Government

Jailed dad's cost of keeping in touch with son: Nearly $1 a minute

Iowa regulators reviewing rates for jailhouse calls

Using an app-based system for communicating with inmates at the Bremer County Jail, Skylar Pinegar of Des Moines calls h
Using an app-based system for communicating with inmates at the Bremer County Jail, Skylar Pinegar of Des Moines calls her husband, William Pinegar, along with their 4-year-old son, Henry Pinegar, on Saturday from their home in Des Moines. Bremer County has the most expensive inmate phone costs of all county jails in the state, with a 15-minute phone call costing $14.90, and an often glitchy 20-minute web visit costing $13.90. Skylar and her son used to talk with William every day when he was incarcerated in another facility, but now they can afford to do it only a few times a week. Most calls end with Henry in tears, Skylar said. (KC McGinnis/Freelance)
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Henry Pinegar loves jigsaw puzzles, fishing and superheroes — especially the Hulk. The 4-year-old also loves to talk with his dad on the phone or a video call, which is like FaceTime.

When Henry’s dad, William Pinegar, was serving a felony sentence at the Anamosa State Penitentiary, the father and son talked every day — maintaining family connections that experts say will help Pinegar when he’s released.

But now Pinegar, 40, has been moved to the Bremer County Jail, in Waverly, where it costs nearly $1 a minute for phone calls — almost nine times what he was paying in prison — and Pinegar’s family can afford to talk with him only a few times a week.

“How do I tell our 4-year-old son ‘Daddy loves you. He just can’t call?’” asked Skylar Pinegar, 25, of Des Moines. “My husband is my son’s favorite person, so this time is very hard on him.”

Jail phone costs vary

The Gazette surveyed 12 Eastern Iowa county jails in May about how much inmates and their families pay per minute for in-state calls. The highest rate in the area was in Bremer County, where inmates pay $3.74 for the first minute of an in-state call, followed by 74 cents a minute after, which results in a 15-minute phone call costing $14.10.

The cheapest inmate phone calls among the 12 counties The Gazette contacted were 20 cents a minute, or $3 for a 15-minute in-state call, in Linn, Iowa, Benton and Tama counties.

Inmates in county jails often pay more for phone calls than state or federal prisoners because each county negotiates separate contracts with private service providers.

The Iowa Utilities Board in January launched a review of whether county jail phone rates are just and reasonable. That probe expanded in August to broader questions for jail phone service providers. No date has been set yet for the board to consider these questions — despite urging from families and law enforcement officers.

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“The contract dictates the rates that are charged to the inmates and there is nothing we can do about it until there is a ruling by the government and Securus is forced to change the rates,” Bremer County Sheriff Dan Pickett wrote in an email about his jail’s service provider, Securus Technologies, based in Dallas.

In a statement, Securus said the cost of providing the technology in a correctional facility is “substantial” but that it had reduced call rates by 30 percent in three years.

“Rates are set by contract with individual correctional agencies, including Bremer County, which houses less than 40 individuals. We will continue to work with all our customers to make our services more accessible while continuing to protect public safety,” the statement said.

The 10 percent of the profits that Bremer County gets back from Securus goes into an inmate fund that can be used only for inmate needs, such as new exercise equipment. Pickett said some county jails have lower phone rates, but charge more for commissary items, such as snacks or coffee.

Costs limit contact

But the inmate phone rates in Bremer County were an unpleasant surprise for the Pinegars.

When William Pinegar was being held at the Anamosa State Penitentiary, phone rates were 11 cents a minute — the rate at all nine Iowa prison facilities. That means a 15-minute call would cost $1.65.

But then Pinegar was transferred to Bremer County last month while awaiting transfer to a federal prison to serve a sentence there for a felony conviction.

Besides the rates for a phone call, a 20-minute video call runs $13.90.

Pinegar has been told it may be after the holidays before he gets moved to a federal facility, where phone calls likely will be cheaper.

Skylar Pinegar, a home health aide who takes care of elderly patients, said putting money in her husband’s phone account has gotten a lot more expensive, which is difficult right before Christmas.

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“I know they are doing their time,” she said of people who are incarcerated. “I just feel like the family is getting punished, too. It’s not possible for low-income people or anybody really.”

She usually gets off work at 3:30 p.m., picks up Henry from preschool and then goes home to make dinner. If there’s money in William Pinegar’s account, the family talks a few times a week.

They share details about each other’s days and, in one video chat Skylar caught on camera, make silly faces. The conversations are good for Henry and Skylar, but also help William get through his days behind bars, his wife said.

“He gets super depressed when he can’t call home,” she said.

Criminal justice reformers have been fighting high prison phone costs, arguing the fees disproportionately tax the poor and increase recidivism because inmates have a harder time staying connected with their families. Pinegar is expected to be in prison several more years.

The Prison Policy Initiative, a prisoner advocacy group in Northampton, Mass., has said the Iowa Utilities Board should cap inmate phone rates and counties should avoid taking a cut of the profits to keep rates down.

“It’s frequently children who pay the price when jails set phone rates that make it impossible for families to stay in touch,” said Wanda Bertram, the group’s spokeswoman. “Most state prisons have already lowered their phone rates, recognizing that high costs do significant harm to families. Jails should do the same.”

Comments: (319) 339-3157; erin.jordan@thegazette.com

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