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Free Phone Calls for Juvenile Offenders Jailed in Memphis, Tennessee

by Kevin Bliss

In November 2018, Shelby County, Tennessee – which includes the City of Memphis – renegotiated its contract with Global Tel*Link (GTL), the phone service provider for around 5,000 prisoners at the county’s four detention facilities. The new contract eliminates charges for all calls between juvenile offenders and their families or guardians. 

The contract change fulfilled a campaign promise by newly elected Mayor Lee Harris not to support government fleecing of the public. County Commissioner Tami Sawyer, chair of the Law Enforcement, Fire, Corrections and Courts Committee, said she was also reviewing the county’s contracts with companies that provide food services and goods sold to prisoners, to find ways to improve them and make them more affordable.

“It goes towards how we’re humanizing criminal justice in Memphis, so that kids can not succumb to depression or isolation and continue to stay in touch with their families – which is a big part of reducing recidivism,” Sawyer said.

Shelby County and New York City are now the only two jurisdictions in the United States that provide free phone calls to some of their jail prisoners; New York made all jail phone calls free last year, effective April 2019. [See: PLN, Dec. 2018, p.34].

Texas recently reduced its prison phone rates to six cents per minute, while Michigan eliminated service fees when adding money to prepaid prison phone accounts. [See: PLN, Feb. 2019, p.50]. In Shelby County, GTL collects $5.95 for every phone account deposit.

Luke Noel, with the Corrections Accountability Project, said revenue that the county would lose by providing free calls for juvenile offenders was “a drop in the bucket” of its total $1.25 billion budget. Phone service “commission” kickbacks to the county by GTL totaled $1 million, while calls made by juveniles in 2018 amounted to just over $4,200.

“It’s clear that it’s insignificant for them, but we’re talking about a lot of money being returned to communities of poverty and communities of color,” Noel said. 

He added that the prison telecom industry earns $1.2 billion nationwide off what he called exorbitant fees charged to prisoners and their families, who comprise a captive market.

In the eyes of policymakers, that has been a low-risk, high-reward revenue stream, but when you step back and look at the human side of it that’s going on, as Mayor Harris and Tami Sawyer have done, you see this isn’t just some mystery revenue stream,” observed Josh Spickler, executive director of Just City, a Memphis nonprofit. “This is money extracted from some of the poorest and most desperate members of our community.”

Until 20 years ago, prisoners paid phone rates similar to those paid by the general public. In 2014, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) capped the rates for interstate (long distance) prison and jail phone calls at $0.21 to $0.25 per minute. [See: PLN, Dec. 2013, p.1]. As a result, phone service providers raised the rates for in-state calls, which were not regulated by the FCC. [See: PLN, Oct. 2018, p.1]. 

GTL charges Shelby County prisoners and their families $0.10 per minute for phone calls, plus account deposit fees.

They want to charge you for everything,” said Randy Letcher, whose 25-year-old daughter was held at the county’s Women’s Jail awaiting trial on drug possession charges.

He said that after spending $40 a week on commissary items, he couldn’t afford more than a few calls each week. 

“It takes a toll after a while on the money situation,” he added.

GTL’s previous contract had a termination clause that was triggered by the election of new county leaders in 2018. The company had previously renegotiated a contract with Davidson County, Tennessee Sheriff Daron Hall that reduced phone rates at the jail in Nashville to $0.05 per minute with no commission kickbacks. Hall credited the ease of negotiations to GTL, whose spokesman, James Lee, said the company was willing to work with all parties interested in delivering phone services that “properly account for the true costs” of those services.

In the vast majority of counties and cities, however, public officials are unwilling to forgo the lucrative kickbacks they receive from prison telecom providers.

Shelby County Sheriff Floyd Bonner, whose office does not control the jail’s phone contract, called the free calls for juvenile offenders “a good idea” but emphasized his goal was “to reduce the amount of juveniles” held in custody.

So hopefully that will mean not as many kids there and not that many phone calls being made and it will be a win-win for everybody,” he said.

Commissioner Sawyer added that phone service reform was just the first step in an entire jail system overhaul. She wants to address the financial burdens on prisoners’ families within the first year of her term in office so they can focus more on supporting their loved ones, thereby helping to reduce recidivism. 

Sheriff Bonner said he didn’t know what would happen with the contract for phone services at the county’s adult jail facilities. Steve Leech, chief administrative officer for the Sheriff’s Office, said providing free calls to all prisoners would require an increase in the budget, either to pay a provider like GTL or to pay county employees to run the phone system. Unlike Davidson County, he added, Shelby County cannot simply forego its share of phone commissions since the Sheriff’s Office relies on the $1 million in kickbacks it receives annually to fund prisoner programs.

Actually, though, the county would just have to appropriate those funds rather than have the programs funded by revenue generated solely from prisoners and their families. 



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