Families Pay Steep Prices for Inmates’ Phone Calls

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A razor wire fence surrounds the Joseph A. Harp Correctional Center in Lexington.

Ben Fenwick/Oklahoma Watch

A razor wire fence surrounds the Joseph A. Harp Correctional Center in Lexington.

Prisoners of Debt

This is the fourth in a series of stories reported jointly by Oklahoma Watch and KGOU Radio. The newest report by KGOU’s Kate Carlton Greer airs on Mon., Feb. 16.

In Oklahoma, residential telephone service costs anywhere from $10 to $30 a month.

A pre-paid cell phone plan with eight hours of calls can cost $35 a month, or seven cents a minute. There is no charge to activate the service.

In prison or jail, it’s a different story.

Prisoners cannot receive calls, but can make calls with money drawn from telephone accounts created and funded by family members or friends – a service offered by a for-profit vendor. Each call costs $3 for up to 15 minutes, or at least 20 cents a minute. If the call is dropped, which some inmates say is common, no refund is given; the inmate must pay for a new call.

Inmates’ families and friends also pay fees to create their individual telephone accounts and per-transaction fees to deposit money into them. Inmates also can call collect at the same rates, but the set-up process can be complicated.

Critics say prisons and jails are gouging offenders and their families for calls. The prices are so high that incarcerated people aren’t in touch with their loved ones, including their children, as often as they should be, advocates say. Such calls preserve social bonds that help many inmates re-enter society and lower the risks of recidivism, some experts say.

Phone calls in prisons and jails are yielding substantial sums to the Oklahoma Department of Corrections and counties, records show.

Out of the $3 paid for a 15-minute call in prison, $2.30, or 77 percent, goes to the Corrections Department as a commission. That is the among the highest percentages collected by a state corrections system in the nation, according to a 2013 report on inmate calling fees by Prison Legal News.

An internal Corrections Department memo from 2011 shows the agency expected to generate $32 million in revenue from inmate calling fees over a decade. The rest goes to Value-Added Communications Inc., now owned by Virginia-based Global Tel-Link Corp., the exclusive vendor for inmate phone services in the corrections system.

Calling fees for inmates have become a national controversy.

In 2013, the Federal Communications Commission imposed interim caps on calling fees for inmates – 21 cents a minute for prepaid calls and 25 cents for collect calls. The caps were implemented over objections from state and local officials, including Oklahoma County Sheriff John Whetsel.

In October 2014, the FCC moved to toughen the limits. It proposed permanent caps on calling fees, including in-state calls, which make up the majority of inmate calls, and curbs on related fees. The FCC also wants to ban “site commissions” paid by vendors to state and local agencies. A ruling is expected by summer.

The FCC says that commissions aren’t being spent on the costs of delivering the phone service, rather to “subsidize everything from inmate welfare programs, to salaries and benefits of correctional facilities, states’ general revenue funds, and personnel training.

“The cost of in-state calls remains high, calling fees have mounted, and payments to prisons unrelated to the cost of providing service have escalated, driving up rates,” the FCC said in an October news release.

State and local officials say inmate phone commissions are essential for covering both the direct and indirect costs of providing phone service. Security issues surrounding calls are one extra cost.

“If this order (to cap interstate phone fees) is not stayed, our jail and many other jails will have no alternative but to eliminate the availability of these telephone calls on the effective date of the order,” Oklahoma County Sheriff John Whetsel wrote to the FCC in March 2014. He cited the “unique challenges” of providing phone service in jails.

‘A Lifeline’

Cassandra Bell, of Oklahoma City, has been in prison off and on since the 1990s on convictions of larceny, drug possession and other nonviolent crimes. She was released from the Mabel Bassett Correctional Center last year.

Bell said phone fees inside prison are high and cause many inmates to avoid or limit calls to family or friends. The fees also drive inmates to smuggle cell phones into the prisons, she said. Having a cell phone in prison is a felony.

Bell has children, but said she rarely called them in prison because she didn’t have the money.

“For many of those girls, the phone is a lifeline. They need to talk to someone,” she said. “But it’s too expensive.”

Costs of Connection

Oklahoma’s criminal justice system has added dozens of fees and fines over the past few decades. Driving the trend is a quest for more revenue in the face of tight budgets and higher costs.

Like other agencies, the Corrections Department and counties have turned to privatization, letting vendors provide phone, banking and other services to inmates in return for commissions.

To talk to an Oklahoma prison inmate by phone, a family member or friend must set up a telephone account with Value-Added Communications, paying a one-time set-up fee of $4.75 and then $4.75 for each deposit into the account. Deposits can range from $25 to $110. Each account is linked to the family member’s or friend’s phone number. That means anyone wanting to receive an inmate’s calls to their home must create a separate account and deposit money. Inmates are limited to 22 authorized numbers of friends and family they can call.

When the inmate enters a personal identification number and dials an in-state or out-of-state number, $3 is charged to the recipient’s account for a 15-minute call. Inmates also can mail payments from their “trust fund” to the phone-service vendor to be placed in a recipient’s account, but the process can take days or weeks and may involve extra fees.

A 2011 letter from Tina Hicks, then administrator of contract and acquisition for the Corrections Department, shows that commissions were a top priority in awarding the contract to Value-Added Communications.

“The final contract award recommendation is being made based upon the proposal that offered the highest revenue-sharing rates per call throughout the life of the contract,” she wrote.

The state expected to receive $32 million in revenue over the 10-year term of the contract, which began in 2012. Value-Added would get $9.8 million.

The department collects $2.30 of each $3 per-call fee. The $3 fee is lower than the $3.41 national average for pre-paid inmate calls, according to the Prison Legal News study. But the per-minute rate is higher than it appears because inmates often don’t use all 15 minutes.

Oklahoma Watch analyzed a Corrections Department document listing total calls, total minutes and total phone revenue for each of 40 DOC facilities during the first six months of 2010. The average call made by inmates was just over 11 minutes, bringing the average cost per minute to at least 32 cents. At the time, the calling rate was $3.60 for a 15-minute call, or 24 cents per minute.

A National Debate

According to a letter filed with the FCC last month by 45 former state attorneys general, including Drew Edmondson and Robert Henry of Oklahoma, commissions paid by inmate phone vendors to agencies average about 50 percent of gross phone revenues.

“These commissions … result in inflated phone rates because the cost is passed on to consumers who pay for the calls – primarily prisoners’ family members,” the letter said.

Corrections officials have warned the FCC that “eliminating site commissions would directly affect jail revenues and lead to a reduction in recreational and rehabilitation services provided to inmates by facilities,” the agency said.

Oklahoma Corrections Chief Robert Patton defended the commissions in a letter last month to the FCC, saying they were crucial to the department’s operations.

“The elimination of an agency’s ability to recover any of the associated costs via a well-defined and frequently reevaluated administrative fee would be financially devastating to most agencies, including the Oklahoma Department of Corrections,” Patton wrote. “I strongly disagree that the FCC should have the authority to regulate intrastate calls.”

Brenda Baker

Brenda Baker

For Brenda Baker, a Florida resident, Oklahoma’s prison phone charges are not just a financial burden, but also an emotional one.

Baker said she has spent more than $1,500 since July 2014 trying to keep in touch with her son, Timothy Wynn, who was in Mack Alford Correctional Center in Stringtown for domestic assault and is now in a halfway house.

She said that paying $30 to $40 a week on calls was hard, but not as hard as not being able to contact her son. She feels the Corrections Department was preying on her.

“It’s a racket,” Baker said. “You’re sitting here, you’re free, and he’s sitting in jail. What are you going to do when you’re a parent? You’re going to pay it, and they know it. It breaks my heart.”

Reach M. Scott Carter at scarter@oklahomawatch.org.

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  • Trisha McFarland

    It costs MORE than $3.00 a phone call. I pay $100.00 once a month. Immediately between $6 and $7 is taken for a fee. Then, or EACH call I receive from my inmate just a little less than $4.00 is subtracted from each 15-minute call and NO refund for dropped calls, which never happens for ANY other communications except on THESE calls! On average they steal one call a month that way from us… leaving us with about 21 calls a month. So, for $100 I get maybe 21… fifteen-minute calls.

  • LaWanda

    this needs to be addressed by an attorney. it’s just wrong, these inmates have made mistakes but their families don’t need to be punished, which is affecting the inmates attitudes and character when they lose contact with people they know genuinely Love Them.

    • Julie

      I so agree my fiance has to reset his voice account everytime he calls ne and he only talks to me once a day because of the phone systems. It is aggravating.

  • Joe Eddins

    I assume private prisons do what they wish, and do not have to tell any one.

  • Mandy Torres

    Yes I agree this issue should be addressed. The families of loved ones incarcerated do still pay taxes last I checked. Therefore dropped calls that we paid for should be reimbursed and if not we’ll my friend I consider that stealing from me. This type of theft should not go unpunished

  • cece matthews

    We are being ripped off and its wrong i have money missing off my pre-paid acct everyday and they know there stealing from us and its legal.

  • Tammy Jackson

    Why don’t the prisons just sale cellphones and the minute cards they would make profit off of that plus it would stop people from smelling then in and getting another charge for getting caught with one prisons are over crowded now why put another charge on them and longer time over a cell phone. they don’t have to have data or restrict data somehow monthly phone card would save families money and still be able to talk to their family they could still restrict the numbers they can call but they can talk longer than 15 min and half the time they don’t get all of that cause of the automated intro would help people who are on a fixed income like me I get ssi and ss one time a month just a suggestion

    • Tammy, one of the biggest reasons they don’t let inmates have cellphones is security. They have to have phones that the prison can monitor and/or tape record in the even that an inmate is trying to commit a crime by way of an outsider, i.e., arranging a drug delivery, calling for a hit on a person, trying to intimidate witnesses, victims, etc. Plus, with an inmate having a personal cell phone, there would be no way to restrict who he/she calls.

      It is a shame that the various inmate phone call providers are in effect gouging the friends and families of those incarcerated but short of some form of legislation limiting fees and per minute charges, there’s nothing to be done.

      • Tammy Jackson

        They can monitor them like gov phones to only the numbers they r allowed to call from prison plus they can bug them easier now days without u even knowing it hell they got prisoners doing that with reg phone calls having people throw shit over the walls. Their smart

    • Devlin

      My thought is that the only downside to that is that phones can be used to committ crimes while being in the system.

  • April Crisler

    What B.S.! My phone calls just rose from having $3.06 for 15 minutes to close to $5 for 15 minutes! No warnings? During the Thanksgiving holiday?! Wow! Tthanks for the help of nothing, Attorney General Pls step in to help some more. What’s next, u going to help raise the tax rate to send a letter? Are you kidding?! I have a local number from the jail and was paying $0.21per minute? Exactly who did u help because I’m confused! It wasn’t the families of inmates! Thanks for nothing!

  • Jenzy63

    Face it, people on the outside don’t care that prisoners and their families are being gouged by phone fees. They think it’s fine because they’re just criminals and criminals deserve to pay some of the fees that go towards running a prison. The state of Oklahoma has made severe monetary cutbacks to the DOC so the prisons are forced to get their money from other sources….ex.: phone fees. It’s sad, but true.