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PLN quoted in article about high cost of prison phone calls

StarNews Online, Jan. 1, 2013.
PLN quoted in article about high cost of prison phone calls - StarNews Online 2013

Collect calls -- inmates, families pay high prices to talk

By Adam Wagner

Published: Sunday, September 8, 2013 at 5:51 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, September 8, 2013 at 5:51 p.m.

Hampstead resident Brenda Garrison changed her phone number to a 919 area code to make talking to her son cheaper.

Tramaine Garrison has been in Butner Federal Prison for about five years on drug charges, and Brenda Garrison has rented out her son's house to cover the $220 a month she spends on calling cards and care packages.

"You want to always be there. You don't want to turn them down," Brenda Garrison said, adding she speaks with her son three or four times a week.

In August, the Federal Communications Commission took steps to make some prison phone calls cheaper, unofficially placing rate caps on interstate long-distance calls in jails and prisons across the country.

The FCC decision also banned "site commissions" that are paid back to the facilities, often to support inmate welfare programs.

Industry leaders expect a formal order sometime in September, to be put into effect 90 days later.


In North Carolina state prisons, a 15-minute call costs $3.40 if it's prepaid or collect, and $3.06 if it's debit.

That's lower than the cost of long-distance calls in Brunswick and New Hanover County jails, which average $5.64 and $6.28, respectively, for 12-minute calls, according to Securus, the company that provides the service to both counties.

Only about 10 percent of the calls made from each facility are long distance, said Rick Smith, Securus' CEO.

In the Brunswick County jail, local calls, which make up the vast majority, cost $3.59 on average. The same 12-minute call costs $1.70 in the New Hanover County jail.

"It's more than you would think it is, like you and I have a cell phone," said Jerry Brewer, a New Hanover County Sheriff's Office spokesman. "… But it's more because it's more involved because of the equipment there, monitoring all of the calls."


According to an FCC release, the "long-overdue" decision encourages communication between inmates and their families, which studies say reduces recidivism.

The decision has been lauded by advocates, who say telecommunications companies gouge prisoners and their families to the benefit of state governments and private industry.

"It's enormously profitable for both states and the prison phone companies that provide these services at the expense of the prisoners' families and at the expense of rehabilitation for the prisoners," said Alex Friedmann, managing editor of Prison Legal News, which has been advocating for lower corrections facility phone rates since 1990.

At the same time, the FCC has been roundly criticized by industry leaders, who plan to mount a legal challenge to what they say is an illegal decision that endangers prisoners and their families.

"If you assume that our rates are being cut ... it cuts the revenue to the facilities, it cuts our rates," Smith said. "Clearly the facilities are going to have to do something, meaning cut their programs, cut the security features and that's just not a very good position for them to be in."

Prisons and the phone companies that provide their service could be in a worse position if the FCC decides it has the authority to regulate rates and practices within state lines, something the Aug. 9 order said it will explore.

Friedmann plans to advocate to public utility commissions to cap correction facility phone rates even if the FCC decides it doesn't have authority.

"Now that the FCC has taken action, this is a good starting point," Friedmann said.

The security package for each facility affects the pricing, and Securus' CEO says each of the company's roughly 2,000 contracts is different.

"There's nothing standard in our business so think about it as being in the car business and every single car is custom built," Smith said.

Securus has 100 software development people who have already spent about 550,000 hours developing various software and who put another 50,000 or so hours in every year.

Some of the software that Securus has developed includes biometrics that ensures the prisoner who's supposed to be on the phone actually is and then analyzes calls for key words.

"It's very much like doing Google searches, but you're doing it on 120 million inmate calls," Smith said.

The people monitoring the calls are often employees of whichever law enforcement agency oversees the prison.

At state prisons in North Carolina, for instance, a team working under Trish Deal, N.C. Department of Correction's telecommunications manager, tries to identify any illegal activity that's going on.

"It's pretty important and even more so with the gang activity that every prison is experiencing," Deal said.

Impact in prisons

Securus' CEO also expressed concern about removing the commissions, which could lead to the elimination of some inmate welfare programs.

"I would suggest that just removing commissions out of facilities is going to cause deaths and I will lay those right at the feet of the FCC when those happen," Smith said.

In Brunswick County, commissions are paid into the general fund and in New Hanover County, they are paid into the revenue fund. The money isn't earmarked for prisoner programs in either county.

On the state level, the commissions are merged with money from inmate canteen sales to support the Inmate Welfare Fund.

That fund supports vocational programs, education programs from the University of North Carolina, chaplains and upkeep of the phone system, among other things.

About 57 percent of the welfare fund comes from phone commissions.

Prisoner advocates say it's unfair to lay the cost of rehabilitation programs solely at the feet of inmates and their families.

"I don't have kids, but my property taxes pay for our school system. We don't just tax people who use the schools, we tax everybody because schools are good for society and good for everyone," Friedmann said. "It's the same thing with prisons. It's a necessary public service. If you want to fund these great services currently funded by phone rates, then everybody needs to pay into it."

Note: Minor corrections made by PLN staff.