Jona Ison9:43 p.m. EST February 5, 2015
Ohio inmates could soon pay 75 percent less to call friends and family as the state looks to forfeit a $15 million kickback from its phone vendor.
The plans come ahead of expected additional rules by the Federal Communications Commission that would cap how much states and phone providers, such as Ohio's vendor Global Tel Link, can charge inmates for calls. A year ago, FCC caps went into effect on out-of-state calls, making a 15-minute call no more than $3.75, compared with previous charges up to $17.30 in some states ($16.97 in Ohio), according to research from Prison Legal News.
The FCC is in the midst of doing the same thing for in-state long distance calls. In Ohio, a 15-minute collect call in-state costs $5.87, giving it the fifth-highest cost in the nation, said Alex Friedmann, managing editor of Prison Legal News and associate director of the Human Rights Defense Center.
Ohio prisons Director Gary Mohr said officials are in the midst of finalizing negotiations with Global Tel Link, but he said he anticipates a 75 percent reduction in costs for calls.
"The governor believes, as I do, that inmates should be able to maintain contact with their families," Mohr said, adding that connections with family are a "significant" component of rehabilitation and reducing recidivism.
The anticipated loss of the $15 million commission, the highest in the nation ahead of Illinois' $12.9 million, has been built into the governor's budget proposal to avoid laying off staff, Mohr said. The commission has been used to pay for 37 recovery services employees, 86 educational employees, inmate pay and advanced training.
The budget proposal moves recovery services over to the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services and includes a funding boost. The prison's operation budget also includes an increase of $138 million, which covers funds to keep current staff and potentially add more as dictated by population growth needs.
Although Friedmann commends Ohio's move to reduce costs for inmates and their families, he said more sweeping reform, such as what is happening with the FCC, is still needed.
"The fact remains that prison phone companies and the (Department of Correction) have exploited prisoners' families for decades through extremely high rates, and Ohio has received the largest amount of prison phone commission kickbacks in the nation in recent years. Thus, comprehensive reforms are needed beyond lower phone rates, including the elimination of kickbacks from phone companies and banning ancillary fees that prisoners' families have to pay to speak with their incarcerated loved ones. Partial reforms are not sufficient," Friedmann said.
Changes to the nation's prison calling system began with a lawsuit filed in Washington, D.C., more than a decade ago. In 2003, the case was moved to the FCC to review and address rule concerns.