WBEZ's Rob Wildeboer has been chasing an interesting story for awhile: the high cost of phone calls from Cook County jail. And they're really expensive (emphasis mine):
The calls are $7 on the low end, but can be as high as $15. The rates are inflated because Cook County makes money on the calls. The county has a contract with Securus technologies that requires the phone company to pay almost 60 percent of what it makes from phone calls back to the county. The deal has netted the county about $12 million over the life of the three-year-old contract. The cost falls on the mostly poor families who can't afford to post bond so their loved ones are left in jail while awaiting trial. Those families pay for calls they can't afford, either.
The city's jail population is not one people tend to have sympathy towards, but as Wildeboer points out, the high prices ding the families of inmates; soaking people in jail, innocent or not, is not a great step towards combating recidivism. Anyway, Wildeboer highlighted the issue in March, which caught Preckwinkle's eye, and Tom Dart's. Then Cook County got a new chief information officer, Lydia Murray, formerly chief of staff at the CTA and project manager at the Civic Consulting Alliance.
For example, Securus charges a more than $3 connection fee for every call and calls are cut off after 15 minutes so the caller has to pay another connection fee. Now calls can last as long as 30 minutes. Including the per-minute rates, under the new deal a 30-minute call will cost $7. Last spring, that would have cost $30.
The county will still make money off the deal, but they're cutting their take by over 90 percent.
If this sounds like the Chicago Way, nickle-and-diming the citizenry wherever we can, we're hardly alone. For almost a decade, a blind, 86-year-old D.C. woman has been trying to get the FCC to address prison phone costs, often coming from the same company that Wildeboer's piece addresses:
The commissions are considerable. In some Virginia prisons, they’re 35 percent of the price of a phone call. In Maryland prisons where Securus operates, local calls from prisons cost 85 cents, intrastate calls cost $2.55 plus 30 cents per minute and interstate calls cost $2.70 plus 30 cents per minute. The commission? Up to 60 percent, which generated $5.2 million for Maryland in 2010. The Federal Bureau of Prisons, where many D.C. inmates are housed, charges less than many private prisons: 6 cents per minute for local calls and 23 cents per minute for long-distance calls made with debit cards.
The FCC can’t ban commissions. But after Martha Wright et. al. v. Correction Corporations of America et. al. was filed in 2000, a federal district judge ruled that the agency would have to decide on a reasonable rate for prison phone calls. Since 2003, the request has gone unanswered.
Eight states have banned commissions and have seen rates drop. In Michigan, for example, rates fell from $3.99 plus 89 cents per minute to a flat rate of about 15 cents per minute after commissions were banned in 2008, according to data from Prison Legal News.
The states that haven't banned commissions? They pull in a lot of money from the calls: "Forty-two states got commissions from phone companies in 2008, averaging 42 percent of the charges and reaching as much as 66 percent, according to a July filing by groups asking the FCC to set a benchmark rate of 20 cents or 25 cents a minute." Securus is the second-biggest player in the market, and it does pretty well for the private equity company that owns it:
Castle Harlan acquired Securus from HIG Capital LLC in May 2011 for $450 million, according to a video posted on Castle Harlan’s website. Securus was headed toward $80 million of earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization in 2012, up from $62 million at the time of the purchase, William Pruellage, co-president of Castle Harlan, said on the video.
It's not just a matter of charging high fees to a (literally) captive market. As Rebecca Rosen points out, there are good reasons to want inmates to be in touch with people on the outside:
A major study published last year found that visitation had significant positive effects on recidivism rates: Prisoners who were visited were 13 percent less likely to be convicted of a felony upon release, and 25 percent less likely to end up back in prison for a technical violation. Would increased social contact over the phone have a similarly positive effect? We don't know. The study didn't look at the effect of phone calls because "they are prohibitively expensive."
Also related, and worth reading/listening to, from Wildeboer: if you catch a case in Cook County and want to post bond, there's a 10 percent "processing fee," whether or not you're innocent, bringing in about twice what the phone deal has every year.
Photograph: brianteutsh (CC by 2.0)