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Monday, Dec 17, 2012, 4:52 pm

Cook County Poised to Slash Exorbitant Jail Call Costs By 50 Percent

By Amien Essif

In an age of free long-distance Skype calls, why are inmates in America’s prisons paying as much as $3.60 per minute to contact the outside world? As usual, the motive is probably profit: Phone companies can charge a “captive audience” of prisoners whatever they like, and the state takes its own cut.

Things may change very soon, however, for Chicago’s county jail, one of the largest of its kind in the United States. On Dec. 18, the Cook County Board is expected to approve a new contract with its current telephone service provider, Securus Technologies, to reduce calling costs for inmates. 

The change was introduced by Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle in response to mounting criticism of the cost barriers that detainees face in communicating with their families. Preckwinkle has already signed the new contract, which awaits approval from the board.

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According to an in-depth report this March by Chicago public radio station WBEZ, a half hour of call time currently costs up to $30, which can be a significant burden on inmates’ families. The high price tag is in part because phone calls are limited to 15 minutes and inmates are charged a connection fee for each new call. But 57.5 percent of the cost comes from a commission charged by the county jail. On Nov. 28, the New York Times Editorial Board declared such commissions—which are the standard in county jails and state prisons across the country—to be “legal kickback[s]” that effectively put the burden of prison funding on prisoners and their families.

A 2003 paper by the Urban Institute noted that, according to multiple studies, prisoners who maintain contact with their families during incarceration have an easier time reintegrating into society and lower chance of recidivism. Price-prohibitive calling charges, which the Urban Institute calls “problematic,” discourage contact. 

Under Preckwinkle’s proposed reforms, inmates would be charged only $7 for a 30-minute call, the equivalent of 23 cents per minute. Additionally, the new contract extends time limits from 15 minutes to 30 minutes.

The Cook County Jail would still receive a commission, albeit a reduced one, under the new proposal, which is estimated to generate $300,000 in monthly revenue for the county. Preckwinkle has pledged, however, to eliminate the commission by 2014 when the new contract with Securus expires making phone calls “revenue neutral.”

Cook County Jail’s phone rates aren’t the first to come under public scrutiny. Preckwinkle is one of a number of county, state and federal leaders who have responded in recent months to a national campaign to reform phone rates. Steven Renderos, national organizer for the Center for Media Justice, a cosponsor of the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice, tells In These Times that Preckwinkle “came out pretty strongly against exorbitant phone rates” when the WBEZ report brought the issue to public attention in the Chicago area last spring. Preckwinkle has since become an ally of the national campaign and a “great advocate” for prison phone reform, says Renderos.

In a Dec. 3 Chicago Sun-Times editorial, Preckwinkle framed the issue as a political as well as a moral one:

As I have often said, jails are the intersection of racism and poverty. African-Americans and Latinos disproportionately fill our cells.... Giving them the opportunity to make phone calls to their families at reasonable rates not only provides a connection to loved ones — an important factor for successful reentry — but it’s the right thing to do. 

What qualifies as a “reasonable rate,” however, is not clear, and defining this term is at the center of the national campaign.

More than a decade has passed since Wright vs Corrections Corporation of America was filed in a federal court in 2000 on the grounds that inflated phone costs breech federal anti-trust laws, as well as violate the First, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments.

The judge ruled soon after that the FCC would have to decide on a “reasonable rate” for prison calls, but the FCC has dragged its feet.

Until recently, that is. At a rally organized by the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice outside the FCC building on November 15, FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn announced that defining “reasonable” is on the FCC’s agenda.

Though there is still no timetable for a ruling, FCC Chair Julius Genachowski has issued a notice of proposed rulemaking on correctional facility phone call rates. Brandi Collins of the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice tells In These Times that “these developments mark the first step forward in a ten-year national effort.” She is optimistic that federal action will be taken within the next few months.

The FCC’s definition of “reasonable rates” is expected to fall somewhere near the mark that Toni Preckwinkle has described for Cook County: between 20 and 25 cents per minute for interstate calls. This will be an improvement upon the national average of 30 cents per minute, but falls short of reforms in states such as Louisiana, where rates were recently reduced to $1.69 for the first minute and 5 cents per minute thereafter.

When asked what the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice defines as “reasonable,” Renderos points to Alaska as a model, where state prisoners can make calls to local landlines for free. He clarifies however that the national campaign is “not necessarily advocating free phone calls.” Rather, the goal is “making the barrier of communication between inmates and their families as small as possible.”

Amien Essif is a regular contributor to Working In These Times and maintains a blog called The Gazine, which focuses on consumerism, gentrification, and technology with a Luddite bent. His work has also appeared on the Guardian and CounterPunch. You can find him using Twitter reluctantly: @AmienChicago

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