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For-profit prisoner calls on hold

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I CAN HEAR YOU NOW  While San Quentin State Prison warden Ronald Davis talked on the phone above Death Row last year, efforts to reform the sometimes sky-high rates prisoners pay to for-profit companies to make phone calls have stalled.
  • I CAN HEAR YOU NOW While San Quentin State Prison warden Ronald Davis talked on the phone above Death Row last year, efforts to reform the sometimes sky-high rates prisoners pay to for-profit companies to make phone calls have stalled.

Former San Quentin inmate James "J.B." Bennett works a couple of days a week counseling the Bay Area's recently de-carcerated, helping them get back on their feet and acclimated to life beyond the bars.

When ex-convicts meet with Bennett, they're greeted by a bulletin board hanging in his workspace with some handy slogans on it, including one that reads, "Communication is to a relationship as breath is to life."

That's a sentiment from pioneering 1970s family therapist Virginia Satir, founder of Palo Alto's Mental Research Institute, and it's a telling quote for our times.

Under President Barack Obama and his rolling efforts at criminal-justice reform, the Federal Communications Commission has, for the first time, weighed in on for-profit inmate calling services (ICS) and the cost of phone calls between inmates and their families. Over the past couple of years, the FCC has put in new regulations—or tried to, anyway—that limit the per-minute charges that ICS providers, such as Securus and Global Tel Link (GTL), can charge inmates or their families, who often are poor. As Bennett puts it, prison life is split between the haves and the have-nots, a fact that plays out in every last detail of prison life. "Prison is really about how well off you are financially," Bennett says. "If you have money, you can live really well."

If you don't—too bad. And when it comes to a phone call from a loved one, or a lawyer, or a priest, ICS charges can spike to more than $1 per minute, and much of the tolls have historically been tied up in so-called site commissions that are folded into the per-minute rate.

As numerous prisoner-rights advocates have observed, a "site commission" is a polite way of describing the promised kickback that an ICS company sends to sheriffs. The site commissions are passed along to the inmates and their families in the form of sky-high phone rates.

"Everything I've heard about the toll aspect of prison calls is that the toll rate is excessive," says Bennett.

He spent nearly 25 years of a 30-year murder sentence in San Quentin before being released in 2011, and echoes most anti-recidivist research when he says that "human contact with one's family, communication—it's critical."

The year Bennett was released from San Quentin was also the year that California banned site commissions at state-run prisons administered by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, which, as the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights notes, was previously sending $20 million a year in site-commission fees to the state.

GTL has the contract to provide phone services across the state prison system. The 2011 site-commission ban did not extend to the thousands of local or county lockups around the state, where GTL also has numerous contracts. Sonoma County will end its contract with GTL next year—it picked another company, Legacy Inmate Communications, to install and administer its ICS system at the Sonoma County Main Adult Detention Facility and other county-run jails as of next March. The new contract includes a 60 percent site-commission fee paid to the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office to administer the phone-service privilege to inmates and to fund the Inmate Welfare Fund. According to the upcoming contract, Legacy will provide $20 pre-paid phone cards to the county, for resale to inmates. The contract stipulates that the "County shall be invoiced for all Debit Cards purchased and will receive a 60 percent commission percentage as a discount on each purchased card (i.e., a debit card with a face value of $20 shall be purchased [by the county] for $8)."

Securus and GTL have been fighting the proposed FCC rules since they were first announced in 2014. The agency acted in August of this year to set new rate caps for local and long-distance inmate calling, and the FCC website notes that the "new rate caps were scheduled to take effect for prisons on Dec. 12, 2016, and for jails on March 13, 2017."

It notes that the rates were stayed by court order and that the FCC's "interim rate caps remain in effect. The interim rate caps apply only to interstate long-distance calls, not in-state long distance or local calls. Those rates are 21 cents a minute for debit-prepaid calls, and 25 cents a minute for collect calls."

Those figures line up with call rates in the new contract for Legacy in Sonoma. In the meantime, ICS providers have found themselves subject to lawsuits, including the company that currently runs the ICS in Sonoma County.

Class Action News reports that GTL was sued in June 2015 over widespread charges that the company leverages its dominant market position nationally to charge unreasonably high prices for its services. The company has contracts in more than 2,000 jails and prisons in the United States and, according to the GTL website, runs the ICS at local lockups around the North Bay—Mill Valley, Petaluma, Novato, Fairfax, Napa.

As the FCC rules hang in limbo, legislative efforts undertaken in Sacramento to ban local site commissions have failed. In 2014, Hayward Democrat Bill Quirk introduced AB 1876, a bill that aimed for the kickback and which would have extended the Corrections and Rehabilitation site-commission ban and prohibit "commissions in telephone service contracts for juvenile facilities and for county, municipal or privately operated jails, and requires such contracts to be negotiated and awarded to the lowest cost provider."

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