I-TEAM | Law enforcement ringing up profits on jail phones

Published: Oct. 14, 2021 at 7:12 PM EDT
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - A simple phone call is making counties across the area a lot of money. Specifically, calls from jail. Experts say law enforcement is putting profits over people – cashing in on the innocent families on the outside or worse isolating inmates whose families can’t afford the steep rates. The I-Team’s Liz Owens uncovers the call for justice.

Jail pay phone contracts bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in revenues to county governments. It’s perhaps the only government contract where the highest bidder wins and local families pay the price.

A familiar voice in pandemic of isolation. The sound connects loved ones across miles, panes of glass, and rows of bars.

“Hello? Hey.”

Jasmine Butler answers her friend’s calls from the Charles Webster Detention Center several times a day.

Jasmine: “I try to be there for support. Nobody wants to be in a situation in there like that by himself.”

Kevin Hanna’s situation is as serious is as his charges. He’s been sitting inside the detention center waiting on a trial date for the last six years. Six years without bail bond. Six years without family bond.

Jasmine: “Just to hear something different, something upbeat, something positive. I try to do that.”

Words of encouragement for people inside comes at a price for people outside.

Jasmine: “Normally 30 dollars to start out for the week. Monthly it can be a little hefty.”

Rates so high it feels almost criminal.

Paul: “You are talking about people paying 20-25 dollars for a 20 minute call just because a person is locked up.”

Paul Wright is the executive director of the Human Rights Defense Center. The non-profit group advocates for prison phone justice around the country.

Paul: “I think rightly so people are horrified and shocked that anyone in America or in the world is paying that much money for a simple phone call.”

The I-Team combed through phone provider contracts at our local jails. We found money speaks when large corporations bid on county contracts.

Paul: “This is the only area in government contracting that I am aware of that trying to get the best service for the lowest price benefit to taxpayers and consumers who use it is thrown out the window and instead the focus is on getting the most expensive service that provides the biggest kickback to the government.”

The word we found written in contracts with our local sheriff offices is “Commission.” Here’s how it works: A company submits a bid to become the phone provider for a county jail. The bid includes proposed phone rates as well as a proposed percentage cut from the rates. In other words: The higher the call charge and the larger the percent of commission – the bigger a corporation’s check to a county each month.

The I-Team analyzed commission rates for in state calls which makes up 80 percent of all jail calls. The Aiken County Sheriff’s Office receives a 68 percent commission rate. Richmond County gets 55 percent. Burke County 50 percent. The Columbia County Sheriff: 86 percent.

Paul: “Trying to keep sheriffs and prison officials from taking these kickbacks is like trying to keep a grizzly bear from eating dingdongs and hohos.”

The Richmond County Sheriff’s Office brings in between $270,000 to $300,000 dollars worth of revenue each year from jail call commission checks.

Paul: “I think that’s part of the problem the government officials who are putting out these contracts view them as revenue contracts not viewing them as service contracts.”

The federal government recognizes the problem too. The chairman of the Federal Communication Commission sent this letter the National Governors Association last September:

“As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact the lives of all Americans, access to affordable communications services remains a pressing issue, especially for incarcerated individual...More needs to be done to address egregiously high intrastate rates...Most of these involve county or municipal detention facilities....This situation is unacceptable...We urge each of you to examine the rates and related fees that are currently charged in your state and to take much-needed action.”

The FCC also names facilities with the highest reported charges for a 15 minute call in 2019. The list includes McCormick, Edgefield, Allendale and Aiken County detention centers.

The I-Team found the single highest phone rates in Georgia and South Carolina is at the Bamberg County Jail. A 15 minute call cost $14.47.

Liz: “How many times do you talk to him in a week?”

Jasmine: “I would say 10 times 10-15 times but we try not to use up the entire 15 minutes we try to spread those out.”

Liz: “That adds up that could be a grocery bill.”

Jasmine: “Yeah.”

Jasmine: “It’s between me, his mom, grandma his sisters. We all try to keep minutes on his phone so he can call everybody.”

Research conducted by prison policy finds:

“Incarcerated men and women who maintain contact with supportive family members are more likely to succeed after their release....inmates who had more contact with their families and who reported positive relationships overall are less likely to be re-incarcerated.”

Paul: “When people get out of jail or prison there is not really any type of support network. If you are going to get support a place to stay, help finding a job, just putting food on the table or whatever, when they get out- it’s typically coming from family members.”

Jasmine: “It is high I mean you guys are charging people this much just to talk to a loved one just to give them some comfort to give them some reassurance just to be upbeat and positive. That’s all they have.”

But the call for justice continues to go unanswered.

Jasmine: “How can you plan for success?”

The system is made for us to fail, and it is not healthy.

Where does the commission from jail calls go? We found it varies from county to county. In Columbia County the money goes into the county’s general fund. In Richmond County 75 percent goes to the county and the rest to the sheriff’s office. It all goes to the sheriff’s office in Aiken and Burke counties. Meaning each county spends the money differently.

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