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Jail phone calls tax families, aid county

Published: Friday, Aug. 5 2005 10:34 a.m. MDT

Sarah may soon have to shut off her telephone, severing the tie to her incarcerated son because she just can't afford to talk anymore.

Each call from her 19-year-old son in the Salt Lake County jail runs Sarah's phone bill up with the collect calls costing more than $3 for each 15-minute chat. Since her son went behind bars in January, Sarah's bill has increased by $60 a month — an amount she's not sure she can continue to pay.

"What do you say? 'Son, don't call me.' I want to keep my phone on so I can keep my son in touch," said Sarah, who works as a janitor for Salt Lake County and whose name has been changed for this article, at her request. "I'm working two jobs now to keep my phone on."

But what irks Sarah even more than her surging phone bill is that Salt Lake County officials are making money every time her son calls home.

County records obtained by the Deseret Morning News reveal the county gets a 45 percent share of revenues generated by Qwest and AT&T for the inmates' collect calls — a commission that adds up to nearly $1 million a year.

"The county provides inmates and says, 'Here's your captive audience that desperately wants to make phone calls,' " said Brian Barnard, an attorney with the Utah Legal Clinic. "I think this is a horrible tax, a horrible way of treating this voiceless constituency."

Barnard has been trying for more than a decade to fight what he calls the "county's kickback" from the two telephone companies, which began in 1996 with a 40 percent commission to the county.

According to county contracts, that profit share to the county fluctuated through the years and settled at 45 percent from Qwest and 43 percent from AT&T. Both contracts expire by 2007.

County receipt records show that percentage translated to more than $2.6 million for the county, from 2002 to 2004, in collect calls made by 2,100 inmates.

Those funds stem from a charge of $3.15 for up to 15 minutes on a local call, Qwest spokesman Vince Hancock said. Long distance rates for inmates start at $2.80 plus 12 cents a minute on weekdays and 10 cents a minute for evenings and weekends.

"A million dollars a year is nice revenue for the county, but not on the backs of poor people," Barnard said. "There's no legitimate reason for it other than this turns out to be a very lucrative income source for the county."

And it's not the inmates who are footing the bill — it's the families, he added.

Although Barnard decries the collect call system and the county's bite of the revenues, his legal fight has been in vain. In addition, the Federal Communications Commission and the state's Public Service Commission do not regulate jail phone rates.

And Salt Lake County isn't the only government getting a cut of inmate collect call fees. Inmates at the Davis County jail, for example, also are required to use collect calls with the county making a 44 percent commission from its provider, EverCom.

Keith Major, business manager for the Davis County Sheriff's Office, said the county made just over $200,000 last year from inmate calls.

The Utah County jail also gets a kickback from its inmate calls, although all of the funds generated from the collect fees go back into the cost of inmate programs like life skills classes and recreation. Davis County commissions are also pumped back into a variety of jail programs, Major said.

Funneling those revenues back into the jail system is at least "a little more palatable," Barnard said.

But under Salt Lake County's method, the money is put into a telecommunications fund to offset the costs of countywide telephone infrastructure, telecommunications manager Bruce Miller said.

Miller said he disagrees with the idea that the county is receiving a kickback from the phone company. Rather, he said, the commission simply covers the county's costs.

"It's very common. The state does it and others do it," he said. "It helps lower the overall operating costs to all of the telecommunications networks in the county."

That same method is used at the Utah State Prison, where commissions from a $2.40 collect call rate are pumped into the state's telephone and computer services.

"There is a substantial amount of money that goes back to the state of Utah," spokesman Jack Ford said. "It does not come back to the Department of Corrections. We do not get a nickel of it."

Ford added that state officials have mulled over the idea of putting the money back into inmate education programs or even switching to a calling-card system. Many families try to send inmates calling cards to stop the collect calls, but Ford said prisoners are not allowed to carry anything of value.

"It could generate some fights within the system," he said. "But we keep looking at a way to make it more economical."

Chief Deputy Rollin Cook, who oversees the county's corrections division, said the county system isn't just a scheme to make money off prisoners and their families. The collect call rates charged on the roughly 160 phones in the jail are reasonable, he said.

The inmate collect call fee is cheaper than a collect call from a regular residential line, which runs about $3.40 a call. The rate is higher, however, than a local collect call from a pay phone at about $2.31 per call.

But inmates are only allowed to talk for 15 minutes and are subject to the full connection fee if they want to call back to finish a conversation.

"It's not a trick, we're not trying to generate funds on purpose. It's just part of the system," he said.

But the inmate rate is still far higher than a regular pay phone call, Barnard said. With little contact with family besides the telephone, the mandate to use collect calls is an unfair tax, he said.

"People on the outside at least have a choice to make a collect phone call or go to a pay phone," he said. "The inmates don't have a choice. It's a captive group of consumers with absolutely no choice."

Cook added that the jail does receive complaints from family members about the charges showing up on their phone bills. Until recently, Cook said phone call recipients were not informed of the charges before accepting the call. Now, the charges are disclosed up-front, he said.

Cook is also quick to point out that prisoners are given an unlimited number of free phone calls when they are first brought into the jail. Once they are registered as an inmate, however, they are required to use the collect call system.

"I don't feel we're hurting the community or the prisoner by requiring a charge for them to use the phone," Cook said. "This is something that all the jails do. A lot of times it is unfortunate, especially if people are accepting tons and tons of calls from the person here at the jail."

Family members and friends of jail inmates do have a choice, Cook added, not to accept the phone calls or even to put a block on their phone for all jail calls.


E-mail: estewart@desnews.com

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