By Megan Liz Smith, Michelle Stoddart, Alex Li and Di Pan
A version of this story aired on KBIA
One of the most common tropes that appears in popular media when depicting the criminal justice system is the idea that anyone who’s arrested has the right to make a phone call. But what’s not common knowledge is how much that phone call actually costs, and where the money is going. It’s the story of how counties are profiting big time by charging high costs to inmates who have no choice but to pay. For the people who know the story well, like MU law professor Rodney J. Uphoff, it’s about the moral cost of a county putting money before all else.
“This is not a question of whether or not it’s legal, this about what’s right,” he said.
Uphoff first encountered this problem when teaching a clinical program back in the 1980s. His job was to help law students get experience as public defenders. By the end of his first month, he said, they’d already blown the entire year’s budget on phone calls from the county jail. In the years since, it’s only gotten more expensive.
To know where the problem begins, you have to start with the contracts.
Counties hire private companies to manage their jail phone systems. Those companies handle furnishing, delivery, installation and on-going maintenance of the entire inmate phone system. Counties decide on the company through a bidding process. And it’s a competitive marketplace. Boone County is in the bidding process for a new phone company and at least three companies are interested: CenturyLink, Telmate and GTL, according to county documents.
The last time Boone County was looking to update its phone systems was 2009. It ended up picking a company called Securus. According to Boone County’s 2016 purchasing contract, Securus was willing to offer 53 percent of all revenue generated from collect calls as
commission, along with a signing bonus of $20,000. Five months after the contract was signed, Boone County had already made $37,000.
A former circuit judge, Gary Oxenhandler presided over the 13 Judicial Circuit, which includes Boone and Callaway Counties, until 2016. This last year he did a study on the Boone County Jail, looking for ways it could improve.
“I think that we run a great model here,” Oxenhandler said. “Where we’ve fallen off the high podium is telephone calls. The amount that inmates are being charged is simply exorbitant,
and there is not a good rationale for it. I’m really brought to my knees in regard to this.”
A 15 minute phone call from Boone County Jail costs $28, which is still on the lower end compared to some counties.
Aleks Kajstura is the legal director for the Prison Policy Initiative and she’s studied the changing costs over the years. She says the prices keep climbing because of competition among the phone companies. The companies that offer higher commissions get chosen first, which leads to higher and higher costs for inmates. There’s then additional expenses because the phone companies tack on other charges to make up for the money they lose from the county commission.
“They’ll charge family members to set up an account, to put money into the account, to take money out, even to close the account,” Kajstura said. “So every which way you’re getting fees slapped on on top of these rates.”
The Federal Communications Commission has tried in the past to enact regulations that ensure prices stay reasonable, but they’ve had little success. In 2016, they set new rate caps for local and long-distance inmate calling. However, in a 2-1 decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia found that the FCC lacked authority to set rates for calls between inmates and people in the same state. That left the decision up to the counties.
Boone County will announce their choice for the new phone provider after bidding closes on October 24. Whether the rates go up, down or stay the same, one thing is certain, inmates will have to pay it if they want to make a call.