Louisville Jail Moves to Have Free Phone Calls for Prisoners by First of the Year
by Kevin Bliss
Louisville, Kentucky’s Metro Department of Corrections (MDOC) who operates the city jail has been ordered by the Metro Council Budget Committee to stop charging prisoners for phone calls from the jail by December 31, 2021.
MDOC currently contracts with Dallas, Texas communications giant Securus Technologies for its jail phone system. Current calls cost prisoners and their families $1.85 for 15-minute calls to local landlines, inter- and intrastate calls have additional per-minute fees. Calls to cell phones have a flat $9.99 fee.
Lawmakers told MDOC director, Dwayne Clark, to create a new plan eliminating phone fees for prisoners and families by the beginning of next year. The current plan is too much of a hardship on families of the prisoners. “We should not be funding our jail on the back of the families whose loved ones are inmates and should be doing all we can to keep families connected to their loved ones, to ease reentry and reduce recidivism,” stated Budget Committee Chair Bill Hollander.
Mayor Greg Fischer estimated the MDOC would generate revenue of $700,000 from telephone kickbacks for the year 2021. The city plans to use the better revenue forecasts and federal American Rescue Act funds” to cover half that revenue ($350,000) and take some pressure off telephone fees until the end of the new contract. MDOC has an existing contract with Securus. It expires this year, but already plans are to cease collecting kickbacks for phone calls.
Louisville Family Justice Advocates coordinator, Judi Jennings called Securus a monopoly because prisoners are a captive audience and they are unable to go elsewhere for services. The calls are expensive and a great number of families with loved ones in jail have poverty level incomes. “We knew that it was also racially unjust and impacting poor families and Black families much more in our community,” she stated.
Phone calls have become more important as a means of keeping families connected since the COVID-19 crisis. Research has proven community connections are a major influence on recidivism. At the start of the pandemic, Securus began allowing prisoners of the jail two free phone calls per week to stay connected. Six months ago, that was reduced to one free phone call. Now prisoners in the jail do not receive any free phone calls.
According to research by the Human Rights Defense Center, jails continue to sign contracts with high phone call rates, profiting large hedge fund owned companies. With prisoners using more phone minutes due to COVID restrictions on visitations, that profit is increased. That said, since HRDC launched its Prison Phone Justice Campaign in 2012 the cost of prison and jail phone calls has been steadily decreasing, just not fast enough.
Louisville joins New York City, San Francisco, San Diego, and Los Angeles in pushing to make prisoner phone calls free. Connecticut is the first state to make all state prison phone calls free up to 90 minutes per day.
Jennings said, “people in the jail have families, and they’re often families with small children that often have enormous hardship because they’ve lost a loved one (and) they’ve lost a caregiver.”