Reducing what inmates pay for phone calls might keep them from returning to jail, a concerned citizen told the Lancaster County Prison Board.
Bob Cooper, of Millersville, called on the board Thursday to cut inmate rates for local, prepaid calls from 21 cents per minute to 5 cents.
Cooper pointed out that the county collects $576,000 a year in commission from the phone vendor, up from $400,000 last year. The commission rate rose from 55 percent to 90 percent.
According to a Prison Legal News analysis, a project of the Human Rights Defense Center, the average phone commission paid nationally is 48 percent.
"I understand why you do this," Cooper said. "That's good money. That's a lot of money. And it's easy money."
Under the county's contract with DSI-ITI that expired in February, inmates making local calls got the first two minutes free and were charged five cents for subsequent minutes.
Cooper said that under the new contract, two 30-minute collect calls a month cost the family accepting the call $15.
Many families fall into poverty when a breadwinner goes to prison, Cooper said, "so we're saying we still want $15 a month from you in order to make a phone call to your loved ones."
Cooper, who heads Ambassadors for Hope, a program for children of incarcerated parents, presented the board with a paper citing studies that suggest family support of inmates through visits, calls and letters helps combat recidivism.
County Commissioner Dennis Stuckey responded that the new phone rates are what the Federal Communications Commission set.
He also said the $576,000 goes into an inmate welfare fund that pays for things that benefit prisoners, such as activities, postage and television.
The commissioners in December awarded Securus Technologies of Dallas, Texas, a three-year, no-cost contract for inmate phone service. It expires in February 2018.
The Federal Communications Commission has taken steps to assure that families and inmates aren't paying "unjust" interstate phone rates, according to The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering the criminal justice system.
The FCC last year capped inmate phone charges at 21 or 25 cents a minute, depending on the type of call, but the ruling did not affect calls placed within a state.
"I would encourage the board to relook at this contract and try to come up with a way to try to save families money when they make their calls," Cooper said.
In another matter, Warden Paul Smeal told the board recent inmate complaints about food led to productive meetings with Trinity Services Group, which has a $2.7-million contract to provide three hot meals and 3,000 calories a day to the more than 900 inmates.
Smeal said efforts are being made to assure that the same amount of food goes onto each tray delivered to the inmates.
"I'm sure for some inmates that are a little larger," Smeal said, "3,000 calories a day may not be enough."