranging from $3.00 to $5.95 to add money to prison phone accounts.
The TDCJ’s new phone contract came a week after New York City decided to make all phone calls from city jails free of charge. [See: PLN, Dec. 2018, p.34]. And in September 2018, a month after Texas reduced its prison phone rates, Michigan said its Department of Corrections would reduce the cost of phone calls to $0.16 per minute effective October 8, 2018. Further, it eliminated a $3.00 fee for automated deposits into prepaid prisoner phone accounts.
The Michigan DOC’s new phone services contract is with Global Tel*Link (GTL). The contract is anticipated to generate $96 million in revenue for the company over its five-year term, though it is required to pay $11 million annually into a “special equipment” fund for security improvements. The DOC expects prisoners and their families to save $13.5 million over the same time period due to the lower rates and fees.
DOC spokesman Chris Gautz called the previous phone rates “fairly middle of the road,” but said the state “wanted to go in the opposite direction” to maintain family connections that will assist prisoners after their release.
“Keeping those connections is key to transitioning to life on the outside,” Gautz said.
The Illinois Department of Corrections entered into a new phone contract with Securus in June 2018 with rates of less than one cent per minute for all types of calls: $0.009, or $0.135 for a 15-minute call – the lowest prison phone rate in the nation.
In April 2018, Nebraska lawmakers adopted legislation that capped phone rates at local jails, after a 2017 report by the state’s ACLU chapter revealed that a 15-minute call from jails costs from $7.00 to $19.00, compared with just $1.50 in Nebraska state prisons. [See: PLN, May 2018, p.58].
“You’re talking about prisoners and their families who are hard up to start with, and now all of a sudden, you charge them these obscene rates,” declared state Senator John McCollister, who sponsored the bill.
Opposing lawmakers argued that changing the existing jail phone rates would deprive counties of funds needed for prisoner services, while creating a legal right for prisoners to make phone calls. Senator Mike Groene called it a “dream bill for the ACLU.”
“It creates a new right, it creates new litigation, it creates another reason for judges to overturn convictions,” Groene argued, nonsensically.
The ACLU also found that Nebraska county jails routinely charged prisoners for attorney calls, and collected almost $1.5 million a year in “commission” kickbacks. The new law requires the state’s Jail Standards Board to establish criteria to prohibit such excessive “fees, commissions or bonus payments,” and to ensure prisoners have access to phone or video conferencing services. Attorney calls will be free, and their privacy guaranteed.
Since 2011, the Human Rights Defense Center, PLN’s parent organization, has led the effort to reduce predatory prison phone rates through the national Campaign for Prison Phone Justice. Although initially successful in its efforts to convince the Federal Communications Commission to regulate prison and jail phone rates, there have been serious setbacks on the federal level under the Trump administration. [See: PLN, Sept. 2018, p.36; July 2017, p.52].
The lower prison phone rates in Texas, Michigan and Illinois, among other jurisdictions, demonstrate that the fight to ensure prisoners and their families have access to affordable phone services remains alive and well.
Sources: Houston Chronicle, Dallas Morning News, Texas Tribune, Detroit News, Nebraska LB776, www.aclunebraska.org, www.omaha.com, www.securustech.net
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