A local group that advocates for inmates and their families has submitted a petition to the Arkansas Board of Correction, asking it to follow the lead of the Federal Communications Commission in reducing the rates and fees charged to inmates making phone calls from Arkansas prisons.
But the Arkansas Department of Correction says that the commissions paid to the agency by prison phone providers pay for crucial monitoring, and contribute to projects and supplies that would never get paid for without that income.
The ADC issued what's called a Request for Technical Proposals, seeking bidders for a new inmate phone contract, on Oct. 8.
The local group, the Arkansas chapter of Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants, or CURE, published the petition on the website moveon.org. The petition includes almost 300 signatures. CURE director Jean Thrash said the group presented the petition to the correction board earlier this month.
As spelled out in the petition, CURE would like the board to make the rates and connection fees charged to inmates for in-state calls commensurate with those charged for state-to-state calls, as regulated in a recent order by the FCC. In August 2013, the FCC voted to cap rates on state-to-state prisoner phone calls at 21 cents per minute on debit or prepaid calls, and 25 cents per minute for collect state-to-state calls. In addition, the FCC ruled that any rates, fees and ancillary charges attached to state-to-state inmate phone calls must be related to the cost of security directly related to inmate call monitoring, switching and cost of equipment, and should not include costs relating to commissions paid by phone providers to prisons and jails by phone providers. The ruling went into effect on Feb. 11.
Under the ADC's current inmate phone contract, signed with Alabama firm Global Tel-Link in February 2012, prisoners paid a $3.95 connection fee on every state-to-state call, then 45 cents a minute, meaning that a 15-minute call to another state would have cost an Arkansas inmate $10.70 before the FCC order. For in-state calls, the ADC phone provider currently bills a $3 connection fee on every call, then 12 cents a minute, meaning that a 15-minute in-state call by an inmate would be $4.80. Inmate calls to private parties are limited to 15 minutes, while calls to an inmate's attorney are limited to 30 minutes.
The FCC's cap ruling did not affect the rates and fees charged on in-state calls.
The ADC's current phone contract returns 45 percent of the money spent on every inmate call to the ADC as a commission. According to the ADC's Oct. 8 bid request, between July 2011 and July 2014, the ADC reaped a commission of $5.86 million from inmate phone calls — about $1.5 million per year on average — with inmates making 32,745,796 minutes worth of in-state phone calls, 2,860,853 minutes of state-to-state calls, and 13,027 minutes of international calls. The ADC made just under $1.9 million in commissions from inmate phone calls last year, according to the document.
CURE Director Thrash believes that's too much, and that connection fees are hurting struggling families with an incarcerated loved one. "It's terribly unfair as far as the costs go," Thrash said. "You and I are paying pennies for long distance and local phone calls." Thrash said that under the FCC order that went into effect in February, it's now cheaper for an inmate to call California from Cummins Penitentiary than it is for the same inmate to call Conway. She said the goal of the petitions sent to the Corrections Board is to bring the rates charged on in-state calls in line with those charged on state-to-state calls while eliminating connection fees and lowering the commissions paid to the ADC. While $4.80 may not seem like a lot to most people, Thrash said that it can be the difference between inmates having a connection with their families and children or not. A sense of disconnection from families, Thrash said, leads former inmates right back to prison.
"A lot of our families are struggling at best," Thrash said. "Nobody will question the importance of maintaining family relationships when someone is sent to prison. ... That's going to increase the possibility that they won't return to prison — that connection."
Carrie Wilkinson, director of Prison Phone Justice, an arm of the Human Rights Defense Center in Seattle, agrees that keeping affordable lines of communication between inmates and their families is key to helping inmates reintegrate into society upon their release.
"Family contact is so important during times of incarceration," Wilkinson said. "All the studies show that the stronger the support group you have, the better chances you have for success upon re-entry into the community." Wilkinson said her group would like to see inmate call rates capped at 5 cents per minute all over the country. She went on to call the fees and rates currently charged by inmate phone providers all over the country "gouging." The families of the incarcerated bear the brunt of the financial cost, she said.
"A lot of times, they're the people who can least afford to pay that," Wilkinson said. "We believe that elimination of the commissions would reduce the rates that prisoners and their families have to pay." While state corrections departments usually say that changing the rates paid on phone calls would hurt their bottom line, Wilkinson pointed out that there's proof in the data contained in the Arkansas Request for Technical Proposals to show that if prisons would lower the costs of inmate calls, volume would go up, offsetting any loss of revenue from lowering the rates.
As Wilkinson points out: In February 2014 — the month when the new, lower rates mandated by the FCC went into effect — the volume of state-to-state inmate phone calls almost doubled, to 129,129 minutes, from January's 58,893 minutes. By July 2014, the last month included in the ADC bid request to providers, state-to-state inmate calls had spiked to 208,435 minutes for the month. That's proof that lower rates can be profitable, Wilkinson said. The spike would also seem to be proof that higher rates were, in fact, keeping inmates from communicating with the families and communities they left behind.
Tyler said the recommendation of the committee looking at proposals from telephone providers was presented to the Corrections Board last Friday during a teleconference meeting. The committee's recommendation was to accept the proposal by the Cary, N.C. provider Securus, Inc. The board voted to accept that recommendation, which Tyler said should mean rate negotiations will begin "very soon."
Tyler said that the ADC had taken steps in the past to make inmate calls more affordable to inmate families, including instituting a flat $3 per call connection fee on in-state calls. Before, Tyler said, there had been one fee for a call that was local to the prison, and a higher fee for in-state long distance. She said that the funds collected from commissions paid for monitoring and storage of inmate calls, but had also been used for other ADC needs, including the purchase of radios for guards, covered walkways, fences, exercise equipment for inmates, smaller and more easily managed barracks, and other purchases. Tyler said that all inmate calls, other than those between an inmate and his or her attorney, are recorded and archived, with some "spot checks" of calls by monitors. The archived calls can be checked if there is an escape, Tyler said, or an incident in the prison.
"This money that [the phone commission] generates makes the conditions of confinement better," she said. "We have used that money to make the place safer. ... These are things that, without the phone money, we would have had a very hard time paying for."
Tyler said the fees charged on calls were good for inmates because it made them "cost conscious." "I understand there is still a cost, and the families bear that," Tyler said. "But [families and inmates] can limit the calls. We still have the mail. You still have regular visitation, and we have the email service, too."
Tyler said that the rates charged for inmate phone calls weren't "gouging" because they're going to pay for the service itself and the security features that must be in place for inmate phone calls to continue. "You've got to remember," she said, "you're not calling a college dorm. These are prisons. We have security concerns. ... I think it's easy to see it from the vantage point of, 'well, this costs more than my phone at home.' Well, your phone at home doesn't have to do what these phones do."
The issue of rates and fees on in-state calls may soon be resolved by the FCC. On Oct. 17, the agency announced that, building on the reforms started in August 2013, it was seeking public comment on whether to ban or restrict certain fees and charges associated with in-state calls made by inmates, including placing permanent rate caps on calls, the elimination of per-call connection fees, prohibiting the payment of commissions that go beyond the cost of providing a secure inmate phone system, and capping ancillary fees, such as fees to open and maintain inmate calling-card accounts. The initial comment period closes Dec. 1.