If you think your cell phone bill is high, be thankful you aren’t trying to keep in contact with someone in jail or prison. If you’ve placed, or received, a phone call involving someone incarcerated you are familiar with the exorbitant fees involved. Individuals who are incarcerated locally face rates as high as $214 a month to stay in touch with loved ones over the phone one hour per week. Prison and jail facilities often outsource their phone systems to private companies who charge rates as high as 73 cents a minute. These call rates are on top of service fees and other charges that can easily add nearly 40% to the cost of a single call.
The contracts are built in a way that allow for facilities to make extra commissions on everything from the phone calls to secure emails, voicemails, and video chats. These add-on rates usually make-up half of the cost of a call, and they offer an attractive and sizeable revenue stream for the often cash-strapped departments. Without these commissions, rates as low as five cents per minute are possible with no commission markup. This is case for Missouri State Department of Corrections Institutions.
In 2013, the FCC overhauled one source of these excessive fees by capping interstate call rates at 21 cents a minute. On October 22, 2015, the FCC plans to overhaul the rates for nearly every other call type and limit the fees service providers can tack on to the cost of a phone call.
In the St. Louis area, there are a wide range of rates, commission payments, and additional fees that incarcerated individuals (and more often families) face when paying the phone bill.
Jefferson County has the highest fees of the facilities surveyed. At 66 cents per minute for a local call, an inmate or family member could expect to pay over $200 to keep in contact. Securus, the phone system contractor, charges a minimum of $7.95 every time money is added to a prepaid account, and it limits the amount you can process at $25 each transaction. Say you wanted to load $100 into a prepaid account account: That means you would have to pay $7.95 x 4 in processing fees totaling $131.80 just to load the account due to the $25 per transaction limit.
Research has shown that contact between inmates, their families, and loved ones during incarceration reduces recidivism.
“These reforms will help inmates and their families stay in touch by making calling more affordable, and benefit society as a whole by helping inmates transition more smoothly back into society upon their release,” the FCC wrote in their announcement of the pending vote.
One area the proposed FCC change does not address is video chat calls, which can run as high as $15.95 per 30-minute session. Area facilities have said they are considering installing inmate video chat systems. In July, Jefferson County installed their own video chat. After installing the video system, Jefferson County also eliminated face-to-face visits and require visitors to use video monitors to chat with individuals in jail.
The proposed rates will go into effect as early as January 20, 2016.
Data sources: Rates, contracts, and revenue statements were obtained through open records requests and documents disclosed online by the Missouri Department of Corrections, St. Louis County Justice Center, St. Louis City Justice Center, and Jefferson County Jail.
St. Louis County
Department budget: http://www.stlouisco.com/portals/8/docs/document%20library/budget/2014/2014recommendedbudgetdetail.pdf (pg 111)
St. Louis City:
Commission revenues: https://www.muckrock.com/foi/st-louis-337/st-louis-city-jail-commissions-20778/
Department budget: https://www.stlouis-mo.gov/government/departments/budget/documents/upload/FY14-AOP-Public-Safety-As-Adopted.pdf (pg 184)
Missouri Department of Corrections:
Phone contract: http://doc.mo.gov/Documents/Contracts/Professional/Awarded/C211019001_2.pdf (pg 231)