Public Safety

Is the cost of county jail calls highway robbery?

Rates up to nearly $1 a minute get Iowa regulators' attention

A card explains charges that inmates or their families must pay for making calls from the Delaware County Jail.
A card explains charges that inmates or their families must pay for making calls from the Delaware County Jail.
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At a time when a cellphone call costs next to nothing, inmates at county jails in Eastern Iowa are paying from 20 cents a minute to nearly $1 a minute to call friends and family, a Gazette review shows.

The Iowa Utilities Board is reviewing the tariffs and fees charged by 11 companies that provide inmate phone service to Iowa’s county jails. A prisoner advocacy group says the board should cap the inmate phone rates and counties should avoid taking a cut of the profits to keep phone rates down.

“We should not be creating a system to raise revenue that has the side effect of making their (inmates’) lives and their family’s lives worse,” said Peter Wagner, executive director of the Prison Policy Initiative in Northampton, Mass.

The Gazette surveyed 12 Eastern Iowa county jails 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.

“They complain,” Assistant Jail Administrator David Hacker said about what he hears from inmates in the 75-bed facility in Waverly. “They just complain that it’s expensive.”

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.

Combined Public Communications, a Kentucky-based company that serves Tama, Benton and Iowa counties, charges inmates and their families fees of $3 for automated payment, $5.95 to pay with a live agent and $2 for a paper bill, according to the firm’s proposed tariff filing with the state.

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Network Communications International Corporation, based in Longview, Texas, charges Linn County inmates a $4.95 fee to set up accounts, Linn County officials reported.

‘Something special about a phone call’

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.

“When I went to prison, my mother and stepdad never sent me much money, but Mom always made sure I had enough money on my books to call her once a week,” said Harold Searcy, 55, of Riverside, who was incarcerated in Iowa for nine years. “There’s something special about a phone call and hearing a person’s voice.”

When Searcy was held at the Polk County Jail in 2003, he remembers collect calls were the only option. Polk County now charges inmates 15 cents a minute for in-state calls, one of the lowest rates in the state.

As private companies compete to provide an increasing array of services to prisons and jails, some offer signing bonuses or a bigger share of the profits to the jails. This often translates to higher costs for inmates and their families.

JAILS GET A CUT OF THE PROFITS FROM CALLS

Many Iowa counties get a cut of inmate phone revenue. Bremer County gets 10 percent, with those proceeds going back into an inmate fund that can be used only for inmate needs, such as new exercise equipment, Sheriff Dan Pickett said.

Linn County, with a 400-bed correctional center in Cedar Rapids, gets 50 percent of the gross revenue from the inmate phone system, which amounted to $239,195 in 2018. That money goes into the Sheriff’s Office’s general fund, Sheriff Brian Gardner said.

The Linn County Sheriff’s Office chose NCIC as its service provider in 2014 over another operator that charged inmates and their families a flat rate for a 15-minute phone call even if they talked for less time.

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Linn County inmates who have been charged with a crime but have not yet entered a plea may make free local calls or collect calls until a friend or family member can set up an account.

Polk County, which can house about 1,100 inmates in a facility north of Des Moines, gets an 85 percent commission with a guarantee of $850,000 a year from its provider, Securus Technologies, based in Dallas.

Black Hawk County, which has capacity for 311 inmates in Waterloo, was paid $122,500 in 2018 by its inmate phone service provider, Global Tel Link, in Reston, Va.

Dave Hangsleben, president of Reliance Telephone, a Grand Forks, N.D., company that provides inmate phone service in the Dakotas, Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin, doesn’t blame counties for asking for a share of the profits because inmate phone service does use staff time.

“How does the inmate learn how to use the phones? He’s going to ask the jailer,” Hangsleben said. “If the inmate calls a witness, he (a jail employee) has to block that and reprimand the inmate.” Calls also are monitored and saved for potential law enforcement use.

Phone rates

Hangsleben, however, does think some jail phone rates are too high.

“I wouldn’t want to be paying them either, some of the rates,” he said. “We’re gradually working them down.”

Government regulation

Some states are pushing back.

Illinois prisoners pay less than a penny per minute and the Connecticut Legislature is considering making state prisoner calls free. The Federal Communications Commission caps out-of-state, long-distance calls at 21 cents a minute for debit/prepaid calls and 25 cents a minute for collect calls.

The Iowa Department of Corrections limits the cost of all calls to 11 cents per minute, with a maximum of a 20-minute call — but that pertains only to inmates in Iowa’s 10 prisons, not those in county jails.

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Wagner, from the Prison Policy Initiative, said inmates in county jails are paying more for phone calls than state or federal prisoners because each county is negotiating separately.

“They have no frame of reference and most of the companies make it really confusing and complicated,” Wagner said. “Because the jails aren’t paying the bills, they aren’t focused on the cost as much.”

Wagner said county jail inmates should have better — not worse — access to cheap phone calls because they are incarcerated there for a relatively short time and need ways to stay connected to their lives. Plus, many people in county jails haven’t yet stood trial.

“This is a population largely still considered innocent until proven guilty,” he said. “Talking about punishment is not appropriate.”

Earlier this year, the Iowa Utilities Board asked all companies providing phone service to Iowa’s county jails to report per-minute fees and service charges to “consider whether the rates being charged are reasonable.”

These companies can’t operate in Iowa without the board’s approval.

On May 24, the board agreed to let the Prison Policy Initiative and the Iowa Office of Consumer Affairs, both of which have objected to the tariffs, file documents for the board to consider in its review. The board gave the phone companies 30 days to provide more information, including which county jails they serve and which rate structures are offered in each jail.

Companies PITCH NEW PRODUCTS, NEW FEES

Reliance and other companies are coming up with new ways for inmates to communicate, such as texting devices now being used in many county jails across Iowa.

Devices offered by Reliance cost $4 a month to rent and then the inmate, or inmate’s family, pays 9 cents per text.

Reliance also plans to start offering video calls that cost 25 cents a minute, Hangsleben said.

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Linn County is among counties considering video calls, sometimes called video visitation, where the experience is more like FaceTime or Skype.

Advantages would be if family members can’t travel to the jail for an in-person meeting or if the inmate wants to communicate with a bunch of people at once — such as if there is a birthday party going on at home.

These services could be good for inmates, but they’re also new profit centers for the companies, Wagner said. He worries video calls will lead to jails banning in-person visits, which are free and often provide a closer connection than a call.

“It’s a wonderful supplement, but there needs to be safeguards in place so it doesn’t become a replacement,” Wagner said.

If Linn County signs on to video calls, it will continue the free, in-person visits, Gardner said.

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

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