HRDC Recommendation re: prison phones and video visitation to WA State Reentry Council
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Human Rights Defense Center DEDICATED TO PROTECTING HUMAN RIGHTS November 3, 2016 Sent via email to: email@example.com Tarra Simmons, Co-Chair Washington Statewide Reentry Council Re: Washington State DOC Phone and Video Visitation Contracts Dear Tarra: The Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC) appreciates this opportunity to present our recommendation that the Washington Statewide Reentry Council include, as part of its work, a call on the Governor to issue an Executive Order eliminating all commissions, effectively nothing more than kickbacks, from prison phone and video visitation contracts executed by the Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC). We also recommend that in the future, such contracts be bid on the basis of which contractor can provide the best service at the lowest cost to the consumers who actually pay the bills. Inmate Calling Services HRDC is a Washington State non-profit organization and co-founder and leader of the national Campaign for Prison Phone Justice, which was created to reduce the exorbitant rates and fees prisoners’ families must pay to stay connected to their loved ones during the critical time of incarceration. As a result of our efforts, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ordered rate caps for interstate (long distance) Inmate Calling Services (ICS) that went into effect on February 11, 2014. While a historic first step, over 85% of calls made from detention facilities are to numbers located within the same state. Through the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice we continued to lobby the FCC for regulation of all calls made from prisons and jails, and were again successful in obtaining an FCC order in November 2015 that capped the rates for all calls made from state prison systems at $0.11/min. The FCC increased the rate cap in a second order to $0.13/min. after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit stayed implementation of the initial rate caps in response to an appeal filed by ICS providers; the rate caps detailed in the second order were also appealed by the same ICS providers and have just been stayed by the appellate court. 801 Second Ave., Suite #800 Seattle, WA 98104 Phone: 206-489-5604 Fax: 866-735-7136 firstname.lastname@example.org Page |2 Recognizing the importance of family communication, the DOC implemented a rate of $0.11/min. on March 17, 2016 for all calls made from its facilities even though the FCC’s rate cap had been stayed by the DC Circuit. While the DOC made the right decision, this action was a long time coming; the cost of a 15-minute call from the DOC in 2010 was $18.30 (one of the highest rates in the nation) – that same call today costs just $1.65. There is future work to be done to continue to reduce ICS rates in Washington state (HRDC advocates for a rate of $0.05/min. for all calls with no additional fees), but one immediate action that can be taken is for the Governor to issue an Executive Order barring the DOC from accepting the commission it currently receives from ICS revenue, and further requiring the DOC to reduce ICS rates proportionately and bid 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. The existing prison phone business model in Washington State only allows for contract negotiations between an ICS provider and the DOC, and the goal for both entities is to make as much profit as possible. This is done by artificially raising the rates that must be paid by the true consumers – prisoners and their families – so the ICS provider can still make a healthy profit after paying commissions to the DOC in exchange for its monopoly ICS contract. Commissions are nothing more than a regressive tax levied against some of our state’s poorest and most vulnerable citizens to subsidize the DOC. As noted above, the DOC reduced ICS rates to $0.11/min. for all calls on March 17, 2016 under Amendment 6 to Contract No. CDOC6840. (Attachment 1). In addition to reducing ICS rates, the amendment also eliminated the Minimum Annual Guarantee (MAG) of $4,028,400 previously paid annually to the DOC, and replaced it with a 56% revenue sharing commission. Thus, the DOC receives $0.062 for each minute of every ICS call, with $0.048 going to the ICS provider. We urge the Governor to issue an Executive Order eliminating all commission payments to the DOC and reducing the phone rates for all calls from DOC facilities to $0.05/min. Nine state prison systems (West Virginia, Virginia, New Mexico, New Jersey, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, New York, Minnesota and Ohio) currently have rates of $0.05/min. or less for prison phone calls, and Washington State should become the tenth. The ability of prisoners to communicate with their loved ones while incarcerated is critical in addressing the reentry issues detailed in Governor Inslee’s Executive Order 16-05 1, including employment, education, housing and eligibility for many social service benefits. Maintaining family ties through affordable phone calls while incarcerated is equally as important because this not only increases the chances for successful reentry back into society, but will also help reduce the devastating toll that incarceration places on our state’s children. In its recent policy report, A Shared Sentence, the Annie E. Casey Foundation calls on “correctional systems, communities and state and local public agencies to help stabilize families and preserve their connection during incarceration – and successfully move forward once parents come home.” 2 An estimated 109,000 children in Washington State have had a parent in jail or prison at some point in their childhood. 3 Maintaining family ties during times of incarceration not only benefits 1 Executive Order 16-05: Building Safe and Strong Communities through Successful Reentry. http://www.aecf.org/m/resourcedoc/aecf-asharedsentence-2016.pdf 3 Id. 2 Page |3 children and families, but also helps all citizens by effecting smoother reentry into society and lower recidivism rates. Video Visitation The availability of video visitation services has increased markedly since the regulation of interstate ICS calls in February 2014. This is due in part to advances in technology, but also because ICS providers have ramped up other for-profit services to replace lost phone revenue due to the FCC’s phone rate caps. HRDC supports video visitation as a no-cost to the consumer alternative to in-person visitation for families that may face challenges such as age, distance and cost in traveling to a detention facility to visit their loved ones. Unfortunately, video visitation services are provided using the same business model as ICS; a model that benefits the provider and DOC at the expense of Washington State prisoners and their families. In a February 2016 report titled A New Role for Technology? Implementing Video Visitation in Prison, 4 the Vera Institute for Justice reported that “the implementation of a video visitation system had virtually no impact on Washington State’s budget,” and that the ongoing cost to the DOC is $67,793 annually. 5 Over $1.885 billion of the state’s budget is directed to corrections 6; the annual cost of video visitation represents roughly .0035 of one percent of the DOC’s annual budget. Yet according to the Vera report, a 30-minute video visit in Washington costs $12.95 ($0.43/min.), and the DOC collects 23% ($3.00) for each visit. 7 In contrast, the King County Jail in Seattle does not accept commissions for video visitation and is able to provide the service at a cost of $5.00 for a 25-minute visit ($0.20/min). 8 More importantly, in countries as diverse as the Netherlands and the Philippines, prisoners are able to enjoy video visitation with friends and family at no cost. There is no reason, other than the existence of a commission, that the per-minute rate for video visitation services at the DOC is well over two times the cost of the same service at the King County Jail, or that it is not entirely free. No one else in America is paying for video visitation except for prisoners and their families. 9 There is no law or mandate that requires prisons and jails to accept commissions from telecom companies that prey on the weakest, poorest and most vulnerable populations in the state. The ten states that have eliminated ICS commissions 10 have done so as a result of external intervention, either through Executive Order or legislation. Therefore, we urge the Governor to issue an order barring the DOC from accepting commissions for ICS and video visitation contracts, and reducing the rates for those services proportionately. We also urge the Governor to order the DOC to bid future ICS contracts based on which contractor can provide the best service at the lowest cost to the end consumers, and to explore the possibility of providing video visitation at no cost to prisoners or their visitors. The state’s budget would not be affected in any significant way as the result of these actions, but the difference to prisoners and their families would be literally life changing. 4 http://archive.vera.org/sites/default/files/resources/downloads/video-visitation-in-prison.pdf Id. at 11-12. 6 http://www.ofm.wa.gov/budget15/recsum/310.pdf at 2. 7 http://archive.vera.org/sites/default/files/resources/downloads/video-visitation-in-prison.pdf at 12. 8 http://komonews.com/news/local/video-visitations-popular-for-intmates-at-king-county-jails 9 E.g., services such as Skype and Google video are free. 10 California, New York, New Mexico, Nebraska, Missouri, Michigan, Ohio, South Carolina, New Jersey, Rhode Island. 5 Page |4 Thank you for your time and efforts in these regards. Please let me know if you have any questions or require additional information. Sincerely, HUMAN RIGHTS DEFENSE CENTER Carrie Wilkinson, Prison Phone Justice Director Attachment Attachment 1