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Phone Calls Still Won’t Be Free When Louisville Jail Gives Up Profit

August 10, 2021

By Jared Bennett / kycir.org

Calls from the Louisville jail are unlikely to be free even after the city gives up its revenue from the calls.

That’s because phone vendor Securus Technologies still has to get paid.

The budget passed by Louisville Metro Council on June 24 requires the jail to stop taking commissions from phone calls in January, and council members cited the high cost for families of incarcerated people in support of the proposal. But it does not make phone calls free.

The new cost of phone calls for people with loved ones inside the jail will depend on negotiations with Securus, according to Louisville Metro Department of Corrections Assistant Director and spokesperson Steve Durham.

“We will be renegotiating the rates to exclude commissions; however, all calls will not be free,” Durham said in an email.

Jade Trombetta, manager of communications at Securus, said the company offers commission-free and taxpayer-funded options in their contracts “as part of our ongoing effort to make our products more affordable and accessible.”

Monthly call volume records obtained by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting show Securus collected $1.6 million in revenue from phone calls in the Louisville jail during 2020.

Securus is one of the largest corrections telecom companies in North America and holds the contract for all 14 of Kentucky’s prisons and 22 local jails. A recent KyCIR investigation found Securus saw its profits skyrocket last year, with nationwide revenue of $767 million in 2020, amid business shutdowns and rampant unemployment accompanying the coronavirus pandemic.

In Louisville’s jail, calls to a local landline cost $1.85 and calls to cell phones cost $9.99, according to the jail’s website. All calls are limited to 15 minutes.

The company’s contract currently entitles the city to about 60% of the revenue in commissions, a common deal between telecom providers and their correctional facility customers. Records show Securus paid the Louisville jail nearly $945,000 from January through December 2020.

Durham said the money from commissions goes to Louisville Metro’s general fund. Metro Government spokesperson Jean Porter said the money is then used to offset the jail’s operating costs.

Chanelle Helm, a Strategic Core Co-Organizer of Black Lives Matter, Louisville is not surprised the phone services have been so lucrative for Securus and the jail. Helm estimates her organization spent around $35,000 on Securus phone calls in the past year arranging bail for people inside the Louisville jail.

“That’s what the system is designed to do,” Helm said. “There isn’t one part of the system that is taking any of the funds from people and producing anything other than more positions and more funding for the criminal justice system.”

Last summer, the jail population decreased to around 1,200 as city officials sought to relieve overcrowding and slow the spread of coronavirus, but that number has been rising again. Last month, the jail was nearing its capacity with 1,601 people and 20 active coronavirus cases.

As the new, more infectious coronavirus Delta variant threatens to take hold in correctional facilities, Helm said the city should work to lower the jail population or at least make calls free.

“In this moment, in the middle of a pandemic, if we cared about folks’ rehabilitation… we would allow them to speak to family members and loved ones without cost,” Helm said.

The push to lower jail phone costs

Louisville’s current contract with Securus to provide phone services was first signed back in 2011 and has been amended ten times since then.

It wasn’t until the pandemic closed the jail to visitors that a push to make calls free caught steam. Securus did provide one free phone call a week per person, but Judi Jennings said that wasn’t enough.

Jennings is the director of the Special Project, an initiative to provide art supplies for children waiting to visit their family members at the jail as part of the Louisville Family Justice Advocates. The advocacy group circulated a petition and began lobbying Metro Council in December.

In June, Metro Council passed a budget which instructs the Director of Corrections to “discontinue generating revenue from inmate phone calls after December 31, 2021.”

But that doesn’t usurp the city’s contractual obligations with Securus.

Councilman Bill Hollander, chair of the budget committee, said the cost of calls to incarcerated people and their families will depend on Metro Department of Corrections’ negotiations with Securus.

“I would hope, personally, that we could move to free phone calls,” Hollander said. “But that would likely require another appropriation to cover whatever costs are negotiated.”

The contract extends through January 31, 2022 and includes a stipulation that it can be renegotiated to include an “appropriate reduction to the applicable call rates” if Metro stopped taking a cut of the profits.

The contract also says the city can start paying the cost of phone calls itself, instead of passing the cost on to the families of incarcerated people.

“I think everyone would concede that we need to have a provider to provide those services. The question is what is that provider going to charge and who is going to pay those charges,” Hollander said.

Will Jail Visits ‘Slip Away’?

Metro Corrections relies on Securus tools to accomplish much of its daily operations.

Securus’ contract allows Louisville access to its biometric surveillance and call monitoring services as well as connections to databases of warrants and other information from the National Crime Information Center.

Securus also owns Archonix, the company that runs mugshots.louisvilleky.gov and provides the inmate management service used by the jail.

Louisville’s jail recently partnered with Securus to introduce two new services that advocates and lawmakers worry will further isolate incarcerated people and lead to higher costs to stay connected.

The first is the “Securus Digital Mail Center,” a free service which scans physical mail and delivers it to incarcerated people electronically instead of physically. Wanda Bertram, a communications specialist at the advocacy group Prison Policy Initiative, says the practice will incentivize people to sign up for expensive email and messaging systems — “which happens to be the very same services that these companies are selling, making money off of and using to give kickback revenue to the jail itself.”

“You can’t hug your loved one, you can’t see them except through a screen, and in that context to go a step further and take people’s letters away, really just it’s completely cutting them off from their families,” Bertram said.

Trombetta, the Securus spokesperson, said the digital mail center has not been installed yet in Louisville.

Securus also began offering video calling, which started as a pilot program in 2018, and will soon deploy throughout the facility. Remote video calls cost $5 for 20 minutes, according to Securus’ website.

Securus’ contract entitles Louisville’s jail to a 20% share of the revenue from video calling if they hit certain traffic milestones, but Durham said the jail won’t accept commissions from video calling.

Last September, Kentucky state lawmakers bemoaned the fear of video calling replacing visitation at jails in a hearing before the Jail and Corrections Reform Task Force.

Securus representative Russell Roberts said that video calling was “an augmentation” and not meant to replace in-person visitation, but that’s exactly what some lawmakers feared is already happening.

“If we’re talking about rehabilitation, we’re talking about families, we need to make sure that we preserve family in-person visitation,” said State Senator John Schickel, a Republican from Union. “It breaks my heart when I see it has to be through the glass and over the phone… if we’re not vigilant about that, we’re going to see [in person visitation] is going to slip away.”

Even before Securus video calling — and before the pandemic — Louisville’s in-person visitation was essentially gone. The jail replaced traditional in-person visits with a closed circuit video that visitors often had to wait hours for their turn to access. Jail officials said it was an effort to improve safety and reduce contraband making its way inside the jail.

Now Securus runs the video calls at the facility, free, for someone who comes into the jail. Once the system is fully deployed throughout the jail, it will be the only “in-person” visitation option. But the calls are only available for two days a week, on Mondays and Saturdays.

Prices and availability of video calling from the Louisville jail.

“The way they make money — and they wouldn’t be doing this if they couldn’t make money — is by creating this more convenient option and simultaneously making the possibility of the onsite options extremely unattractive,” Bertram said.