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WESH 2 Investigates: How Florida’s prison phone system stacks up against other states

WESH.com, Sept. 23, 2022. https://www.wesh.com/article/florida-prison-pho...

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 It's been more than a year since the Florida Department of Corrections switched phone companies in state prisons.

Many families said they've been shouldering the financial burden of that change.

Ava and her sisters are limited in how often they can talk to their mother, because their guardians can't always afford the calls.

"A lot of times, you'll hear people say, like, we are doing the time with them, because in so many ways, you know, we are punished," Amy McCourt, with Florida Cares, said.

Punished and literally paying the price, McCourt said.

McCourt said the non-profit has been repeatedly ignored in their attempts to make staying connected more affordable.

"When we brought these points, and we've laid them out very distinctly, you know, we're just basically told, 'it's not happening,' you know, 'talk to us again, in five years,'" she said.

ive years is the length of the contract with Viapath Technologies. 

The Department of Corrections said it would be cheaper for families, because the cost per minute was cut from 14 cents to 13 and a half.

However, McCourt says now there are added taxes and fees.

Also, the previous contract allowed families with the same area code as the prison to pay four cents per minute. That's no longer an option.

The DOC refused an on-camera interview but through email told WESH 2: "Since more inmates are not housed within the same town as their loved one, a majority of friends and family paid the $0.14 rate. This new rate is slightly lower and is a benefit for most."

McCourt counters that families didn't have to live in the same city to take advantage of that cheaper rate. They could just get numbers local to their loved one's prison.

"The prison telecom business is extremely lucrative. The profits that these companies make are so obscene that they can cut them off. A lot of them still make a lot of money," journalist Paul Wright said.

Wright has been covering issues affecting inmates for decades in the publication Prison Legal News for the Human Rights Defense Center.

He says the DOC and phone companies take advantage of a lack of regulation and oversight.

"For the most part, states, especially Florida, they're not putting these contracts out to bid in the context of, you know, who can provide the best service at the lowest price to the consumer. Instead, their you know, their big thing is, you know, gouging consumers so they can get a kickback," he said.

The DOC gets $5 million a year from Viapath, plus a laundry list of perks like call monitoring and a cell phone forensic lab.

The DOC told WESH 2 the $5 million goes into the state's general revenue and some goes into the inmate welfare trust fund, which goes toward inmate education, recreation or other prison programs.

But that fund has a limit of $2.5 million.

"I feel like I'm being double taxed, and sometimes triple taxed, because, like, not only are the monies that they're making off of us, not reinvested in the care and the well-being and the welfare of my loved one, they're not even sometimes being spent in the prison system," McCourt said.

A measure earlier this year proposing to raise the cap to $7.5 million failed in the legislature.

State Sen. Keith Perry, chair of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice, says he might try to bring up that issue again in the next legislative session.

"I was hoping we'd get that done. I thought there were some good things we could use for inmate services. It didn't happen," Perry said.

So how does Florida stack up against other states?

The Illinois Department of Corrections uses the company Securus for its phone services. That's the company Florida used before the new contract. In 2017, the Illinois DOC negotiated to cut rates to less than a penny per minute or $.009 with Securus.

In July of 2021, the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction lowered its price to $0.02 cents a minute and uses the same company as Florida–ViaPath Technologies.

Ohio also doesn't get any of the profits. The Department of Rehabilitation and Correction told WESH 2 Investigates: "We understand that maintaining a positive family connection is important to an individual's success. We want to provide an affordable means of maintaining that important connection.”

Inmates in Ohio get three free 10-minute calls each week. In Florida, inmates get two free 5-minute calls each month.

When asked if there was a lack of oversight with the DOC's contract negotiations, Sen. Perry told WESH 2 Investigates, "there's oversight with the Department of Management Services and the governor's office. The executive office has oversight on that. Then we have an Inspector General if we ever thought anything was, you know, not to par. But it's not for the legislature to get in and micromanage any of the agencies."

He also said he has been looking into something he hopes can help cut costs.

"I've just met with some technology, people who have new apps that they use artificial intelligence to, that really can do the work of hundreds of people simultaneously. And so instead of listening to calls and trying to decide if someone's doing criminal activity over the phone, artificial intelligence can do that automatically," he said.

Perry said he hopes that next year they can start looking at implementing that technology, but this too would go through a competitive bidding process for the government contract.

As for the DOC, they tout that this contract offers voicemail for the first time ever and 30-minute phone calls instead of 15-minute calls. The DOC also said only at the conclusion of the contract in 2025 will they evaluate renewal options. 

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