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For jail inmates trying to call home, talk is anything but cheap
By Jonathan Hiskes Special to The Herald-Times 3/3/2008

Former Monroe County Jail inmate Trevor Richardson and his fiancee, Jessica Branigan, had a method for talking on the phone while he was behind bars: He called her collect, and she refused to accept the call. In the few seconds the system gave for the caller to state his name, Trevor blurted a short message. “It’s a one-sided conversation,” Branigan, 24, said before Richardson was released recently. “(But) just hearing his voice calms me down. To hear that he’s doing OK — I don’t worry so much then.” In this way she avoided paying the $4.10 connection fee for a local collect call from the jail, which is more than four times the cost of a pay-phone call. Calls to other parts of the state cost $3.60, plus 45 cents per minute, or $16.65 for a half-hour call. Last month, Richardson and the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the county, citing “unconstitutional” conditions at the jail, referring primarily to the crowded conditions there. The suit did not mention phone costs. But inmates, their family members and local advocates say the high cost of jail phone calls places a burden on people with few other options and undermines a key way inmates receive support from those on the outside. “I just think it’s wrong,” said Lib Buck, a Quaker volunteer who has been visiting county jail inmates and advocating for them since 1975. “I don’t pay (that much) for everyone that calls me, and I don’t see why inmates should have to burden their families like that. For families that already have a breadwinner in jail, why they should have to pay these horrendous phone bills beats me.” Who makes money? Alabama-based Global Tel*Link (GTL) has a phone service contract with the jail that it received from AT&T two years ago. Monroe County Sheriff Jim Kennedy said jail phones seem to be a profitable industry, because companies have flooded him with offers to provide the service since he took office last year. The arrangement also makes money for the jail: GTL gives 40 percent of its revenue to the jail through a commission. Last year, the sheriff’s department received more than $77,000 from this commission, according to department records. Kennedy said jail phones require extra security measures that drive up the cost of service. Jailers must be able to records and monitor calls if they suspect illegal activity, he said. They must also have the ability to block calls to certain numbers to prevent inmates from violating protective orders or intimidating others, he said. But Kennedy acknowledged that GTL’s rates — set through a contract he inherited from previous sheriff Steve Sharp — are high. “We’re fully aware that the amount of money charged is awfully aggressive,” he said. GTL Vice President Teresa Ridgeway would not comment on the rates except to say they fell within legal limits. Because of the cost of phone calls to inmates’ families, Kennedy said he plans to look for a company with cheaper rates. In his first 13 months in office, he has given priority to what he sees as more urgent jail problems: buying bunk beds to alleviate crowding and finding space for a female detoxification room, among other things. “It’s on the list of things to change,” he said. “If anybody’s at fault, it’s me for not acting more quickly on it. But, again, there are other concerns that I had to place first and am still placing first.” He said he hopes to have a new phone contract by mid-summer. Losing part of the $77,000 commission will force him to cut costs or find a new revenue source for the things it funds, he said. By statute, those can include the jail’s store, or commissary, special law enforcement training and any other nonbudgeted needs for the sheriff’s department. If Kennedy changes the contract, the new rates may not be higher than the state Department of Correction’s rates, according to a state law passed in 2002. The law was meant to curb widespread commissions that let phone companies and jail and prison operators make excessive profits off calls. Opponents criticize commissions such as Monroe County’s as “legalized kickbacks.” Last year, New York’s Gov. Eliot Spitzer required state prisons to consider the cost to inmates’ families when contracting for phone service, but most states have no such regulation. The current state prison rates — which a new Monroe County arrangement could not exceed — include a $2.60 connection fee plus 35 cents a minute for a local call. The jail is allowed to charge higher rates now because its contract was in place before the 2002 state law, Kennedy said. Options Buck said she was glad to hear the sheriff planned to shop for lower rates. She pushed unsuccessfully to have the jail provide free phone service when it opened in 1986. “We felt it was terribly important that inmates kept in touch with their families,” she said, referring to fellow Quakers with whom she works. “They have 24 hours a day to sit and just worry about things. If they’re worried that their wife is going to leave them, or that their wife has another lover, any of those things, then they need to be in touch.” Inmates and their families do have an alternative to collect calls: Until last week, the jail sold $20 AT&T phone calls good for six 20-minute calls. Inmates use them through the two to four phones in each cell block. The jail ran out of its stock of phone cards earlier this month, and Jail Commander Bill Wilson said he is looking for cards with lower rates. Branigan said she relied on this slightly cheaper option for calling her fiance. In the six months he spent in jail for a bar fight last summer, she put about $300 into his commissary account for phone cards, she said. Branigan and other family members said the phone cards are problematic for several reasons: Inmates have only one opportunity each week to buy them, the calls are shorter; and a dropped call is usually charged as a full call. That’s one reason they say they prefer coming to the visitation room. On a Sunday afternoon last month, visitors spilled out of the jail’s small lobby and stood outside in the wind, waiting to find out their assigned visiting times. Christy Lynn of Whitehall, whose fiance was inside, said she felt compelled to go through the trouble.

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“Sometimes I think it’s harder on him — makes the time go slower,” she said, drawing nods from her friend. “But I don’t think he could survive without it.” Clyde Harris, a former inmate who was visiting his son in jail, said collect calls were too expensive, so he listened for his son’s hurried message before refusing the call, then came to visit on Sundays. “I gotta give him support, you know?” Harris said. “It helps me to talk to him, to see where his head is. To find out if he wants to walk the straight and narrow or if he wants to be in there the rest of his life.”

In nearby counties Inmates in nearby county jails pay rates similar to Monroe County. Few Brown County inmates use collect calls because of the high cost, Jail Commander Tony Siscoe said. Instead, they can buy $10 prepaid phone calls good for five 15-minute calls, he said. Owen County Jail Commander John Lowden said he’s in the process of switching to GTL from another phone company so that he can offer prepaid cards. He said local collect calls currently cost his inmates more than $4 for the first minute. Greene County Sheriff Terry Pierce said he was unhappy with the collect calling plan he inherited from the previous sheriff, which also charges more than $4 for the first minute. He is also looking for a new service provider. “These charges go to our citizens,” he said. “They’re not the ones in (jail). It’s unfair to them to have to pay these kinds of charges.”

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A pay phone downstairs in the Monroe County Jail is used by inmates to make collect calls. Jeremy Hogan | Herald-Times

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