Public Safety

State review of county jail phone rates delayed

'Excessive rates for inmate calling deter communication'

A phone for inmate use is shown in a cell block in October 2014 at the Johnson County Jail in Iowa City. The Iowa Utilities Board this year started reviewing the fees charged by companies that provide phone service to Iowa jails after advocates decried rates as high as $1 a minute. (The Gazette)
A phone for inmate use is shown in a cell block in October 2014 at the Johnson County Jail in Iowa City. The Iowa Utilities Board this year started reviewing the fees charged by companies that provide phone service to Iowa jails after advocates decried rates as high as $1 a minute. (The Gazette)

Background

The Iowa Utilities Board earlier this year started reviewing tariffs and fees charged by companies that provide inmate phone service to Iowa’s county jails after prisoner advocacy groups decried rates as high as almost $1 per minute.

Earlier this year, the board, which governs these phone service providers, asked all companies to report per-minute fees and service charges to “consider whether the rates being charged are reasonable.”

The Gazette surveyed 12 Eastern Iowa county jails last spring 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 least expensive rates among the 12 counties at that time were 20 cents a minute, or $3 for a 15-minute, in-state call, in Linn, Iowa, Benton and Tama counties.

Many counties get a cut of proceeds from inmate phone calls, but advocates for the incarcerated say public agencies shouldn’t be making money off fees that could be a hardship to many inmates. Keeping inmates, particularly those in jails, connected to their family and friends reduces recidivism when they are released, advocates say.

What’s happened since

In the midst of deciding whether jail phone tariffs are just and reasonable, the Utilities Board decided Aug. 20 to launch an inquiry into broader questions governing non-government phone services providers that receive more than half their Iowa income from people calling from places other than home or work.

This includes calls placed from jails, hospitals, college dorm rooms and hotels.

But since most people now use cellphones, the Utility Board’s inquiry relates mostly to the rates charged to jail inmates, who don’t have access to cellphones and still must use the jail’s contracted phone service provider if they want to make calls.

Delaware County Jail phone rates

In an Aug. 20 order, the board asked all alternative operator services to answer a set of questions within 30 days.

Questions include: “What criteria or considerations should the Board use to determine whether rates charged by an AOS company are just and reasonable?” and “Should an AOS company be allowed to offer rates and service for non-correctional facilities that are different from rates and services provided to correctional facilities?”

A timeline for the inquiry has not yet been set, board spokesman Don Tormey said.

These delays frustrate prison reform groups.

“Companies have collected billions of dollars in revenue since the board last considered rate regulation in 2013,” wrote Peter Wagner, executive director for the Prison Policy Initiative, in a Sept. 19 response. “The board is empowered to address unreasonable rates for intrastate Iowa calls, and it should use the powers conferred by Iowa law.”

Wagner criticized the board for allowing service providers to file incomplete rate information and keep rates secret in confidential filings.

The Office of Consumer Advocate, within the Iowa Attorney General’s Office, said it supports the board’s review of inmate phone rates.

“Excessive rates for inmate calling deter communication between inmates and their families, with substantial and damaging social consequences,” the office responded Sept. 19. “Inmates’ families may be forced to choose between putting food on the table or paying hundreds of dollars each month to keep in touch.”

The Utilities Board has three governor-appointed members: Geri Huser, a Des Moines Democrat; Richard Lozier, a Des Moines Republican; and Nick Wagner, a Marion Republican. The group has its next regular public board meeting Tuesday in Des Moines.

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

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