Produced by Megan Liz Smith, Michelle Stoddart, Alex Li and Di Pan

A version of this story aired on KBIA, and can be heard here.

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Boone County Reviews Bids for New Inmate Phone System

Boone County began reviewing bids this week for a new contract for its inmate phone system in the county jail. The county is looking to overhaul its current system after critiques of the high costs to detainees and their families making calls.

A correction’s officer at Callaway County Jail sits at the front desk of the jail in front of a passel of handcuffs in Fulton, Missouri, on Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2017. Inmates are allowed to make phone calls within the four hours that they are not locked down each day.

Some have criticized the high costs that fall on the detainees and their families. Gary Oxenhandler, a retired Boone County judge who studies the Boone County Jail, found the high phone rates to be a problem.

“The amount that they’re being charged for a phone call is simply exorbitant,” Oxenhandler said. “There is not a good rationale for it other than the fact that the counties motivation in the 2009 request for proposal was that maximum revenue be generated, which just flies in the face of everything Boone County can be so proud of for how we have been able to operate the jail system so effectively with the prisoners in mind.”

The Federal Communications Commission has tried in the past to enact regulations that would cap the price of phone calls for prisons and jails. 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.

Aleks Kajstura, legal director for the Prison Policy Initiative, has studied the rates across the nation.

“This is really a point in time where the FCC has started taking a look at these rates and started to regulate out of state rates,” Kajstura said. “But especially for jails, a lot of calls are in-state, so it’s really up to the jails and the individual states to start taking a look at internal regulations to clamp down on these rates before they get even more out of hand, and hopefully to get them back to some sort of rational pricing.”

Melinda Bobbitt, director of the Boone County Purchasing Office, said in an email that an evaluation team selected by the county is reviewing bids. She said the bids will be evaluated for approximately three months and the county expects to implement the contract in early 2018.

A letter, a jail uniform and a cup of water are placed on a table at an empty cell at Callaway County Jail in Fulton, Missouri, on Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2017. Today, inmates can communicate with their families and attorneys by writing letters or even email, but phone calls are still their best connection to the outside world.

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