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Human Rights Defense Center
DEDICATED TO PROTECTING HUMAN RIGHTS

www.humanrightsdefensecenter.org

www.prisonlegalnews.org

September 19, 2019
Iowa Utilities Board
1375 E. Court Ave.
Des Moines, IA 50319
Re: Docket No. NOI-2019-0001
To the Iowa Utilities Board:
The Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC) is the co-founder of the national Campaign for Prison Phone
Justice, which is committed to improving communication between prisoners and their support networks.
HRDC submits this comment to urge the Board to improve the regulatory framework for alternative
operator services (AOS) companies that operate in prisons and jails in order to eliminate financial burdens
on prisoners and their loved ones. Our goal is to underscore the need to regulate consistent, low prices in
every prison and jail facility in this state and to regulate for improved transparency in the records
provided by AOS companies to the public.
Response to Question 1 from the Board (Should all AOS companies’ tariffs have consistent
definitions for the services provided, identify the types of facilities where the service is offered, offer
the same types of service, offer the same calling options, and contain the same requirements for
billing and cancellation of service?)
It is imperative for consumer protection to provide standardized services between all jail and prison
facilities in Iowa. As HRDC demonstrated in 2018 in the state of Washington, depending on the county in
which a person is incarcerated, a 15-minute phone call could cost anywhere between $2.25 and $14.25 i.
In 2019, similar disparities were demonstrated in Utah; a call from a county jail was revealed to cost up to
ten times as much as a call from the state prison ii. In Iowa, the lowest rate for a 15-minute telephone call
from a county jail is $2.25 while the highest rate is $14.10—a sixfold increase, simply for being located
in a different county iii.
The incarceration of a loved one is stressful. Families should not have to face the additional stress of
paying hundreds of dollars more for telephone service simply because a loved one was moved to a facility
in a different county. There is no reason to allow a telephone company to exert such radical price
differentials or to maintain such inflated costs overall; it’s simply bad regulatory practices.
Response to Question 2 from the Board (What criteria or considerations should the Board use to
determine whether rates charged by an AOS company are just and reasonable? This includes the
basic rates and any ancillary rates.)

P.O. Box 1151, Lake Worth, FL 33460
Phone: 561-360-2523
Email: pwright@prisonlegalnews.org

Prisoners and their families benefit from a unified, low rate for prison and jail telephone calls. To effect
these low rates, the Board must consider regulations that prohibit kickbacks (often called commissions)
and other hidden fees.
The existing prison telephone business model only allows for contract negotiations between an AOS
company and the state or county correctional agency, and the goal for both entities is to make as much
profit as possible. One way that such an arrangement is facilitated is through the use of kickbacks—an
amount of money, written into a contract, paid by AOS companies back to the jail or prison system. In
order for an AOS company to continue making an exorbitant profit after this kickback is paid, the
company will artificially raise the rates that must be paid by consumers. Kickbacks are, essentially,
regressive taxes levied against some of the state’s poorest and most vulnerable citizens to subsidize
prisons and jails.
Another way that AOS companies inflate consumer prices is through so-called service charges and
maintenance fees which are tacked onto the posted rates for telephone calls. One such fee that is currently
in effect in several facilities in Iowa is a first-minute connection fee, which can add several dollars onto
the cost of every telephone call iv. Prisoners and their families are also charged to establish telephone
accounts, to add funds to pre-paid prison telephone accounts and more.
It has been reported that 34% of families of prisoners go into debt because of the costs of telephone calls v.
This must change. Some states have already taken steps to end the financial exploitation of prisoners and
their families, and these steps provide potential sources of regulatory language for Iowa. Possible ways to
regulate prison and jail telephone calls include: barring a jail or prison from accepting kickbacks; capping
the cost of telephone calls, including the removal of all exploitative fees; and bidding future contracts on
the basis of which contractor can provide the best service at the lowest cost to the consumers who actually
pay the bills – i.e., primarily prisoners’ families. Many of these abuses derive from the monopoly
contracts awarded to AOS companies, and could be regulated by removing the monopoly nature of such
contracts.
Examples of significant measures to reform AOS service in jails and prisons across the country:
•
•

•
•

•
•

•

•

California SB 81 (2007) reduced kickbacks for telephone services to zero from 2010 and later.
Illinois HB 6200 (2018) caps telephone calls from Illinois prisons at $.07 per minute and
stipulates that the Department of Corrections must contract with the vendor offering the lowest
price to consumers.
Nebraska Correctional Services Admin Regulation 205.03 (2011) waives rights to receive
kickbacks connected to prison telephone revenues.
New Jersey Revised Statutes C.30:4-8.11-14 (2016) caps per-minute rates for domestic
debit/prepaid/collect calls at $0.11 per minute and international calls are capped at $0.25 per
minute. Extra fees like surcharges or account set-up fees can no longer exceed the capped per
minute rate. No correctional facility, private or public, may accept kickbacks.
New Mexico § 33.14-1 (2011) removes kickbacks from telecommunication services contracts
from state and county facilities.
New York § 623 (2008) requires contracts to be bid based on the lowest cost to users. No revenue
is collected beyond what covers operating costs. Additionally, New York City 741-A (2018) has
made domestic telephone calls from New York City jails completely free of charge.
Rhode Island § 42-56-38.1 (2007) ensures call rates shall be comparable to non-prison rates. No
contracts shall include kickbacks or surcharges for telephone usage by prisoners beyond those
imposed by the telecommunications provider.
South Carolina § 10-4-210 (2008) requires state agencies to not accept kickbacks for pay
telephones in adult and juvenile correctional facilities. The state ensures calling rates will be
reduced to reflect a lack of kickbacks.

Response to Question 6 from the Board (What information regarding AOS service should be
considered confidential and not available for public inspection?)
A pervasive lack of transparency has been allowed to exist with respect to AOS companies that operate in
jails and prisons for far too long. The public has a right to know the terms of the contracts entered into by
government agencies, which are funded with taxpayer dollars. All financial information about contracts
with AOS companies should be publicly posted by jails and prisons—telephone rates, the kickback rates
(and total kickbacks received), campaign donations and in kind contributions to agencies and elected
officials who award contracts, all requests for proposals (RFP) and submissions in response to RFPs.
During our work to uncover the costs of telephone calls in jails and prisons, HRDC has been met with
extreme resistance from correctional agencies and their contracted AOS companies. We were required to
file a lawsuit to obtain records after prison telecom Global Tel Link (GTL) and the Mississippi
Department of Corrections refused to produce its contract and related records under the guise of a
protective order. The case settled in May 2009 and the records were finally produced.
Public records requests to gather AOS information remain a significant drain on our limited resources; we
have been forced to enter into repeated litigation as a result of these requests, belying the notion that this
information is “public.” HRDC has also faced difficulties obtaining unredacted public records from the
Pennsylvania DOC (where AOS companies GTL and Securus both intervened in the process) and from
the Ohio DOC, under claims of “proprietary information” and “copyright.” In 2015, the Illinois DOC
summarily rejected our request for public records, including telephone contracts and documents related to
commission kickbacks, as being “unduly burdensome.” HRDC has paid thousands of dollars in copying
and other fees to obtain this same basic data, which also belies the notion that the information is “free.”
Recently, Mississippi DOC commissioner Charles Epps pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges
stemming from—among other things—taking criminal bribes in exchange for awarding the prison
telephone contract for the Mississippi DOC. Despite Epps’ criminal conviction for accepting the bribes,
the AOS retained the state contract vi. A lack of transparency and accountability allows corruption of every
sort to grow and thrive with little public oversight or understanding of how the contracts are awarded, the
actual cost of the prison and jail telephone services, and the enormous profits of AOS companies.
Requiring that contract, rate, fee and kickback data be publicly posted on agency websites will ensure
both transparency and the ability of the public—as well as courts and regulatory agencies—to determine
the reality behind AOS contracts. At a minimum, this secrecy must not be allowed to persist under the
guise of confidentiality.
Conclusion
In conclusion, we ask the Board to consider motions to standardize and reduce the costs of telephone
service in jails and prisons in Iowa, as well as to ensure that information about these services is truly
accessible to the public. The lack of transparency that permeates every aspect of AOS companies is a
critical component that has allowed the current situation of consumer exploitation to both exist and
persist for so long.
Sincerely,
Paul Wright
Executive Director, HRDC

i

https://www.prisonlegalnews.org/news/2018/oct/12/washington-state-jail-phone-rates-increase-video-replacesperson-visits/
ii
https://www.sltrib.com/news/2019/04/28/with-captive-customers/
iii
https://www.prisonpolicy.org/phones/appendix_table_2.html

iv

https://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/news/2019/05/31/iowa-ia-investigates-phone-call-costs-charged-polkcounty-jail-inmates-aclu-naacp/1290761001/
v
https://ellabakercenter.org/sites/default/files/downloads/who-pays.pdf
vi
https://www.prisonlegalnews.org/news/2018/apr/2/global-tellink-settles-mississippi-prison-bribery-case-25million/

Attachment:
Prison Legal News, October 2018 article
("Washington State: Jail Phone Rates Increase
as Video Replaces In-Person Visits")

Prison Legal News
PUBLISHED BY THE HUMAN RIGHTS DEFENSE CENTER
VOL. 29 No. 10
ISSN 1075-7678

Dedicated to Protecting Human Rights

October 2018

Washington State: Jail Phone Rates Increase
as Video Replaces In-Person Visits
by Steve Horn and Iris Wagner

A

comprehensive set of public records obtained by Prison Legal News
from the Washington Department of
Corrections (DOC) and most of the state’s
county jails indicates that the average cost
of local and in-state phone calls made by
Washington prisoners has steadily increased
in recent years.
The records also demonstrate an
ongoing shift toward video-based calling
in county jails, which in some cases has
resulted in the elimination of in-person,
face-to-face visits. PLN uses the term “video
calling” because “video visits” implies people
are actually visiting each other rather than

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AZ Death Row Reforms

34

$3.15M for Wrongful Convictions

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Ramen Behind Bars

40

HRDC Sues NM Jail

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Stanford Prison Experiment

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FL ICE Detention Center 	

52

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MS Debtor Prison Settlement

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News in Brief

62

seeing their images on a screen. The records
procured by PLN further indicate that
some of the money generated from phone
and video calling revenue at county jails,
which is placed in Inmate Welfare Funds,
is used to pay the salaries and benefits of jail
employees instead of benefiting prisoners.
These developments have occurred
despite the state’s proclaimed desire to
lower phone rates for prisoners and, ironically, are partly due to a cap on interstate
(long distance) prison and jail phone rates
imposed by the Federal Communications
Commission (FCC).
Using Washington’s Public Records
Act, PLN obtained and reviewed telecom
contracts for the Washington Department
of Corrections and local jails in most of the
state’s 39 counties. The documents detail
the accounting behind how companies like
Securus Technologies, Global Tel*Link
(GTL), Consolidated Telecom, Legacy
Inmate Communications and others secure
monopoly contracts with state and county
officials.
The FCC took action during the
Obama administration to reduce interstate
prison and jail phone rates, capping them
at $0.21/minute for debit and prepaid calls
and $0.25/minute for collect calls. However,
the agency’s rate caps on intrastate (instate) calls were struck down by the D.C.
Circuit Court of Appeals on June 13, 2017,
after FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, appointed by
President Trump, ordered the agency not to
defend its rulemaking related to intrastate
rates. [See: PLN, July 2017, p.52; Dec.
2013, p.1]. Consequently, local and in-state
phone rates are completely unregulated on

the federal level – meaning they often cost
more than long distance calls.
While in theory the FCC still intends
to examine whether it has jurisdiction to
regulate video calling, the agency has taken
no steps in that direction. The county jail
contracts obtained by PLN indicate that
video calling has become a mainstay, and
in fact has completely replaced in-person
visits in at least 13 Washington jails.
Then there are the fees that family
members must pay to prison phone companies to use their services, distinct from the
phone and video calling rates – including
fees to place money on prisoners’ accounts
and billing statement fees. Sources who
spoke to PLN, both prisoners and family
members, bemoaned the financial burden
imposed by the combination of high phone
rates and account-related fees.
All of these dynamics foretell a profitable future for the firms involved in the
for-profit prison and jail telecommunications market. Which, in turn, means
prisoners and their families will be hit the
hardest simply for wanting to stay in touch.
Presently, video calling appears to be
the fastest-growing service provided by
prison and jail telecom companies.

Trend Towards Video Calling
Advocates seeking to reduce the cost
of prison phone calls – including the national Campaign for Prison Phone Justice,
co-founded in 2011 by the Human Rights
Defense Center, PLN’s parent organization
– won hard-fought gains from the FCC
from 2013 to 2016. But while the reforms

Prison Legal News

a publication of the
Human Rights Defense Center

www.humanrightsdefensecenter.org
EDITOR

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MANAGING EDITOR

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Prison Legal News
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561-360-2523
info@prisonlegalnews.org
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PLN reports on legal cases and news stories related
to prisoner rights and prison conditions of confinement. PLN welcomes all news clippings, legal
summaries and leads on people to contact related
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Article submissions should be sent to - The
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Prison Legal News

Jail Phone Rates Increase (cont.)
that survived the D.C. Court of Appeals’
2017 ruling mainly related to interstate
calls, most phone calls made by prisoners
are local or in-state.
Additionally, those gains did not affect
video calling – a service the business publication Bloomberg News described as “Prison
Skype.” While it is a bit like Skype, a free
computer-based video and phone service,
video calls are far more expensive in county
jails and of inferior quality according to
those who have used them. The Washington
DOC provides video calling through JPay,
and 19 Washington jails have onsite or
remote video calling, or both, supplied by
various companies.
While onsite video calls are usually free
(at some jails just one to three free onsite
video calls are allowed each week), remote
video sessions, which can be conducted by
family members off-site using computers or
smart phones, incur fees – typically either
flat fees for a certain amount of calling time
or per-minute rates.
In at least 13 Washington jails – a third
of the state’s 39 counties – video calling has
replaced all in-person visits. The counties
with a video-only visitation policy include
Benton, Cowlitz, Franklin, Grays Harbor,
Kitsap, Kittitas, Lewis, Mason, Okanogan,
Skagit, Snohomish, Thurston and Walla
Walla.
Among the jails that use remote video
calling services, Benton and Okanogan
counties have the highest rates. Video
calls at Benton County cost $12.50 for
25 minutes, or $0.50/minute. ICSolutions
contracts with the county to provide both
onsite and remote video services; onsite
video calls also cost $0.50/minute, though
the first two each week are free. Okanogan
County also charges $0.50/minute for video
calls through a service provided by Home
Wav, and prisoners at the jail get two free
15-minute onsite video sessions each week.
Also on the more expensive end for
video calling in Washington jails, Cowlitz
County charges $8.99 for a 20-minute
remote video call, or almost $0.45/minute.
Prisoners receive two free 20-minute onsite
video sessions each week; if they want more,
they have to pay for them. The service is
provided by Securus.
Although its video calls are managed by
GTL, the policy at Whitman County’s jail

3

largely parallels that of Benton and Cowlitz.
Whitman charges $0.39/minute for video
calling, with free onsite visits; the service is
provided by Turnkey Corrections.
The King County jail, located in the
state’s most populous county, has the lowest video calling rates. The county charges
$5.00 for a 25-minute remote video call,
or $0.20/minute. Video calling has been in
place at the facility since 2014.
“Our video visitation system and
phone calls are in addition to the option of
in-person visits – not in lieu of in-person
visits,” Lisaye Manning, Captain of the
Administrative Unit for the King County
Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention, told Prison Legal News. “We offer all
of these options with the goal of reducing
the social and economic barriers that family members and loved ones may have that
make it difficult to maintain those connections and social support systems with
inmates.” She added, “[W ]e charge the
lowest possible fee for video visitation so
that issues like distance, or lack of transportation, or low income, or disabilities don’t
prevent someone from staying in contact
with an inmate.”
Other Washington county jails with
relatively low remote video calling rates
include Yakima, Skagit and Lewis, which
charge $0.25/minute. Lewis and Skagit
have no face-to-face visitation, while Yakima has both in-person visits and video calls.
Eighteen Washington jails do not have
any form of video calling, only traditional
in-person visitation. They include both
small facilities, such as in Adams and Columbia counties, and larger ones in Pierce
and Spokane counties.
Over a month’s time, were a prisoner to
use video calling for 50 minutes a week (two
25-minute sessions), it would cost approximately $43 at the King County jail. That’s
about the same amount non-prisoners pay
for a month of unlimited talk, text and
data cell phone service. Over the course of
a year, 50 minutes of video calling a week
would cost a prisoner at the King County
jail a total of $520, excluding any other fees.
At the Washington jails with the most
expensive video calls, using those same
metrics, a year’s worth of similar video
sessions in Benton or Okanogan counties
would cost $1,300 – a significant amount
for prisoners and their families, who often
have low incomes.
The demographics in Washington
October 2018

Jail Phone Rates Increase (cont.)
reflect no clear pattern among county jails
with respect to video calling. Around half
the facilities use video calls and the rest
don’t. A third of the jails have discontinued
in-person visitation. Both small and large
counties use video calling, while some small
and large ones don’t. Seven companies
provide video services at Washington jails,
including telecom leaders GTL and Securus, both owned by private equity firms, as
well as smaller companies such as Legacy
Inmate Communications, Consolidated
Telecom and Home Wav.

“Breaches in the Wall”
By June 2014, remote video calling
had been implemented at all Washington
state prisons. After JPay, a subsidiary of
Securus, was awarded a monopoly contract
with the Washington DOC, it launched a
marketing campaign for video calls with an
ad titled “Meet Brandon and Erin.” At the
time, Erin was incarcerated at the Mission
Creek Corrections Center for Women.
Video calling services are not unique to

Washington State, of course, but are part of
a broader national trend in prison systems
and jails across the country. [See: PLN, June
2018, p.20; April 2017, p.22; July 2016,

p.38; Mar. 2015, p.1].
As one recent example, video calls
were adopted at the jail in Benton County,
Arkansas, a county most famous as the

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Dennis Hartley – Senior Counsel

4

Prison Legal News

                       VIDEO CALLING DATA
              FOR COUNTY JAILS, DOC IN WASHINGTON STATE +
County Jail

Video Provider

Video only? On-site video?

On-site charge/rates

Remote video?

Remote charge/rates

Kickback

N/A
Free
Two free video calls/week,
then $12.50 each

N/A
No

N/A
N/A

N/A
N/A

Yes
N/A
N/A

$12.50 for 25 min.

Yes
N/A

$7.50 for 30 min.

50%
N/A
N/A
25%
($5,911.87 in 2016)
N/A
20%
(Only if minimum
use level is met)
N/A
N/A

Adams
Asotin

N/A
Consolidated Telecom

No
No

N/A
Yes

Benton
Chelan
Clallam

ICSolutions

Yes
No
No

Yes
N/A
N/A

No
No

Yes
N/A

Yes
N/A
No

Yes
N/A
N/A

Yes
No
No

Yes
N/A
N/A

Free

Yes
No
No

Yes
N/A
N/A

Free

N/A
N/A

King

Securus

No

Yes

Kitsap
Kittitas
Klickitat

Telmate (GTL)
Securus

Yes
Yes
No

Yes
Yes
N/A

Lewis
Lincoln

Home Wav
N/A

Yes
No

Yes
N/A

Mason

Securus

Yes

Yes

Okanogan
Pacific
Pend Oreille

PayTel/Home Wav
N/A
N/A

Yes
No
No

Yes
N/A
N/A

Pierce
San Juan

N/A
Holding facility / no jail

No
N/A

Skagit

Securus

Skamania

Clark **
Columbia

Cowlitz
Douglas
Ferry
Franklin
Garfield
Grant
Grays Harbor
Island
Jefferson

N/A
N/A
Telmate (GTL)
N/A

Securus
Does not have a jail
N/A
Consolidated Telecom

N/A
N/A
One free video call/week,
then $7.50 each
N/A
Two free 20-min. onsite video
calls/week
N/A
N/A

Yes
N/A
N/A

N/A
N/A

N/A
$8.99 for 20 minutes ($8.99
for 20 min. or $25.98 for 40
min. for attorney video calls)
N/A
N/A

No
N/A
N/A

N/A
N/A

20%
N/A
N/A

No
N/A
N/A

N/A
N/A
N/A

N/A
N/A
N/A

Yes

$5 for 25 min.

Yes
Yes
N/A

$7.50 for 30 min.
$8.95 for 30 min.

20%
25%
($6,463.11 in 2017)
20-25%
N/A

$0.25/min.

N/A

Yes
N/A

Free

Yes

$6.95 for 20 min. or
$15.95 for 40 min.

Two free 15 min. video
calls/week

Yes

$.50/min.

N/A
N/A

N/A
N/A

N/A
N/A

N/A
N/A

N/A
N/A

N/A
N/A

N/A
N/A

Yes

Yes

Free

Yes

$5 for 20 min.
$10 for 40 min.

N/A
N/A
20%
(0% for first 2 years
if minimum use level
not met)

N/A

No

N/A

N/A

N/A

N/A

N/A
N/A
Legacy Inmate
Communications

N/A

N/A
N/A

N/A
N/A
Free on-site at Norm Maleng
Reg. Justice Center only
One free video call/week,
then $7.50 each
Free
N/A
15 min./week, 1 hour/month
free; $.25/min. after that

N/A

N/A

N/A

40%
($15,591.76 in 2017)
N/A
10%
(0% if minimum use
level not met)
$.15/min. for cost
recovery
($11,142 in 2017)
N/A
N/A

Snohomish

GTL

Yes

Yes

N/A
Three free 50 min. video
calls/week

No

N/A

N/A

Spokane

N/A

No

N/A

N/A

N/A

N/A

N/A

Stevens

N/A

No

N/A

N/A

N/A

Thurston

Telmate (GTL)

Yes

Yes

N/A
Two free 30 min. video
calls/week, then $7.50/visit

Yes

$7.50 for 30 min.

N/A
25%
($5,557.50 in 2017)

Wahkiakum

No

N/A

N/A

Yes

Yes

Whatcom *

N/A
Securus
Legacy Inmate
Communications

No

Whitman

Turnkey Corrections

No

Yakima

Securus

No

WA DOC

Securus/JPay

No

Walla Walla

N/A

N/A
Free

Yes

N/A
$6.95 for 20 min.

30%

No

N/A

Yes

$0.35/min.

Unspecified

Yes

Free

Yes

20%

Yes

Free

Yes

$0.39/min.
$5 for 20 min.
$10 for 40 min.

N/A

N/A

Yes

$7.95 for 30 min.

50%
$3.00 per video call
(per 2015 contract)

+ Data collected by Prison Legal News from 2017 to Sept. 2018
* Whatcom County has both a jail and interim work center; the work center has video calls only, on-site and remote. Chart data is for the jail

** At the Clark County jail, in-person visits are only available on weekends; on-site video calls during weekdays

Prison Legal News

5

October 2018

Jail Phone Rates Increase (cont.)
corporate headquarters for Walmart, in July
2018. Face-to-face visits at the jail were
banned and replaced with video calls at a
cost of $7.50 for 15 minutes.
“Video visitation will allow family and
friends to visit with their loved ones from
the comfort of their own homes,” Benton
County Sheriff ’s Department Sgt. Shannon Jenkins said in a statement provided to
the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette,
which broke the story about the new policy.
“It will allow for those with health problems
to not have to travel and those living out
of state a much easier and less expensive
way to visit.”
However, Benton County’s decision
to end face-to-face visits came under fire
from the American Bar Association (ABA).
The ABA, the chief professional organization for attorneys, called for video calls to
supplement rather than replace in-person
visits at prisons and jails, in accordance with
its Standards on the Treatment of Prisoners
published in June 2011.
Similarly, the American Correctional
Association (ACA) states in its 2017 policy
guidelines that it only supports video calls
as a supplemental form of contact between
prisoners and those on the outside.
“Regular communication between
offenders and their family and friends is
proven to aid the reentry process and is

consistent with sound correctional management,” the ACA states in its policy
guidelines. “Correctional agencies should
promote communications between offenders and their family and friends and
adopt family-friendly policies that.... [u]se
emerging technologies as supplements to
existing in-person visitation.”
The ACA has also called for rates and
fees for prison phone calls and other forms
of communication that do not impose an
undue financial burden on prisoners’ families. Yet the ACA, which accredits detention
facilities for a fee, will not deny accreditation just because a facility has discontinued
in-person visits or charges high rates for
phone or video calls.
The jail in Benton County, Arkansas
is just one of the most recent that have
adopted a video-only visitation policy.
For example, the Jefferson Parish
Correctional Center in Louisiana has also
implemented a video-only policy, as have
South Carolina’s Mecklenburg County jail
and the Erie County Correctional Facility
in Pennsylvania. The Berrien County jail
in Michigan began offering remote video
calling in September 2018. In Cass County,
North Dakota, the jail has adopted what essentially amounts to a video-only policy, as
face-to-face visitation is now only allowed
on a “case-by-case basis.”
Criminal justice scholars have cited
in-person visits as a key way for prisoners to improve their behavior both while

Are Phone Companies Taking Money
from You and Your Loved Ones?
HRDC and PLN are gathering information about
the business practices of telephone companies
that connect prisoners with their friends and
family members on the outside.
Does the phone company at a jail or prison at
which you have been incarcerated overcharge
by disconnecting calls? Do they charge excessive
fees to fund accounts? Do they take money left
over in the account if it is not used within a
certain period of time?
We want details on the ways in which prison
and jail phone companies take money from
customers. Please contact us, or have the person whose money was taken contact us, by
email or postal mail:
kmoses
@humanrightsdefensecenter.org
cwilkinson@humanrightsdefensecenter.org

Prison Legal News
Attn:Kathy
CarrieMoses
Wilkinson
Attn:
PO Box 1151
Lake Worth, Florida 33460

October 2018

incarcerated and after release. This includes
a 2017 academic study titled “The Effects
of Prison Visits from Family Members on
Prisoners’ Well-Being, Prison Rule Breaking, and Recidivism,” published by British
psychologists Karen De Claire and Louise
Dixon.
In their report, a meta-analysis of
research on prison visitation conducted
since 1991, they concluded that “studies
consistently reported positive effects of
prisoners receiving visits.” [See, e.g., PLN,
April 2014, p.24].
One of the reports included in the
meta-analysis was “Breaches in the Wall:
Imprisonment, Social Support and Recidivism” by Joshua Cochran, a criminal justice
professor at the University of Cincinnati.
Cochran, then employed at the University
of South Florida, pulled data from the Florida Department of Corrections between
the years 2000-2002 and found a strong
correlation between lower recidivism rates
and in-person family visitation that occurred early and often for Florida prisoners.
Cochran wrote that “visitation represents a rare nexus between prison life and
the outside world, one that affords inmates
some ability to preserve, develop, or sustain
ties to social networks and to have sources of
social capital on which to draw.” He found
that prisoners who were able to receive
regular visits “were significantly less likely
to recidivate than prisoners who were never
visited.”

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Prison Legal News

Further, a 2011 study of Minnesota
prisoners found that visitation “significantly
decreased the risk of recidivism.” According
to a Stateline article that cited that research,
“Of 16,420 inmates studied, recidivism
rates for those who had visits of any kind
from their families were 13 percent lower
for subsequent felonies and 25 percent
lower for technical violations, such as [violating] parole.”
Michael Darrington, formerly incarcerated at the Snohomish County jail in
Washington, explained to PLN what he
believed to be the importance of face-toface visitation. His views echoed those of
Prof. Cochran.
“Babies die without physical touch. According to human biology, you need to be
able to be in contact with souls that we love.
Even just a handshake, hug, or being able to
see a smile face to face. It goes a long way
to keep a person sane,” Darrington stated.
“Seeing a mom’s smile sitting across from
you, or holding a little sister’s hand. A lot
of guys have children. If you only see your
baby though a video visit, that doesn’t have
the same effect.”
He added that during the nine years he

spent behind bars, his stay at the Snohomish County jail was the only time he could
not have in-person visitation. And, notably,
it was the only time he was placed in solitary
confinement.
When Darrington was able to again
receive face-to-face visits with his family,
he told PLN that his behavior improved
dramatically, with the visits serving as an
incentive and positive reinforcement.
“People look forward to staying out
of trouble so they can get those in-person
visits,” he explained, citing the benefits
of being able to communicate with family members and loved ones face-to-face.
“A lot of guys would avoid doing things
that would cause them to go to [solitary]
because they want to get their in-person
visits. People would stay out of trouble just
so they could have those visits.”
Suzanne Cook, whose husband is
incarcerated at the Washington State
Penitentiary in Walla Walla, said even
though remote video calls are an option
for her to “visit” with her husband, she had
heard a slew of negative stories about the
fallibility of video calling. That, combined
with the fact she prefers face-to-face visits,

convinced her to avoid video calls.
“The video visits are inconvenient, with
the need to be scheduled, and unnecessary
when we can visit in person and talk on
the phone,” Cook told Prison Legal News.
“I heard nothing but bad things about the
reception, dropping the [video] visit, and
the hassle of trying to get refunds.”
At the Snohomish County jail, Darrington frequently used video calls to talk
with his wife, roughly three times a week.
They had only 30 minutes available during
each session, but often that time was spent
dealing with technical glitches.
“One time the connection was out
for 15 minutes,” he informed PLN. “We
wouldn’t know what to do, [so] we’d have
to turn the computer off and log back on,
just using our time up.”

Video Killed the In-Person Visit?
Previously, in its contracts with jails
nationwide, Securus called for in-person
visits to be eliminated when video calling was implemented. Following a public
backlash against that practice, the company
changed the language in its contracts in
2015 to defer to the judgment of jail officials

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7

October 2018

Jail Phone Rates Increase (cont.)
with respect to visitation policies.
“Securus examined our contract language for video visitation and found that in
‘a handful’ of cases we were writing in language that could be perceived as restricting
onsite and/or person-to-person contact at
the facilities that we serve,” Richard Smith,
CEO of Securus, said in a press release. “So
we are eliminating that language and 100
percent deferring to the rules that each facility has for video use by inmates. We have
always deferred to the rules in place at each
facility for audio and video visitation – and
we embrace the notion of having different
rules by facility.”
Despite the change in Securus’ contract
language and the deference given to jail officials, video-only visitation persists both in
Washington State and many other jurisdictions. According to a 2015 report published
by the Prison Policy Initiative, 74 percent of
jails that implemented video calling ended
up banning face-to-face visits – mostly
due to staffing issues or purported security
concerns, such as contraband smuggling or
fights in visitation areas.
But recent studies have shown that,
contrary to addressing security concerns like
fighting and contraband, those problems
have persisted in jails that have adopted
video calling.
In an October 2014 research study,
the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition and
Grassroots Leadership filed a public records request for incident reports related to

prisoner-on-prisoner and prisoner-on-staff
violence both before and after the implementation of a video-only visitation policy
at the jail in Travis County, Texas.
The findings were both unexpected and
eye-opening.
“Total disciplinary infractions and
incidents increased, as did assaults, within
the year after the elimination of in-person visitation. Possession of contraband
infractions also increased,” the report
concluded. “Disciplinary infractions in
the Travis County Correctional Complex
climbed from approximately 820 in May
2012 to 1,160 in April 2014. The facility
averaged 940 disciplinary infractions per
month during the prior year and it has
averaged 1,087 disciplinary infractions per
month since then.” Contraband incidents,
too, increased by 54 percent in the year after
video-only visits went into effect at the jail.
[See: PLN, March 2015, p.1].
Additionally, a January 2018 report
issued by Face to Face Knox, regarding the
adoption of a video-only visitation policy at
the jail in Knoxville, Tennessee, had similar
findings. Jail officials claimed video calling
would reduce violence at the facility, yet
the report found the “total rate of assaults
increased by an average of one assault per
100 inmates” after in-person visits were
banned, and there was “no drop in reported
cases of contraband.” [See related article on
p.23 of this issue].
While these findings indicate a reality
more complex than the one sold by telecom
companies that peddle fee-based video
calling services to prison and jail officials,

Securus has persisted in billing its video
calls as a panacea for addressing security
concerns.
“Imagine no longer having to move
inmates, service long lines of visitors, and
manually manage visitation schedules.
What types of efficiencies could be gained
by eliminating these burdensome tasks?” the
company asked rhetorically on its website,
on a page that was recently removed but
tracked down by PLN using the Internet
Archive’s Wayback Machine. “Could you
increase focus on the safety and security of
inmates, your officers, and the public that
you serve? With Securus Video Visitation,
all of these things are possible.”
Another explanation for the proliferation of video calling at jails is a financial
incentive provided by the companies that
provide those services.

Video Calling Kickbacks
Most prison and jail phone contracts
are based on “commission” kickbacks, where
the telecom provider agrees to pay a percentage of its gross revenue to the detention
facility or agency. Such revenue-generating
contracts tend to be awarded not based on
the lowest cost of the phone service, but on
the highest kickback amount. [See: PLN,
Dec. 2013, p.1; April 2011, p.1].
That model has extended to video calling, too – often in “bundled” contracts that
include phone and video services provided
by the same company. Of the 19 Washington county jails that have onsite and/or
remote video calling, 17 contract with the
same provider for both phone services and

(Void in New York)

Abilene, TX.)

October 2018

8

Prison Legal News

video calls. This “bundling” gives telecom
companies an advantage when offering to
provide video calling in addition to phone
services, making it harder for other firms
to compete.
All jails in Washington State that use
remote video calling receive kickback payments. Benton and Yakima counties both
receive 50 percent of video revenue in kickbacks; Lewis County gets 40 percent, and
Walla Walla County receives 30 percent.
Clark, Kitsap and Thurston counties get 25
percent kickbacks, Kittitas County receives
a 20-25 percent kickback depending on the
number of video calls made, and Cowlitz,
Franklin, King and Whitman counties
receive 20 percent. Mason County gets a
modest 10 percent kickback and Okanogan
County receives $0.15/minute from video
calls as “cost recovery” – equivalent to a 30
percent kickback.
Skagit County receives 20 percent of
the revenue from video calls, though during the first two years of the contract no
kickbacks are paid if a minimum level of
video calling is not met. After two years,
the county gets 20 percent of all video
call revenue. Whatcom County receives

kickbacks for video calls but the amount
was not specified in a contract amendment
that PLN obtained through a public records
request.
The average kickback for video calling
services at Washington county jails is 26.75
percent. According to a February 2016
report by the Vera Institute of Justice, the
Washington DOC received $3.00 from
Securus/JPay for every video call made
from a state prison, which at the time was
equivalent to a 23 percent kickback.
Since county jails receive financial
benefits from remote video calling, they are
incentivized to increase the number of video
calls that prisoners make – and therefore
have a motivation to eliminate in-person
visits in order to maximize the use of the
video calling system.
Most Washington counties that produced records for their telecom kickbacks
did not provide a breakdown of payments
related to video calling, but a few did. In
2017, Kitsap County received $6,463.11 in
video call kickbacks and Okanogan County
received over $11,000, while Lewis County
received $15,591.76.
Kickback payments to corrections

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Prison Legal News

agencies are costs that are passed on to
prisoners and their family members who
pay for video calling services; absent the
kickbacks, the rates could be lower and thus
more affordable.
As the Vera Institute of Justice noted in
its 2016 report, “States also cannot ignore
the fact that some operational costs are
passed on to video visitation’s users. DOCs
need to consider, for example, whether adding commissions onto the price of a video
visit will reinforce or undermine their goal
of keeping families in touch with incarcerated people.”
In other countries such as Ireland,
the Philippines and India, prisoners have
access to free video calls, including the use
of Skype at a prison in Northern Ireland.
The Human Rights Defense Center
(HRDC) opposes video-only visitation
policies, as well as charging for video calling
services that allow prisoners to communicate with their families and loved ones.
“Video visitation should be provided at
no cost with no ancillary fees, considering it
is a service that is free to non-incarcerated
persons (e.g., via Skype), and in-person visits at prisons and jails are free,” Paul Wright,

Write, email or call with your inquiries to:
PO Box 188 Georgetown, TX 78627
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9

October 2018

Jail Phone Rates Increase (cont.)
HRDC’s executive director and the editor
of Prison Legal News, wrote in an April 2016
comment to the FCC. “Further, in-person
visitation should not be eliminated to increase the volume of video visits; prisoners
being allowed to have in-person visits to see
their families during times of incarceration
is just as important as being able to talk with
them on the phone.”
Wright noted that this is part of a larger trend of monetizing correctional services
that were previously free, including prison
and jail money transfers and release checks,
which are now being provided by for-profit
companies that charge fees to prisoners and
their families for the same services.
The academic community, too, has
pointed to video-only visitation as a problematic policy in carceral facilities.
Then-John Marshall Law School Professor Patrice Fulcher, who wrote a 2013
paper titled “The Double-Edged Sword
of Prison Video Visitation: Claiming to
Keep Families Together While Furthering
the Aims of the Prison Industrial Complex,” noted “the exploitation of prisoners
and their families through video visitation
methods will lead to increased profits for
prison video visitation service providers.”
She further posited that “prison video visitation companies, through contracts with
U.S. correctional departments, will continue
to collect fees in complete disregard for the
humanity of the people involved.”
Asked for her point of view as the wife
of a prisoner held in a Washington state
prison, Suzanne Cook shared her concerns
about the trend toward video-only visitation.
“I find the move toward video visits,

eliminating in-person visits, disturbing to say the
least,” she said. “It’s something everyone needs to
raise hell about.”
While video calling
is the new frontier for
prison and jail telecommunications, it is dwarfed
by the most popular and
longstanding means of
staying in touch with
those on the outside:
phone calls.

The Telephone Game
All detention facilities offer phone services
for prisoners, often at obscenely inflated rates; prison and jail phone
calls are among the most expensive in the
nation. Most of those costs are imposed
not on prisoners but on the call recipients
– mainly their family members.
In Washington State, the FCC’s order
capping long distance rates at detention
facilities resulted in much lower costs for
those types of calls. The Washington DOC
once had the highest interstate phone rate
in the nation, at $18.30 for a 15-minute call.
That dropped to $11.00 before the FCC cap
went into effect, and a 15-minute call from
a state prison now costs just $1.65.
In-state rates at DOC facilities have
also decreased, but such has not been the
case at Washington county jails. Because
intrastate phone rates are not regulated by
the FCC, nor by the Washington Utilities
and Transportation Commission, county
jails can charge whatever they want.
After the FCC rate caps on long distance prison and jail calls went into effect

in 2014, there were concerns that telecom
companies and the corrections agencies
they contract with would try to offset the
lost revenue from those calls by increasing
unregulated in-state phone rates. That is,
apparently, exactly what happened.
Prison Legal News compared phone
rates in Washington county jails and found
the average cost of in-state calls increased
during the five years between 2013 and
2018.
During that period, using lower prepaid/debit calling rates where available, the
average cost for local calls – made within the
same city or county – increased from $3.05
to $4.31. In fact, a 15-minute local call at
28 Washington jails now costs the same as
or more than a 15-minute long distance
call made across the country, the latter being capped by the FCC at $3.15 for debit/
prepaid calls and $3.75 for collect calls.
There was not enough data to compare
in-state interlata rates – calls made outside

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Prison Legal News

Prison Legal News

11

October 2018

Telmate (GTL)

Consolidated Telecom

Securus
Incartele, Inc.

Consolidated Telecom

Consolidated Telecom

VAC (GTL)

Legacy Inmate Communications

Securus

Consolidated Telecom

Clark

Columbia

Cowlitz
Ferry

Franklin

Garfield

Grant

Grays Harbor

Island

Jefferson

Legacy Inmate Communications
Consolidated Telecom

Securus

VAC (GTL)

Whatcom
Whitman

Yakima

WA DOC

$3.00
$3.90
$3.60

$.20/min.
$.26/min.
$.235/min.

$3.18
$1.65

$1.50 FM+$.12/min.
$.11/min.

$4.50 local, $6.30 instate
$4.50

$6.41

$2.91 FM+$.25/min.
$.30/min. local, $.42/min. instate
$.30/min.

$7.50

$.50/min.

$3.75 prepaid, $7.50 collect

$4.50

$.30/min.

$.25/min. prepaid, $.50/min. collect

$2.25

$4.50
Local: $2.25 debit/prepaid,
$2.77 collect; Instate: $2.25
debit/prepaid, $4.24 collect

$4.50

$.15/min.

$.30/min.
Local: $.15/min. debit/prepaid, $2.49
FM+$.02/min. collect; Instate: $.15/min.
debit/prepaid, $2.84 FM+$.10/min. collect

$.30/min.

$3.75 local, $6.75 instate

$4.50

$.25/min. local, $.45/min. instate

$4.50

$.30/min.

$3.75 prepaid, $7.50 collect

$7.50 local, $8.85 instate

Yes

Yes

Yes
Yes

Yes

No

Yes

Yes
Yes
Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

$3.75 prepaid, $7.50 collect
$4.04 local
$14.59 instate interlata

$1.95 debit/prepaid, $3.50 collect

$.30/min.

$.25/min. prepaid, $.50/min. collect

$.50/min. local, $.59/min. instate

$.25/min. prepaid, $.50/min. collect
$2.50 FM+$.11/min. local
$4.79 FM+ $.70/min. instate interlata

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes
Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

$4.50

$4.80 local, $12.85 instate interlata

$.30/min.
$.13/min. debit/prepaid
$2.10 FM+$.10/min. collect

$3.15 prepaid, $3.75 collect

$2.85

$.19/min.
$2.42 FM+$.17/min. local
$3.47 FM+$.67/min. instate interlata

$4.50

$.21/min. prepaid, $.25/min. collect

$4.50

$.30/min.

$4.50
$3.14 local
$5.39 instate intralata
$13.69 instate interlata
$3.30

$.30/min.
$2.44 FM+$.05/min. local
$3.29 FM+$.15/min. instate intralata
$4.73 FM+$.64/min. instate interlata
$.22/min.
$.30/min.

$3.75 prepaid, $7.50 collect

$10.14

Yes

Yes

$3.15 prepaid/debit, $3.75 collect
$3.75 prepaid, $7.50 collect

Yes

Yes

Kickback?
$4.50

$6.75 local, $14.25 instate

15-Min. Call Cost

$.25/min. prepaid, $.50/min. collect

$2.44 FM +$.55/min.

$.25/min. prepaid, $.50/min. collect

$.30/min.
$.21/min. debit/prepaid
$.25/min. collect

$.45/min. local, $.95/min. instate

Local / Instate Phone Rates *

Kickback details **

56% gross revenue

66% gross revenue

70% gross revenue
46% gross revenue

36% gross revenue

Does not receive kickbacks

$.06/min. for intrastate calls,
$.02/min. for interstate calls

$.09/min. for intrastate calls
45% gross revenue
$.03/min. for intrastate calls

63% gross revenue

42% gross revenue

68% gross revenue

50% in first year, 55% in remaining years

63% gross revenue

65% gross revenue ($60k minimum annual)

10% gross revenue

38% gross revenue

$.05/min. for intrastate calls

55% gross revenue

45% gross revenue

$.05/min. for phone calls

67.5% gross revenue
58% gross revenue with minimum
guarantee of $62,500/month

25% gross revenue

45% gross revenue

$.06/min. for intrastate calls

58% gross revenue

$4.028,400 minimum (2014)

$124,412.02

$111,878.80
$8,290.85

Insufficient data

None

Not available
$159,857.16
$2,346.75
$52,614.21
(before pre-paid deductions)

$7,425.91

$24,993.11

$576,004.34

$4,659.50

Not available

$16,290.02
$63,140.46

$6,297.50

$25,046.41

$9,025

Not available

$57,576.57

$563,444.08

$17,965.51

$9,634.25

$31,260.54
$19,925.69 (10/2016-10/2017)

$4,640

$43,792.62

$66,506.23
$13,210.96 (before PIN debit offset)

60% gross revenue
55% gross revenue
30% gross revenue

$1,200 (kickbacks used to buy phone
cards sold to prisoners)

$40,602.16
$15,333.80
$174,638.14 for adult jail, JWC/WR
and juvenile combined
(before pre-paid deductions)

$160,346.25

$7,911.24

$10,148.25

2017 Kickback Amounts

50% gross revenue

$.09/min. for local/intrastate calls

42% gross revenue

59% gross revenue

58% gross revenue
63.5% gross revenue with $270k minimum
annual kickback

66% gross revenue

          TELEPHONE DATA FOR COUNTY JAILS, DOC IN WASHINGTON STATE

+ Douglas County does not have a jail and San Juan County has a temporary holding facility; phone rate and commission data collected by Prison Legal News from 2017 to Sept. 2018
* FM = first minute. Note that interstate (long distance) calls are capped by the FCC at $.21/min. for debit and prepaid calls and $.25/min. for collect calls
** Does not include signing bonuses or other benefits to the counties; kickback terms are based on last available contract or contract amendment

Crown Correctional Telephone

Securus

Walla Walla

Telmate (GTL)

Thurston

Wahkiakum

GTL
DSI (GTL)
GTL (with Qwest)

Snohomish
Spokane
Stevens

Consolidated Telecom

Pend Orielle

Consolidated Telecom

Consolidated Telecom

Pacific

Skamania

PayTel Communications

Okanogan

Securus

Securus

Mason

Securus

Consolidated Telecom

Lincoln

Skagit

Telmate (GTL)

Lewis

Pierce

Securus

Paycom/Custom Teleconnect

Kittitas

Klickitat

Securus

Securus

Clallam

Telmate (GTL)

Telmate (GTL)

Chelan

King

ICSolutions

Benton

Kitsap

Consolidated Telecom

Asotin

Phone Provider

Legacy Inmate Communications

County Jail

Adams

+

Jail Phone Rates Increase (cont.)
the local area but in the same “lata,” or
local access and transport area – because
only one known county jail had separate
intralata rates in 2018. The average cost
of a 15-minute interlata call, made within
Washington State but between latas, increased from $12.42 in 2013 to $13.71 at
the three county jails with separate interlata
rates in 2018. Long distance (interstate)
phone rates were not analyzed because they
were capped by the FCC as of early 2014.
Looking at rate hikes at specific facilities, the cost of a 15-minute in-state call
at the Spokane County jail increased from
$2.60 in 2013 to $3.90 in 2018, while in
Clallam County, a 15-minute call that
was $6.39 in 2013 costs $10.14 today. In
2013, the jails in Skamania, Jefferson and
Garfield counties charged $2.00 for a local
call; in 2018, all three of those facilities
charge $4.50. A 15-minute local call at the
Whatcom County jail that cost $3.24 in
2013 is now $4.50; a similar local call at
the Adams County jail has increased from
$3.55 in 2013 to $6.75 in 2018.

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October 2018

W hen the FCC
capped interstate prison
and jail phone rates it
also eliminated connection charges – an initial
amount charged for a call
in addition to per-minute
fees. In response, Securus
changed its connection
charges to first-minute
fees, circumventing the
ban. Most Washington
counties that contract
with Securus now have
first-minute fees for instate calls – which are
higher than the prior
connection charges. The
Clal lam Count y jail
charged a connection fee of $1.89 in 2013;
it now charges a $2.44 first-minute fee.
And at the Cowlitz County jail, the $3.56
connection charge for interlata calls in
2013 has increased to a first-minute fee of
$4.73 today.
Of all the telecom providers that contract with Washington county jails, only
Securus imposes first-minute fees as part
of its phone rates. Other companies use
straight per-minute rates (as does Securus
in Mason and Skagit counties).
Not all county jails have seen increases
in their intrastate phone rates over the past
five years. In Benton County, the cost of
a 15-minute debit/prepaid call fell from
$4.75 in 2013 to $3.15 in 2018, while a
similar call from Chelan County decreased
from $4.75 to $3.75. The cost of a 15-minute call at the Asotin County jail dropped
from $6.89 to $4.50, and a call from Mason
County fell from $6.39 to $4.50. A collect
15-minute intrastate call from the Okano-

gan County jail that was $9.00 in 2013 is
now $6.75.
As detailed above, though, average local
and interlata calling costs have increased.
Another change in the phone rates at
Washington jails between 2013 and 2018
was the elimination of different rates for
local, intralata and interlata calls in most
cases. In 2013, a majority of counties had
different rates for each type of call, which
varied greatly. Grant County, for example,
charged $17.30 for a 15-minute interlata
call, while an intralata call was $4.30 and a
local call was $2.29. Today, all three types
of calls at the Grant County jail cost $2.85.
As another example, the 2013 cost of a
15-minute interlata call at the Snohomish
County jail was $13.39; an intralata call
was $4.21 and a local call was $1.89. Today,
15-minute calls of all types from the facility
cost $3.00.
Currently, only eight Washington
county jails have different rates for local,

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Prison Legal News

intralata or interlata calls – with the latter
being the most expensive. Interlata calls
from Kittitas County cost $14.59 for 15
minutes, while a similar call is $13.69 in
Cowlitz County and $12.85 in Island
County. Securus is the telecom provider
for all three jails.
Also, while most Washington county
jails charge the same rates whether phone
calls are prepaid, debit or collect, there are
some exceptions. Nine jails have separate
rates for prepaid/debit and collect calls.
Fifteen-minute calls in Chelan, Clark,
Kitsap, Lewis and Thurston counties, which
all contract with Telmate (owned by GTL),
cost $3.75 if they are prepaid ($0.25/minute), but twice as much if they are collect.
Interestingly, there is great inconsistency between phone rates at jails that use
the same telecom provider. For example,
the cost of a 15-minute in-state call from
the Skagit County jail is currently $2.25;
it’s $4.50 in Mason County and $6.41 in
Walla Walla County. The same 15-minute
call from the Clallam County jail costs
$10.14. All of those jails use Securus for
their phone services.
It is unclear why the costs vary so

Prison Legal News

widely when the facilities contract with the
same telecom provider. For its part, Clallam
County claims Securus has the final say.
“Securus sets the phone rates in our
contract ... and I believe it is associated with
the call volume from our facility,” Wendy
Peterson, Chief Corrections Deputy for the
Clallam County Correction Facility, told
PLN. She did not explain how a private
company can set phone rates at the jail when
the county controls the contracting process.
A Cowlitz County official explained
that if its phone rates are indeed higher
than those at other facilities, it would take
action to lower them.
The $13.69 cost for a 15-minute interlata call at the Cowlitz County jail “is
the most expensive set of circumstances.
For Cowlitz, calls made using inmate debit
can be as low as $3.15 for a 15-minute
phone call,” Marin Fox, Director of Cowlitz
County Corrections, told PLN via email.
“If we are able to confirm that our rates are
significantly higher than other counties
we will work with Securus to have them
adjusted to be comparable,” he added.
In response to a request for comment
from PLN, Securus spokesman Mark

13

Southland stated, “Some of the data obtained by Prison Legal News is misleading.
For example, the average cost of a call in
Cowlitz County is actually just 31 cents
per minute. While we work to keep prices
as accessible as possible for every facility we
serve, call rates for individual jurisdictions
can be impacted by a number of factors.”
In fact, however, according to the rate
calculator on Securus’ website, as verified
by a customer service representative during
a chat session and by a rate sheet prepared
by Securus that was produced pursuant to
a public records request, the phone rates at
the Cowlitz County jail range from $3.14
for a 15-minute local call ($2.44 first minute + $0.05/additional minute) to $13.69
for a 15-minute interlata call ($4.73 first
minute + $0.64/additional minute). While
the average cost for calls made from the
jail may be $0.31/minute as stated by
Southland, the fact remains that the rates
are much higher for certain types of calls.
Thus, it appears that Securus, not the
data, is being misleading.
Michael Darrington, the former prisoner who served time at the Snohomish
County jail, noted the cost of phone calls

October 2018

Jail Phone Rates Increase (cont.)
directly impacts the ability of prisoners to
communicate with their families. He told
PLN that about 20 percent of the people
he knew in prison would go three or four
months without talking to their family
members due to high phone rates.
“They would only be able to put about
$100 on their account to last for the whole
year,” he said. “They’d try to make it last, but
by about September, they would run out of
money to talk to their wives and kids until
the new year.”
Suzanne Cook – whose husband is
incarcerated at the Washington State
Penitentiary – spoke of positive experiences
with the lower call rates in state prisons. She
uses phone calls to stay in touch with her
husband in addition to face-to-face visits.
“The cost for a 20-minute phone call
now is around $2.60 per call. Prior to the
[rate] change, a 20-minute call was about
$4.00. Less dropped calls and paying by the
minute probably cut my phone expense by
a third, even with the increased fees,” Cook
told PLN.

Within the Washington county jail
telecom market, Securus and Consolidated
Telecom each have contracts with ten jails;
GTL and its subsidiaries (including Telmate, DSI and VAC) have nine contracts,
followed by Legacy Inmate Communications with three and a handful of smaller
companies. The Washington DOC’s phone
service provider is GTL.

Roadmap for Rate Reductions
How can in-state prison and jail phone
rates be lowered? One way is through
legislation or executive orders that cap the
cost of calls made from detention facilities.
Around a dozen states have banned kickbacks from phone service providers in

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14

their prison systems, including New York,
California, New Mexico, South Carolina
and Michigan.
The governor or DOC director can
order the elimination of telecom kickbacks
in state prisons, while county commissioners and sheriffs can refuse to enter into
kickback-based phone contracts at local
jails – but few have the political will or
moral fortitude to do so. They could also, but
typically do not, bid out monopoly phone
contracts on the basis of which company
can provide the best service at the lowest
cost to consumers – a novel concept in the
prison telecom industry.
In some jurisdictions the state Public
Utility Commission, Public Service Commission or equivalent agency has authority
to regulate intrastate phone rates, though
in many states telecom services have been
deregulated. The Washington Utilities and
Transportation Commission (UTC), which
regulates telecommunication and other
utility services in the state, says its mission
is to “protect the people of Washington by
ensuring that investor-owned utility and
transportation services are safe, available,
reliable and fairly priced” (emphasis added).
When contacted by PLN, the agency
indicated it does not regulate phone services
at Washington state prisons.
“The UTC does not have jurisdiction
over the prison phone contract for the
Prison Legal News

Department of Corrections,” said Kate
Griffith, the agency’s Media and Communications Manager. “DOC’s contract
process for internal phone contracting is a
competitive bid process and is not subject
to UTC regulation. While the UTC does
not have authority to set rates for operator
service providers for prison phone services,
it does have authority to ensure that these
companies provide accurate rate quotes to
customers before those customers commit
to using the services.”
Additionally, some states have public or
quasi-public technology agencies that provide telecommunications services for state
and local government offices. In Washington that agency is Washington Technology
Solutions, also known as WaTech, which
supplies IT, audio/visual conferencing and
phone services to state, county and city
governments.
According to its website, WaTech provides “free calling within the local exchange
area, access to the state’s long distance
network, and access to the local operator
and emergency services,” plus Skype for
Business. It also supplies “reduced rate long
distance telephone service for state and local

government agencies in Washington via the
Switched Long Distance (SLD) service,”
at rates of less than $0.05/minute for both
intrastate and interstate calls.
In response to an inquiry by PLN, WaTech reported that it “does provide phone
services for administrative staff at many
state Department of Corrections, DOC,
facilities,” but no prisoner calling services.
The agency’s communications director,
Jeremy Barclay, said his understanding was
that “some security system differentiation ...
needs to be maintained between the data
transmission of staff and the incarcerated
population’s phone lines.”
Yet if WaTech has the ability to provide
low-cost, secure telecom services for state
and local government agencies, including
the DOC and state police, presumably it
can also provide secure, low-cost phone
services for prisoners held in state prisons
and county jails. More likely, no public
official has ever asked them if they could.
While the phone rates at Washington
jails are unfairly high, averaging $4.31 for a
15-minute local call and up to $14.59 for a
single 15-minute in-state interlata call, some
would consider the Washington DOC’s

$0.11/minute rate to be reasonable. In fact,
however, based on nationwide data collected
by the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice,
the DOC’s phone rate is more expensive
than in 23 other state prison systems.

Fees, Fees, Fees
Even if detention facilities charged
significantly lower phone rates – such as
when long distance rates were capped by
the FCC – ancillary fees charged by telecom
companies also create a financial burden for
prisoners and their families.
In May 2013, the Prison Policy Initiative released a report that detailed the
numerous, often hidden fees charged by
prison phone companies. The report noted
that “These fees – the vast majority of which
do not exist in the ordinary telephone
market – drive the telephone bills charged
to people with incarcerated loved ones to
astronomical levels.” Such fees “can easily
double the cost of a single telephone call,
and can add 50% to the phone bills charged
to the families that receive more frequent
calls,” it added.
At that time, prison telecom companies charged billing statement fees, phone

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15

October 2018

Jail Phone Rates Increase (cont.)
validation fees, refund fees and fees to add
funds to prepaid or debit phone accounts.
The latter fees appear to be unique to the
prison phone industry – other than prisoners and their families, who pays a fee for
making a payment for their phone service;
that is, a fee to pay their bill?
In its 2013 order capping interstate
prison and jail phone rates, the FCC limited
the fees that telecom companies can charge
to just three: up to a $3.00 automated payment fee (such as online), a $5.95 fee for
depositing funds using a live agent and a
$2.00 fee for paper billing statements. But
those fees can still add up.
Keegan Patterson’s boyfriend is incarcerated at the Monroe Correctional
Complex in Monroe, Washington, and in
an interview with Prison Legal News he described the financial hurdles he faces when
receiving calls from the prison. Patterson
cited the fees he must pay when adding
money to his account using AdvancePay,
owned by GTL. If he deposits $50, the $3.00
he is charged represents a six percent fee. If
he adds $25 the fee is 12 percent, and if he
adds only $10 the fee represents 30 percent
of his payment. He is limited to a maximum
deposit of $50 and must pay a fee each time
he adds funds to his phone account.
It could be worse – if he made deposits
using a live agent, the $5.95 per-transaction
fee would represent almost 12 percent of a
$50 deposit, 24 percent of a $25 deposit and
59.5 percent of a $10 deposit.
Patterson has limited himself to
roughly $50 a week for phone calls from his
boyfriend, or $200-$300 per month. Which
means about $12-$18 of that amount is

spent on fees alone each month, or around
$145-$215 per year.
Patterson, who shared one of his
monthly bills with PLN, said he spends
more on prison phone costs than he does
on his own cell phone service.
“I can’t adequately describe how frustrating it is that my personal cell phone bill
is a fraction of what I spend every month
to talk to my boyfriend in prison,” he explained. “I actually have to limit how often
I fund his account because there have been
months where I’ve spent over $300 just on
phone calls and this has caused a strain
on my finances and our relationship. My
boyfriend gets anxiety when he can’t call
me and I carry horrible guilt for not being
able to spend even more money on phone
calls than I already do.”
Patterson also noted that GTL’s phone
connection often has poor audio quality,
and said time is wasted when he has trouble
hearing his boyfriend and when reconnecting dropped or inaudible calls. It happens so
often, he added, that it has become “normal”
and “part of the routine” when accepting
calls from the prison.
“Although I’m sure I could complain
to GTL about not receiving credits for
disconnected phone calls and poor connection quality, it just doesn’t seem worth
it when this essentially amounts to 11 cents
per occurrence, even though this adds up
quickly,” Patterson remarked, referring to
the $0.11/minute rate for phone calls from
Washington state prisons. “Maybe that’s
what GTL is counting on.”
He added he is far from alone in having these concerns, pointing to the Monroe
Corrections Support Group on Facebook,
which he said has become an extended
family of sorts and a key network that

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Following the Kickback Money
As noted above, almost all prison
and jail phone contracts are based on a
revenue-generating “commission” model,
in which telecom companies pay kickbacks – typically a percentage of the gross
revenue generated from phone calls – to the
contracting corrections agency in exchange
for a monopoly contract to provide phone
services for prisoners.
In any other context the practice of

	

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families and friends of Monroe prisoners
use to discuss common experiences and
troubleshoot common concerns. The cost
of fees associated with prison phone calls,
plus technical problems that occur during
the calls, are chief among those issues.
Fees imposed by telecom companies are
especially profitable because they’re exempt
from kickback payments to the contracting
corrections agencies. The companies can simply pocket that money, which gives them an
incentive to maximize fee revenue. One way
they do so is by capping the amount families
can add to phone accounts – usually a limit
of $50. If they want to add more, they have
to pay multiple deposit fees.
The fees are how prison phone companies pad their profits. The kickbacks they give
to corrections agencies in exchange for monopoly contracts to exploit prisoners and their
families are based on the phone rates charged
and payments received for the calls. The fees
are essentially pure gravy for the companies,
since they are not subject to kickbacks. Indeed,
these fees did not even exist 15 years ago,
but were invented out of whole cloth by the
prison telecom industry to boost their profits
as corrections agencies became greedier and
demanded larger and larger kickbacks to
increase their revenue from phone contracts.

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16

Prison Legal News

contractors paying kickbacks to government
agencies to obtain lucrative contracts would
be illegal – but such arrangements are business as usual in the prison telecom industry.
High phone rates at detention facilities are one thing, but they beg another
question: where does the kickback money
generated by those rates go, and what is it
spent on once pocketed by the corrections
agencies that receive it? That requires a
closer examination of prison phone kickbacks and Inmate Welfare Funds.
Inmate Welfare Funds (IWFs), also
known as Inmate Benevolence Funds, Inmate Trust Funds and Inmate Betterment
Funds, are accounts maintained by prisons
and jails to hold and manage money that –
as the names imply – is used to benefit the
prisoner population. That is, the funds are
supposed to be spent on shared goods and
services for the collective benefit of prisoners. IWFs are funded from two primary
sources: commissary revenue and kickback
revenue from phone services.
In Washington State, every county
jail except one receives kickbacks from its
telecom provider. Those payments, representing a portion of phone revenue, range

from a high of 70 percent at the Whatcom
County jail jail to a low of 10 percent in
Mason County. Of the 36 jails that receive
kickbacks (excluding Wahkiakum County,
which does not get them, and Douglas and
San Juan counties, which do not have jails),
18 receive kickbacks of 50 percent or higher.
The average kickback was 47 percent.
Most of the kickbacks specified in
prison and jail telecom contracts are based
on a percentage of gross revenue from phone
calls made by prisoners; as noted above, kickbacks are also paid for video calling services.
Seven Washington jails, though, receive payments based on a per-minute rate – that is,
they receive a set amount of the per-minute
phone rates charged by the telecom provider,
sometimes referred to as “cost recovery”
rather than commissions. That’s a distinction
without a difference, since those counties
still get payments from their phone service
providers. Clark, Grant, Kitsap, Lewis,
Snohomish, Stevens and Thurston counties
receive per-minute kickbacks ranging from
$0.03/minute to $0.09/minute.
In addition to phone revenue kickbacks, some counties reap other financial
benefits from telecom companies. When

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Whatcom County awarded its jail phone
contract to Legacy Inmate Communications, in addition to a 70 percent kickback
it received a $20,000 signing bonus. And
when Jefferson and Skamania counties contracted with Consolidated Telecom, they
each received a $3,000 bonus. The Lincoln
County jail received a $1,000 signing bonus.
Beyond its phone kickback, Grant
County gets an additional $18,000 annual payment from GTL for “inmate
benefit programs or projects.” The Columbia County jail uses its kickback payments
to purchase phone calling cards, which it
then sells to prisoners – though it claims it
doesn’t profit from that arrangement. Other
jails have received bonuses in the form of
calling cards instead of cash.
So how profitable are the kickbacks
from prison phone providers? Unsurprisingly, small county jails with few prisoners
(who thus make fewer phone calls) receive
small kickback payments. Larger jails
with more prisoners get larger kickbacks.
Some examples: among the smaller jails
in Washington, with 50 or fewer beds,
Adams County received just over $10,000
in 2017 while Skamania County received

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We receive many, many letters from prisoners –
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17

October 2018

Jail Phone Rates Increase (cont.)
$7,425.91. In the jails with over 1,000 beds,
King County had $563,444.08 in kickbacks in 2017 and Pierce County received
$576,004.34.
Last year alone, 31 Washington jails received a combined total of more than $2.33
million from their phone service providers.
That does not include kickback amounts
that were unavailable or insufficient for five
counties – meaning the actual aggregate
kickback total is higher.
Under its contract with GTL, the
Washington DOC previously received a
51 percent kickback with a minimum annual guarantee (MAG) of almost $4.03
million as of August 2014. The MAG was
discontinued effective March 17, 2016 and
replaced with a 56 percent kickback on
gross revenue from intrastate calls. More
recent data for the DOC’s phone kickback
payments was not available at the time this
issue of PLN went to press.
Notably, all prison and jail phone kickbacks come from revenue paid by prisoners
or their family members and friends. If cor-

October 2018

rections agencies did not accept kickback
payments, the cost of phone calls from their
facilities could be lowered accordingly; i.e.,
if they didn’t receive a 50 percent kickback
then the phone rates could be 50 percent
lower. That would not affect the telecom
providers, which would make the same
amount of profit since they pass through all
kickback revenue to the contracting corrections agencies anyway. Nor would it affect
the ancillary fees the companies charge.

Inmate “Welfare” Funds
The kickback payments that county
jails receive usually go into their Inmate
Welfare Funds or equivalent accounts
where, presumably, the money is used to
benefit prisoners.
In practice, however, IWF accounts are
sometimes used for other things, as there
are no statutory restrictions in Washington
State as to how IWF funds can or cannot be
spent. In at least five Washington counties –
King, Thurston, Spokane, Yakima and Walla
Walla – IWFs are used to pay the salaries
and benefits of jail employees.
King County, the state’s most populous
county with the largest jail population,
serves as a large-scale case study of how
money goes from the pockets of prisoners
and their families, via payments for phone
calls, to the telecom service provider and
then, through kickback payments, to the
jail’s IWF. From there, according to King
County Department of Adult and Juvenile

18

Detention Chief Financial Officer Vicki
Day, some of that money is used to cover the
employee costs of Nancy Garcia, the staff
member who administers the IWF account.
Based on records obtained by Prison
Legal News, $82,268 of the IWF account’s
$1.15 million in expenditures in 2017 went
toward Garcia’s salary. In addition, another
$14,650 was used to pay her medical, dental
and life insurance plus $6,797.44 for Social Security and Medicare contributions,
$10,127.96 for retirement benefits and
$2,768.74 for workplace safety insurance.
That totals $116,613.14, or 10.1 percent of
the IWF’s expenses in 2017.
Taking a broader view, King County’s
general budget for adult and juvenile detention in 2017-2018 was $291.93 million.
This begs the question of why – with a
budget that size – the salary and benefits
of a jail employee are paid from the much
smaller IWF, which is supposed to be used
for the benefit of the prisoner population.
In comparison, the IWF account is around
0.4 percent of King County’s total detention services budget.
 A similar situation exists in Thurston
County, the state’s sixth largest county by
population. The jail allots a portion of its
IWF account to pay the salary and associated benefits of a financial services employee,
explained Chief Deputy Todd Thoma with
the Thurston County Sheriff ’s Office.
Last year the jail used its IWF to
pay $12,055 for the employee’s salary (25
percent of their total salary according to
Thoma), plus $917.29 for Social Security
contributions, $1,440.54 for retirement
benefits, $2,503.50 for health insurance and
$185 in combined workers’ compensation,
unemployment compensation and longterm disability costs. That totals $17,101.33,
or 5.3 percent of the jail’s $323,271.57
IWF expenditures in 2017. The Thurston
County jail’s general budget that year was
$20.8 million.
Spokane County’s jail utilizes its IWF
to cover the salary and employee benefits of
a teacher, two case managers and a technical assistant, the county’s Public Policy and
Communications Manager, Jared Webley,
told PLN.
In 2017 the jail paid $214,972.39 from
its IWF account for those employees’ salaries, $1,227.21 for a paid time-off cashout,
$12,184.59 in overtime and holiday pay,
$78.86 for off days, $111.16 for shift
differential payments (hours worked difPrison Legal News

ferently than standard hours), $66,272.21
for dental and medical insurance, $2,965.84
for workers’ compensation, $17,043.43 for
Social Security contributions, $144 for
life insurance, $1,128.90 for long- and
short-term disability, and $18,229.86 for
retirement health insurance plans – a total
of $334,358.45.
That was 32.5 percent of the $1.027
million in IWF expenses at the Spokane
County jail in 2017. The IWF, in turn,
represented a fraction of the jail’s $33.6
million general budget that year.
In  Yakima  County, $184,296.29 from
the jail’s IWF account went toward a line
item labeled “JI Officer & Clerk” in 2017 –
43.3 percent of the IWF’s $425,221.31 in
expenditures. The general budget for the Yakima County jail that year was $30.29 million.
“The Jail Industries Division ( JI)
oversees inmate worker and programs in
the Yakima County Jail. There are six staff
positions in the JI Division,” Ed Campbell,
director of the Yakima County Department
of Corrections, told PLN.
Thus, the inflated phone rates that
prisoners and their families pay are being
used to fund a jail slave labor program that

further facilitates the prisoners’ economic
exploitation.
In Walla Walla County, a small county
with a correspondingly smaller prisoner
population,  the jail used almost half the
money in its IWF to fund salary and benefits costs. In 2017 the jail paid $20,494.14
toward the salary of the employee who
administers the IWF account, the commissary and, more broadly, the facility’s overall
budget. That employee, Caroline Weber,
works as an executive assistant in the Walla
Walla County Sheriff ’s Office.
The IWF was also used to pay for
Weber’s medical, dental and life insurance
($6,371), plus her Social Security contributions ($1,514.75) and retirement benefits
($2,447.15). The total, $30,827.04, represented a remarkable 48.3 percent of the
$63,785.29 in IWF expenses in 2017. The
general budget for the Walla Walla County
jail that same year was about $2.38 million.
While some may argue that using Inmate Welfare Funds to pay the salaries of
jail employees indirectly “benefits” prisoners,
most would consider that a stretch. Public
employees should be paid with public taxpayer
funds designated for that purpose – not with

IWF money specifically intended to benefit
prisoners. What would happen if prisoners
stopped making phone calls? Would the
jails terminate employees paid from IWF
accounts, or would they pay them from the
general budget like all other staff members?
The use of IWF funds to pay the salaries and benefits of jail employees is all the
more egregious given the size of the jails’
general budgets, which dwarf the balances
in IWF accounts. Such employee expenses
would be a miniscule percentage of the
general budget but constitute a significant
portion of much-smaller Inmate Welfare
Funds – as noted above, over 40 percent of
annual IWF expenditures in some counties.
Jails that use IWF money to pay their
employees apparently view those accounts
less as a means of benefiting prisoners and
more as slush funds for their own benefit.
In Kitsap County, phone kickbacks go into
the county’s general fund.

Some Good News ...
But Not in Washington
Not all corrections agencies pricegouge prisoners and their families through
exploitive phone rates, and some states and

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October 2018

Jail Phone Rates Increase (cont.)
local jurisdictions outside Washington have
taken steps to rein in the worse abuses of
the prison phone industry.
In one of the country’s largest states,
and one not exactly known for its progressive policies, the Texas Board of Criminal
Justice recently approved a decrease in
the cost of calls made from state prisons
from $0.26/minute to $0.06/minute. The
lower rates went into effect on September
1, 2018.
“Under the new contract with CenturyLink, the cost of a typical 15-minute
phone call will drop from about $4 to 90
cents. Phone call limits will also increase
from 20 minutes to 30 minutes, and CenturyLink will install technology to allow
for video visitation from major metro areas
to rural areas,” The Texas Tribune reported.
“The revenue from the phone system, under state law, is split – 60 percent goes to
the contractor and 40 percent goes to the
state, mostly to the Texas Crime Victims
Fund.”
Taking an even more drastic approach,
in August 2018 the nation’s largest metropolis, New York City, made all prisoner
phone calls free in its jail system. Previously, Securus had charged an “initial fee
of 50 cents, plus 5 cents per minute for
calls within New York, as well as fees for
depositing funds,” Human Rights Watch
wrote in an article about the new policy.
The Big Apple, notoriously known
by those who follow criminal justice is-

sues for its Rikers Island Jail, became the Additionally, the company paid the Sheriff ’s
first major city in the U.S. to implement a Office another $820,000 to cover kickbacks
free phone call policy. Under the arrange- for the years 2016-2020. See: Pearson v.
ment with Securus, the city will no longer Hodgson, Suffolk Superior Court (MA),
receive a minimum of $5 million in annual Case No. 18-1360.
Several lawsuits were filed in the U.S.
kickback payments. Prisoners’ families and
friends who previously had to pay for the District Court for the Northern District of
calls are expected to save an estimated $8 California that alleged illegal phone conmillion per year.
tract kickbacks at four county jails, though
In June 2016, Davidson County, Ten- the cases were dismissed in August 2017.
nessee Sheriff Daron Hall, who previously The suits were based on the argument that
served as president of the American Cor- high phone rates amounted to violations of
rectional Association, announced intrastate the First Amendment, the Fifth Amendphone rates in the county’s jail system ment’s unlawful takings provision, the
would be lowered to $0.05/minute – one of Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection
the lowest rates in the nation for a local jail. clause and the Sherman Antitrust Act. They
The county will no longer accept kickbacks noted that Alameda County received at
from its phone service provider, GTL.
least $1.5 million a year from a 70 percent
“The vast majority of inmates in our contractual kickback, while Santa Clara
jails – and jails across the country – are County was paid a 61 percent kickback
in pretrial status,” Sheriff Hall said. “They that resulted in $1.7 million annually and
have not been found guilty of any crime; Contra Costa County received kickbacks of
therefore, they should have access to the over 50 percent of phone revenue amountprivilege of calling loved ones regardless of ing to $720,000 per year. [See: PLN, Aug.
their economic status.”
2018, p.44].
In jurisdictions where phone rates
While the California lawsuits were disremain high at local jails, some are fighting missed, other legal challenges to exorbitant
back. For example, in response to excessive prison and jail phone rates will likely be filed
rates at the Bristol County jail in Mas- by prisoners’ family members who are fed
sachusetts, a class-action lawsuit was filed up with being price-gouged and exploited.
In regard to video-only visitation poliin May 2018 that alleges the jail’s phone
contract with Securus constitutes an il- cies at local jails, counties in Mississippi and
legal kickback scheme. [See: PLN, Aug. Texas, as well as the District of Colum2018, p.55].
have reversed
¼ Page bia,
Ad Square
Right course
Side and reinstated
According to the complaint, between in-person visits. The Dallas County jail
Criminal
Caseback
Consultants
August 2011 and June 2013 the Bristol
brought
face-to-face visits, which had
County Sheriff ’s Office collected $1.7 mil- been replaced with video calls, in September
lion in kickback payments from Securus. 2015; the jail still uses remote video calling.

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Prison Legal News

And the Adams County jail in Mississippi
scrapped its Home Wav video calling system and reinstated non-contact in-person
visits in April 2016.
Adams County Sheriff Travis Patten
noted the cost of the video calls was a factor in his decision to return to face-to-face
visitation.
“A lot of people couldn’t afford those
calls,” he said. “We know that if someone
is in the jail they’ve done something to be
there, but I think everybody should have the
right to check in on their child and make
sure they’re OK.”
The District of Columbia’s jail system
ditched in-person visits in favor of video
calling in 2012. Three years later, Mayor
Muriel Browser announced that face-toface visits would return; according to the
D.C. Department of Corrections, they were
reinstated and made available to prisoners
“as an incentive for positive behavior.” The
D.C. jail still uses remote video calls.
“Video and in-person visits both allow
inmates to maintain family and community
ties and promote rehabilitation,” said Rodney Mitchell, with the D.C. Department
of Corrections’ office of Government and

Public Affairs.
“Nothing can replace sitting with a
parent and hugging a parent,” observed Ann
Adalist-Estrin, who directs the National
Resource Center on Children and Families
of the Incarcerated at Rutgers University in
New Jersey, commenting on the impersonal
nature of video calls. “Everyone deserves a
choice about how they get to see their loved
ones. The families aren’t incarcerated, and
they shouldn’t be punished.”

A Call for Reforms
Despite the FCC’s 2013 order that
capped interstate prison and jail phone
rates, eliminated most fees imposed by
telecom companies and instituted other reforms, it is apparent there are still significant
problems with the prison phone industry.
Prisoners and their families continue
to be price-gouged by high rates, such as
$10.14 charged at the Clallam County jail
for a 15-minute local phone call. Or the
$14.59 it costs – almost a dollar a minute
– to make a 15-minute interlata call at the
Kittitas County jail ($14.25 for a similar
call from Adams County). Or the $7.50
cost of a 15-minute local call from jails in

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Wahkiakum and Klickitat counties.
Such excessive, unregulated in-state
phone rates are due in part to the commission-based monopoly contracts between
telecom companies and county jails. In
Washington State, every jail except one
receives a kickback from its phone service
provider, ranging from 10 to 70 percent and
averaging 47 percent. Only Wahkiakum
County has foregone kickbacks – yet instate phone calls at its jail are still pricey, at
$0.50/minute.
Last year, 31 jails in Washington
received a combined $2.33 million in kickbacks from their phone service providers, all
of which was paid by prisoners and their
families and loved ones through inflated
phone rates. Were it not for the kickbacks
that telecom companies pay to the counties, the rates could be much lower. Prison
and jail calls would also cost less if there
were fewer or less expensive fees for adding
money to phone accounts.
With respect to video calling services, which are often bundled with phone
contracts, the growing trend is for jails
to eliminate in-person visits in order
to increase the use of fee-based remote

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October 2018

Jail Phone Rates Increase (cont.)
video calls – which also serves to increase
kickback payments. Every county jail in
Washington that provides remote video
calling receives kickbacks, ranging from 10
to 50 percent of the video call revenue with
an average of 26.75 percent.
Again, absent kickbacks the fees
charged for video calling could be lower –
though the practice of charging prisoners
and their families anything to see each other
is itself questionable, particularly when
people outside of prison can use free video
services such as Skype, Google Hangouts
and Facebook Messenger group video chat,
plus free video conferencing.
Fully a third of Washington county jails
have done away with in-person visits and
now only allow video calls, either on-site,
remotely or both.
So what can state and local governments do to reform the exploitive prison
telecom industry, since there is unlikely to
be any action on the federal level in the foreseeable future following the D.C. Circuit
Court of Appeals’ ruling that struck down
the FCC’s rate caps on intrastate prison and
jail phone calls?
The critical roadblock lies with elected
government officials: the governor, state
legislators and county commissioners, as
well as sheriffs and jail administrators who
have put greed ahead of the public inter-

est when they enter into kickback-based
telecom contracts.
In any other circumstance, the government awards contracts based on who can
provide the best service at the lowest price,
not who can pay the largest kickback. For
those who believe in the mythology of the
free market, the lack of competition in the
prison phone industry, in which telecom
companies are awarded monopoly contracts to provide services in jails or entire
prison systems, is also a major part of the
problem.
It is critical to consider that this contracting process has taken place behind
closed doors, with no public debate or input,
one county jail and one prison system at a
time. Basic reforms that need to be implemented include:
• Allow prisoners’ family members and
others who pay for calls made by prisoners to select which phone carrier they use,
which would end monopoly contracts and
increase competition in the prison telecom
industry.
• If the practice of awarding monopoly
prison and jail phone contracts continues,
require that they be awarded on the basis
of which company can provide the best
service at the lowest cost – just as most other
government contracts are bid.
• Prisons and jails should refuse to
accept any kickbacks or similar incentive
payments from the prison phone industry.
Currently only one jail in Washington
State does not accept kickback payments.
Nationally, a dozen states have banned
kickbacks from prison telecom providers,
including New York, which did so through
legislation.
• Institute caps on in-state prison and
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tion, an order from the governor’s office
or regulation by the state Public Utility
Commission, Public Service Commission
or similar agency. In 2014, for example, Alabama’s Public Service Commission issued
a comprehensive order reforming prison
phone services in that state.
• Consider using telecom services at
prisons and jails that are already supplied by
public agencies such as Washington Technology Solutions, which provides low-cost
phone, video and other communications
services to state, county and city offices.
• Prohibit the elimination of in-person
visits at prisons and jails, and require jails
that only use video calling to reinstate
in-person visitation. In May 2015, Texas
passed a law that requires jails to provide
prisoners with at least two in-person visits
each week. Similar efforts have been made
in California.
• Use versions of Skype, Google Hangouts or similar free or low-cost video calling
and conferencing services to supplement
in-person visitation at prisons and jails.
• Provide all prisoners with at least one
hour per week of free phone time and free
video calling, so they can maintain contact
with their families, children and other
loved ones.
 We can and must demand better from
our government officials. While they pay lip
service to reducing recidivism, encouraging
prisoners to maintain family ties and otherwise advancing the welfare of all citizens,
the reality of exploitation and avarice with
respect to prison and jail telecom services
in Washington State belies those claims.
The time has come, after decades of
experience with the prison phone industry and its price-gouging practices, to
acknowledge it as the failure it is, institute
much-needed reforms and move to modern telecommunications services that are
appropriate for the 21st  century – with
no “commission” kickbacks, no monopoly
contracts, and lower rates and fees.
The rest of America has figured this
out. Why can’t its prisons and jails? 
Ed. Note: Support for this investigation
came from a generous grant from the Legal
Foundation of Washington as a result of the
Judd v. AT&T litigation, in which Washington state consumers were not informed
of the cost of phone calls made by prisoners
from Washington Department of Corrections facilities between 1996 and 2000. The
Prison Legal News

 

 

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