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FCC orders costs of phone calls paid by inmates be reduced

Published: Thursday, Oct. 31 2013 11:52 a.m. MDT

Utah's rates for interstate phone calls from inmates will have to drop by nearly half in the coming months to accommodate an FCC ruling.

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UTAH STATE PRISON — Utah’s rates for interstate phone calls from inmates will have to drop by nearly half in the coming months to accommodate a Federal Communications Commission ruling.

Currently, the state in its contract with private vendor Global Tel Link charges inmates and their families a $3 connection fee and 45 cents per minute for collect out-of-state calls and a $2.55 connection fee and 35 cents per minute for debit or pre-pay, out-of-state calls.

Corrections officials said Wednesday that Utah’s rates are already lower than rates that have drawn criticism and scrutiny in other states. Rates do vary widely between states. A study by Prison Policy Initiative found a 15-minute long distance phone call from Global Tel Link costs $2.36 in Massachusetts, but that same call costs more than $17 in Georgia.

The August FCC ruling required states to bill no more than 25 cents per minute for interstate collect calls and 21 cents per minute for interstate debit or pre-pay calls.

“The FCC’s ruling makes plenty of sense from the standpoint of accommodating supportive inmate-family relations, which can be vital toward rehabilitation and encouraging lasting positive change in the offender population,” Utah Department of Corrections spokesman Steve Gehrke said.

“In addition, an estimated 2.7 million children would benefit from increased communication with an incarcerated parent,” the FCC said in a prepared statement.

The state charges a $2.80 connection fee and 12 cents per minute for intra-state long distance collect calls and a $2.25 connection fee and 10 cents per minute for intra-state long distance debit or pre-pay calls.

Local calls are assessed $3.15 collect or $2.50 debit and pre-pay with no per-minute charge.

The FCC was expected to review intra-state calling rates at a future time.

Gehrke said the state would renegotiate its vendor contract to comply with federal law by the required date later this year.

Attempts to obtain comment from Global Tel Link were unsuccessful.

The charges can add up to thousands of dollars for inmate families over the lives of their sentences. One recently released inmate said his family racked up a roughly $1,500 phone tab over the life of his 15 months behind bars.

“It’s pretty oppressive in terms of the cost of the calls,” said the man, who requested to not be identified because of a pending legal appeal. “A lot of speculation going on in the minds of the inmates, thinking they’re getting raked over the coals, they’re being overcharged.”

Another inmate currently serving a sentence at the Utah State Prison said the charges made it difficult to stay in touch with most of his family in California.

“It’s a drag for me not having to talk to my mother and not knowing how my kids out there are doing,” Erick Meza said. “I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one with this problem.”

Pat Howell said she was thankful for the ability to stay in touch with her inmate son. Still, she spent about $200 every two months to do so over the phone.

“Obviously it would be nice if it weren’t quite so much,” she said.

Corrections officials are mindful of the costs families of inmates face and they’ve approached their contracts with private vendors differently because of that consideration, Gehrke said.

Rather than allow vendors to come to the state with proposed rates, Gehrke said the state has opted to set its own rate and then allow vendors to make bids on what percentage of the cut they want.

Utah and Global Tel Link have a 50-50 split on the money generated from inmate calls, he said.

Gehrke said the state’s cut of the deal in the past fiscal year generated $750,000, all of which was put toward vocational education programs in the prison system.

“That again will hopefully mean that fewer people will have to come back and pay those surcharges and those fees on an ongoing basis,” Gehrke said. “The effect to recidivism and the effects that education has are really impressive.”

Contributing: Viviane Vo-Duc

Email: aadams@deseretnews.com

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