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PLN quoted in report on phone rates and commissions at Kansas jail

Wichita Eagle, Jan. 1, 2014.
PLN quoted in report on phone rates and commissions at Kansas jail - Wichita Eagle 2014

Collect calls from Sedgwick County Jail inmates will cost less, make the county more money

By Deb Gruver

The Wichita Eagle

Published Saturday, April 26, 2014, at 12:49 p.m.
Updated Saturday, April 26, 2014, at 12:54 p.m.

Collect calls from inmates at the Sedgwick County Jail will cost their families and friends less beginning this week. At the same time, the county will make a higher commission.

The cost for a 20-minute call, whether local, in-state or out-of-state, will be $3.50 under the county’s new five-year contract with Securus Technologies Inc. That is 55 cents lower than it was under the county’s previous contract with Global Tel*Link, commonly called GTL. The new rates begin Wednesday.

Securus will pay the county a 71 percent commission on gross revenue, up from 56 percent from GTL.

Some prison advocacy groups say such commissions amount to a kickback. Eight state prison systems across the country ban commissions, as does one county, Dane County in Wisconsin.

“The commission is a large and unnecessary tax on the poorest residents of the county,” said Peter Wagner, executive director of the Prison Policy Initiative, based in Massachusetts. “The research is clear that allowing families to stay in touch makes it easier for both the family and the person incarcerated to succeed. High commissions are a penny wise and pound foolish way to drive families apart.”

Dave Unruh, chairman of the Sedgwick County commission, objected to the characterization of commissions as a kickback.

He said the county sends out requests for proposals and negotiates with companies to get the “best overall cost” for collect calls from jail.

Revenue from the commissions go into the county’s general fund to help offset the cost of operating the jail, he said.

The county has received as much as $1 million in annual commissions from inmates’ collect calls, records show. Last year, it made just less than $510,000, records show. Joe Thomas, the county’s purchasing director, said revenue generated from inmate calls is not earmarked for any specific expenditure.

So far this year, the county has received almost $169,000 in commissions.

Commissions are standard for contracts between jails and prisons and providers of inmate calls, said Maj. Glenn Kurtz of the Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office.

“It’s a very competitive industry,” he said.

Kurtz said he did not consider the commission when negotiating the county’s recent contract as much as he considered the cost to inmates and the capital investment Securus agreed to make. Securus also is handling the jail’s video visitations, scheduled to debut in July or August.

“They’re responsible for everything from the handset that the inmates picks up, the wires, the phone, the switching gear, hooking it up to the hardwire phone system. They take the loss if somebody doesn’t pay the bill,” Kurtz said of Securus’ contract for inmate calls.

The trend nationwide has been call rates dropping and commissions rising, Wagner said.

A commission of 71 percent is among the highest in the country, he said.

“I believe the record is 81 percent,” he said.

The Kansas Department of Corrections’ contract with its inmate phone provider features a 68 percent commission, records show. The state also received a $250,000 signing bonus from CenturyLink.

If Sedgwick County did not accept a commission, it stands to reason that inmates’ families and friends would pay less for calls, Wagner said.

Calls from prisoners in state custody in New York cost seven cents a minute after commissions were banned, he said. GTL has the New York prison contract.

Jail inmates can use the phone from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. but must ask permission from a pod deputy to do so. Phones are mounted on the wall in day rooms.

Inmates’ families and friends sporadically complain about the cost of collect calls, Kurtz said. Unruh said he has not received complaints.

“It is basically free money” for the county, said Alex Friedmann, managing editor of Prison Legal News, a publication of the Human Rights Defense Center., of which he is associate director. “The gross revenue comes from prisoners’ families and thus they’re the ones who are paying the commissions.”

The argument that if inmates don’t like the cost, they shouldn’t break the law doesn’t compute because it’s not the inmates who pay the bills, he said. Even if inmates were to pay, “that doesn’t mean you price-gouge them. It doesn’t mean we can line our pockets while they’re in jail.”

Staying in touch with family and friends is important for inmates because that maintains their support systems, Friedmann said.

Kurtz, of the sheriff’s office, agreed.

“The person that is incarcerated in the Sedgwick County detention facility will possibly be back in the community tomorrow. They have contacts back to the community to support them and help them when they get out of here. We don’t want them to just walk out the door, starting over without a support system,” he said.