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HRDC director quoted on high cost of prison phone calls

Atlanta Journal-Constitution, June 6, 2017.

Watchdog: Court decision penalizes inmate families

By Chris Joyner - The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Posted: 12:00 a.m. Thursday, July 06, 2017

A federal court’s decision last month to strike down caps on inmate phone call charges allows one of the more corrupt government programs to continue in Georgia and around the nation.

If you aren’t aware of how this scam works, state prisons and local jails contract with a small group of companies to provide phone services for inmates, usually selecting the company that agrees to kick back the most money to the state for granting the contract. As a result, the companies jack up the per-minute rates, sticking inmates’ families with hundreds or thousands of dollars in charges, most of which go back into government coffers.

It’s a sweet deal for the state. According to court documents, last year Securus Technologies offered the Georgia Department of Corrections a $4 million up-front payment for the contract and a promise of $325,000 a month thereafter to manage inmate calling for the state prison system. The company got the contract.

Advocates for prisoners and their families have waged a long campaign aimed at lowering the cost of the calls, which they say unfairly burdens poor families who wish to keep some sort of contact with their relatives inside prison. Beginning in 2015, the Federal Communications Commission attempted to cap what it described as “egregious fees … paid by some of society’s most vulnerable people.”

Under the Trump administration, the newly constituted FCC announced it would not defend the caps, but that hardly mattered. The U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., said the commission had overstepped its authority.

Senior Judge Harry T. Edwards, writing for the majority, said “various market failures” have resulted in “prohibitive per-minute charges and ancillary fees,” but the court sided with the phone companies that the FCC had exceeded its power by regulating communications that, by and large, are conducted within state boundaries.

There is no reason to believe the court is anything but right in its decision. But their very concept violates free-market competition because they establish mini-monopolies where the consumers of the service have no choice on what service to use, a fact the court noted.

“Once a long-term, exclusive contract bid is awarded to an (inmate calling service) provider, competition ceases for the duration of the contract and subsequent contract renewals,” the appellate court wrote. “Winning ICS providers thus operate locational monopolies with a captive consumer base of inmates and the need to pay high site commissions.”

‘It’s just gouging people’

The Human Rights Defense Center, a non-profit that advocates for prisoners and their families, has been on this for years. Executive Director Paul Wright said the appellate court decision could push that advocacy effort back down to the state level, but there are natural conflicts of interest there. States, which derive the financial benefit from the contracts, don’t have a lot of incentive to quit.

States “either don’t have the authority or interest … or more importantly they don’t have the political will to do so,” he said. “It’s like telling junkies you have to lay off the dope. … It’s not happening.”

These contracts go after an easy target — criminals. I mean, it costs us $21,290 annually for every state prisoner . Who cares if they have to pay through the nose to talk to their kids?

“The felons aren’t the ones paying the bills. It’s the families,” Wright said. “It’s just exploitation. It’s just gouging people.”

According to a Georgia Department of Corrections notice, the current contract costs 13 cents a minute for local calls, but fees can drive that up.

There’s plenty of evidence that the high cost of telephone calls is bad prison policy. A vast number of studies indicate that prisoners who maintain contact with family members while incarcerated are less likely to end up back in prison later. With Georgia’s prisons largely in rural communities and its prisons mostly from densely populated cities, in-person visits are rare and telephone conversations are the most likely way to remain in contact, unless they become too costly.

Gov. Nathan Deal has made criminal justice reform a centerpiece of his administration. These contracts appear to work against those goals.

Locals profiting, too

It’s not just the state that uses inmate calling contracts as a way to prop up budgets. Local jails are eager to sign such deals at usurious rates. In 2015, the Athens-Clark County government signed a five-year contract with Securus Technologies to bring an anticipated $1.25 million to the county’s general fund budget over the life of the contract.

“Securus Technologies offered one of the highest commission rates among vendors while also demonstrating attentiveness to fair and equitable calling rates for customers,” according to document presented to the county commissioners for approval.

It’s hard for both of those things to be true. Under that contract, a 15-minute phone call from the county lockup costs $2.50, with the county receiving 80 percent of that money.

In Atlanta’s larger metro counties, the story is the same — only more so. The core metro counties clear $1 million or more annually on calls made by prisoners who, because county jail is a pre-trial facility, often haven’t been convicted of anything. Most of the people in the Gwinnett jail are, without a doubt, from Gwinnett, so their Gwinnett family members are stuck with the bill.

In a 2013 story on the topic, Gwinnett County Commissioner Chairwoman Charlotte Nash defended the high-cost contracts as an example of fiscal discipline.

“Without these fees, the millage rate for property taxpayers would have to rise or we would have to cut funding for some other service,” she said.

That’s true, if you believe that fees are not taxes in another guise.