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PLN phone data cited in article on WV prison phone rates

WV Gazette, June 24, 2015. http://www.wvgazette.com/article/20150621/GZ01/...
Sunday, June 21, 2015

Phone calls now cheaper at WV prisons, but not jails

by Erin Beck, Staff writer

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A local prisoners’ rights organization is calling on the West Virginia Regional Jail Authority to reduce what it says are exorbitant fees for inmate phone calls, now that the state Division of Corrections has done so.

The state Division of Corrections previously charged a 46 percent commission on each phone call, as well as various fees that resulted in 15-minute calls costing several dollars. The commission rate under the new contract, awarded to ICSolutions, or CenturyLink, is 0.1 percent.

“Isolation is one of the ways that prisons break people down,” Jonathan Sidney, a volunteer with Stories from South Central, the prisoners’ rights group, said in a news release. “Making it cheaper for people doing time in West Virginia to stay in touch with friends and family improves their quality of life and make re-entry to the outside world easier.”

Under its previous contract with GTL, the Division of Corrections also charged various fees, depending on whether the call was in-state or out-of-state, and prepaid or collect. Under the new contract, which technically began in February but won’t take effect in the prisons until later this summer, the new rate is 3.5 cents per minute for all calls.

A 15-minute call will cost about 53 cents, regardless of whether it is in-state or out-of-state and whether it’s prepaid or collect. In comparison, under the previous contact, a 15-minute collect call out-of-state would have cost about $8, while an in-state prepaid 15-minute call would have cost about $3. Inmates paid surcharges of 85 cents for collect calls and 75 cents for prepaid calls, plus per-minute fees ranging from 16 cents per minute in-state to 50 cents for collect calls out-of-state.

Eric D. Ayers, a former inmate, told the Gazette that many inmates couldn’t afford the rates.

“I think that’s awesome,” he said. “They should have done that a long time ago, so you can get in contact with your family.”

Ayers said that many inmates become depressed when they can’t keep in touch with loved ones. While incarcerated for one year, he was unable to talk to his young children as often as he wanted because of the rates.

“If you’ve got kids and you can’t talk to your kids, it just makes everything so much harder,” he said.

Stories from South Central, a volunteer-run group started after the January 2014 water crisis, sent a statement calling for the West Virginia Regional Jail Authority, which currently charges a 48 percent commission on inmate calls, to follow suit in an effort to reduce recidivism.

Asked whether the Regional Jail Authority may adopt a similar model, state Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety spokesman Lawrence Messina said the authority’s current contract expires at the end of August.

“As always, RJA will bid out the contract in the hopes of securing the best deal for the regional jail system and inmates,” he said.

He said the reason for the decrease was “a different vendor won the contract.”

“I will add that [Corrections Commissioner Jim Rubenstein] was hoping for a vendor that would provide as reasonable a cost as possible to inmates because we do recognize the importance of family, friends and community,” he said.

Stories from South Central referred to commissions the state receives as “kickbacks” in the release. “The end of the kickback means the end of a back-door tax on communities with the highest rates of incarceration: low-income and communities of color,” the release said.

Messina said the term “kickback” is “pejorative and inaccurate.”

“Under the previous contracts, commissions provided revenue solely for the Inmate Benefit Fund,” he said. “This fund helps pay for amenities not required by law. The fund helps to pay for cable TV, for instance.”

Messina said Thursday that due to staff vacations he could not currently provide the amounts the Division of Corrections and the Regional Jail Authority received from the commissions.

According to the nonprofit Human Rights Defense Center’s Prison Phone Justice project, the West Virginia Division of Corrections received more than $900,000 from the commissions each year from 2009 to 2012. Carrie Wilkinson, Prison Phone Justice director, provided emails between her organization and a state official substantiating the numbers.

Stories from South Central also expressed concern about how the Division of Corrections might try to replace the loss of commissions.

Messina said there are still other sources of revenue for the Inmate Benefit Fund, such as money from the prison commissaries, or stores, and that the loss of revenue in exchange for cheaper phone calls is a “trade-off.”

“It wasn’t benefiting the division,” he said. “It was benefiting the inmates. The reduced rate is a benefit, but there’s a trade-off.”

Reach Erin Beck at erin.beck@wvgazette.com, 304-348-5163 or follow @erinbeckwv on Twitter.