Prison call rate cuts help inmates, hurt jail budgets

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

This article has been updated to correct the name of the phone services vendor in Genesee County, Securus.

Shawn Moss wanted to phone his family but couldn’t afford to call because of the price of prison phone calls and the $1.14 a day he makes at his prison job.

“I am not able to keep in touch with my two children and my parents, to keep close relations with them,” Moss, 37, wrote from the Ojibway Correctional Facility.

“If these rates would be reduced, it would be possible for me to keep up with my children at school and be a part of their lives weekly.”

Moss was among hundreds of inmates and family members appealing to the Federal Communications Commission for relief from the often exorbitant cost of calls from correctional facilities across the country. Michigan state inmates pay $2.70 to $3.45 for a 15-minute call, not including taxes and fees.

In response, the FCC voted two weeks ago to cap prison rates for local and interstate calls at 11 cents a minute for prisons and 14 to 22 cents a minute for jails. The majority of inmate calls will now cost no more than $1.65 for 15 minutes, with slightly higher rates at smaller facilities.

The FCC ruling promises relief for the families of prisoners, but complications for the budgets of state prison and county jail officials, who had come to rely on the revenue from surcharges on inmate calls to help balance their budgets.

The Michigan Department of Corrections last year generated $11.5 million from inmate calls. The money flows into a “special equipment fund” used in recent years for security upgrades and counseling programs such as violence prevention and sex-offender treatment.

The Corrections rates of 18 to 23 cents a minute for inmate calls will be revised to bring them in line with the new rate guidelines, said Chris Gautz, spokesman for the department. A first step will be renegotiating the contract with its vendor.

Following publication in the Federal Register later this year, the rules go into effect for prisons after 90 days and after six months for jails. The issue of inmate calling rates had been before the FCC for more than a decade.

“Why did this take so long? Because the people who are being preyed upon are the poorest people in the country,” said Peter Wagner, executive director of the advocacy group Prison Policy Initiative.

“And also because the people who cycle through jails are in and out, so their families don’t bother to protest this after their loved one leaves. It’s hard to organize on this.”

Sheriffs oppose decision

The Michigan Sheriffs’ Association opposed the FCC’s decision to slash long-distance rates for inmate calls and opposes the agency’s new rate caps. Terrence Jungel, the group’s executive director and CEO, said the change could cause county sheriffs to reduce calling times for inmates or remove jail phones if they can’t recover their costs.

“It’s true that the competition in the industry led to some unreasonable rates,” Jungel said. “But we can’t forget that this is a discretionary purchase, much like the purchasing of a candy bar at the commissary. ... The right to make a phone call is not a constitutional right.”

The association says the phone systems provide a revenue source to assist inmates with programs and services to aid in their successful return to the community.

The largest firms that charge for inmate calling services have said they plan to take legal action to block implementation of the regulations, which they argue would neither permit “fair” compensation for their firms nor “reasonable” recovery of costs for correctional facilities.

In an Oct. 16 letter to the FCC, the firms urged the agency to address site commissions — a percentage of profits from inmate calls that the phone providers pay to a prison or jail in exchange for an exclusive contract. The firms complained of the “inflationary” effect that the commissions exert on rates and the pressure on service providers to pay them.

Wagner said the firms have themselves in part to blame. “The industry created this monster, and they’re asking the FCC to come in and slay it and take the heat,” he said.

A 2013 analysis by the FCC found that the service providers compete for prison contracts “not based on price or service quality, but on the size of the commission.”

While the federal agency last month discouraged site commissions, it implied it lacks clear jurisdiction to address them directly and urged states to take action.

The new rules also restrict add-on fees, such as those for online payment, that provide a significant source of revenue for the phone service firms.

The Prison Policy Initiative has urged facilities to examine how hidden fees often became an added “tax” on families. Earlier this year, the group analyzed inmate calls covering a month in 2013 in Genesee County. It found that the vendor, Securus, offered a billing setup that charged consumers $14.99 to accept a single call via credit card or $9.99 to accept the call via premium text message. Consumers paid $7.03 for regular calls.

Under the FCC’s new limits, providers would be limited to charging no more than $2 to $5.96 for payment processing. All other service charges are prohibited.

Gautz said the Michigan prison system hopes to transfer funds from another part of the Corrections budget to continue offering its counseling programs for inmates, but the rate caps could mean fewer classes.

Impact uncertain

“At this point, we don’t have a firm estimate on how it will impact revenue because we still have to talk with our provider,” Gautz said. “It’s going to really depend on how the state budget looks in terms of revenues.”

Kay Perry, executive director of the advocacy group MI-Cures, argues that security upgrades, counseling classes and other general expenses at prisons and jails shouldn’t be financed by families and friends receiving calls from inmates.

“That’s the responsibility of the taxpayers of Michigan. It should not come out of prison phone revenue,” said Perry, who has long pushed for reforming prison calling.

Perry said the FCC should have set lower rate caps of 4 or 5 cents a minute. “It should be lower, but at least this draws everybody’s attention to the problem,” she said.

Sheriff Anthony Wickersham said he has no plans to remove the pay phones in the Macomb County Jail, which houses just over 1,200 inmates. The county’s general fund brought in more than $992,800 from inmate calls last year and $885,800 so far this year, thanks to a commission of 66 percent, Wickersham said.

Under the FCC ruling, Macomb will have to reduce its rates, which range from 25 cents to $1 a minute for local to international calls.

“Our whole operation and everything we do — we don’t do it to make money,” Wickersham said. “Any type of revenue does help us out, but we’re not going to have to close the doors because we won’t have (this) revenue.”

The office of Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon declined to provide jail phone rates and revenue, requiring an open records request.