We've told you before that Arkansas rips off prison inmates with confiscatory rates on phone calls. New York recently moved to a cost-of-service plan to supply the minimal comfort that communication with the outside world brings. Not for Arkansas. We still like the idea of making money off our inmates. The hoe squad mentality dies hard, though some inmate support groups are having a go at the limited consciences of Arkansas legislators. Forget finding a conscience in a prison administrator.
On the jump, a report from the Times' John C. Williams on a legislative committee meeting today on the subject.
UPDATE: Also some comments from another activist.
The Legislative Council’s Charitable, Penal, and Correctional Institutions Committee met this afternoon to discuss a controversial inmate telephone contract. Department of Correction head Larry Norris testified, as did representatives from Beyond Bars and Arkansas Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants, a human rights group.
Some information that emerged from the session: The Department of Correction completed a contract with the GTL for its telephone contract at the beginning of the year. According to Norris, the state got seven bids on the contract before choosing GTL. GTL subsequently acquired MCI, a former provider of prison phone service here and in other states.
Under the old MCI contract, anyone who wanted to receive a collect call from an inmate (and who appeared on an approved list) would pay over $6 for a 15-minute in-state phone call. Under the new contract with GTL, the price tag dropped to $4.80. Out-of-state phone calls cost more: according to Jean Thrash of Arkansas CURE, a long-distance phone call costs $3.95 for the first minute and 45 cents a minute after that. GTL or the Department of Correction didn’t confirm this rate at the hearing.
The state takes 45 percent of inmates’ phone fees under the most recent deal. According to Norris, that gives the Department of Correction $2.1 million dollars each year. Norris said that expenditures from this pool finance the $100 “gate checks” that the Department of Correction pays an inmate when he leaves prison; general upkeep cost for prison technology and security; and long-term needs, such as renovating kitchens and running a mental health program. Norris testified that the $2.1 million DOC got from the phone contract paid for things that the state would have otherwise had to finance.
One topic discussed was whether the rates are exorbitant. A spokesman for GTL claimed that the company’s rate was 12 cents a minute, but he didn’t include surcharges, which effective bring the per-minute cost up to 32 cents. Some of these surcharges reflect a premium paid for security technology that gives the Department of Correction the ability to listen in on inmates’ calls. According to the GTL rep, which has contracts with departments of corrections in 24 states, it charges a lower phone rate to only two other states.
Testimony from several citizen groups spoke to the financial burdens families and friends of inmates shoulder. Previously phone calls from inmates could only be paid for collect; the new system allows for pre-pay from a credit card. According to the testimony of inmates’ family members, the new credit card policy has been disastrous. Two family members said that they have been unable to receive itemized bills of payments and calls. They also say that they have been assessed payment surcharges of as much as 19 percent in addition to other phone charges. The GTL representative said that this is a cost passed on to the phone company by credit card companies. The family members who spoke lobbied for GTL and the Department of Corrections to switch to a debit system.
Thrash, of Arkansas CURE, argued that the GTL contract is a monopoly that allows no choice of how to contact an inmate. She asked the committee to explore ways to introduce competition while retaining necessary security measures. She also maintained that the phone rates represent a double tax on people who call inmates. Whether the Department of Correction should be using the profits from the phone program to fund its operations is an issue the subcommittee will explore further.
UPDATE: From another observer:
Points of clarification:
1) Inmates pay for nothing. Since only collect calls are allowed from ADC/DCC, the recipient incurs all charges. Despte confusion by a few legislators on this point, the pre-paid system is pre-paid by, again, the recipient, generally because they've run up a bill of over $100 in any given month, and GTL has blocked the calls from going through their long distance carrier, thus forcing them to pre-pay. [GTL rep Rick] Ferguson said that about 25% of calls are pre-paid. What he failed to specify was whether all of that 13 to 19% pay-by-credit-card fee was paid to the credit card companies or whether they keep a smidge...
2) The original agreement with GTL announced last fall upped the ADC's cut from 51% to 55% with the charge for a 15-minute phone call left at $6.60. It wasn't until murmurs around the Capitol of possible legislation that would have eliminated the ability to collect commissions that the ADC abruptly changed their minds in January and decided to lower the rate to 45% from 51%. This is a simple fact that even Norris couldn't manage to keep straight, as he testified that the ADC lowered rates by 11% -- not correct.
3) What Norris said was that they sent an RFP to 7 different companies, of which I believe he said 6 were disqualified for "various" reason, never detailing what those reasons might be, then negotiated the rate with GTL exclusively. [Editor's note: He said three were disqualified.]