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Costly Calls: Shelby County makes $1 million from jail phones amid national reforms

November 2, 2018

By Sarah Macaraeg

Every day in Memphis, more than 5,000 people, on average, spend their hours locked up inside one of four Shelby County facilities, according to figures provided by county officials. More than half are pretrial detainees, held behind bars before being convicted of any crime. Dozens are children, roughly 300 are women, and the vast majority are men.

Despite their varied circumstances, many inmates share one trait. Every day their family members strain to cover the costs that come with having a loved one incarcerated — from commissary food purchases to talking on the phone.

“They want to charge you for everything,” says Randy Letcher, a truck driver whose 25-year-old daughter, Aleisha, is being detained at the county’s Jail East facility for women, where she’s been awaiting trial on drug possession charges since August.

Letcher wishes he could talk with his daughter by phone every day, given that she had open heart surgery 10 months ago and is in recovery from addiction.

But Letcher says that after accounting for the $40 a week he spends on marked-up commissary items, including the aspirin his daughter takes every day as a blood thinner, he can't pay for more than a couple calls a week. He also loses hundreds of dollars every time he misses work to be at his daughter’s court hearings, Letcher says. And each time he deposits money for calls or the commissary, he’s charged a transaction fee of either $3 or $5.95 depending on how the money is deposited.

“It takes a toll after a while on the money situation,” Letcher says.

That toll, for the corporations on the other side of the prison communications industry, has transformed over three decades into a nationwide industry that in 2015 was valued at $1.25 billion — a sum built off exorbitant rates charged inmates and their loved ones to connect.

But private companies aren’t alone in commercializing inmate calls. In exchange for granting monopoly rights to operate telecommunications inside a jail or prison system, local governments typically take a portion of the revenue collected off each call, in what’s known as a commission fee.

Under its current contract with service provider Global Tel, Shelby County is guaranteed a commission of at least $1 million per year, according to documents obtained through a public records request. That's based on a commission rate of 3.7 cents per minute. If call volume tops 22 million minutes, the county makes an additional 4.5 cents per minute.

But the deal contains a termination clause. And the Global Tel contract is potentially at a crossroads, with new leadership at the helm of county government.

During their campaigns for office, new County Mayor Lee Harris and Sheriff Floyd Bonner were asked about jail phone rates. Each said they were against the county profiting off inmates and their families. Since then, Tami Sawyer, an activist-turned- county commissioner, was appointed chair of the Law Enforcement, Corrections and Courts committee.

Meanwhile, a new era of fairer pricing has begun to unfold in other states.

In Michigan, the fee per deposit has been eliminated. In Texas, bipartisan state leadership slashed rates to 6 cents a minute at the start of the current fiscal year. And in New York City, calls will soon be free.

For NiQuétta Baldridge, every cent counts. A beautician who works a second job on the weekends as an aide to people with disabilities, Baldridge funds the commissary and phone fees for her daughter, Keinosha Taper, who’s been awaiting trial in a murder and abuse case for which she maintains her innocence, since August 2017.

“It’s already a depressing situation because your loved one is incarcerated,” Baldridge says. “Then they can’t reach out to you because of this money and fee thing going on.”

Shelby County’s current jail phone cost is just shy of 10 cents a minute — a rate that’s at the low end among prisons nationwide. But it's double that of Nashville's Davidson County, which does not collect any commission from call fees.

For a family member like Baldridge, who makes frequent, small deposits as she earns extra cash, it’s the $3 or $5.95 fee per transaction that adds up. She covers the cost of her daughter’s commissary and the calls Taper makes to keep in touch with not only her mother, but also her father and grandmother, who Baldridge says live on fixed incomes.

“Just imagine me and all the other people in Shelby County that they’re charging a service fee, every time,” Baldridge says. “It’s unfair.”

Global Tel Link (GTL)

Davidson County Sheriff Daron Hall, in his successful effort to bring the rate in Nashville’s jails to among the lowest in the country, credited Global Tel, which also goes by GTL, with being a “fantastic partner.” According to spokesman James Lee, the company is committed to working with all interested parties to deliver services that “properly account for the true costs” of services.

In Shelby County, Sawyer is reviewing all communications and commissary contracts for Shelby County detention facilities, which include Juvenile Court; Jail East and 201 Poplar, where women and men are held awaiting trial; and the Shelby County Division of Correction, more commonly known as the Penal Farm, where inmates with lesser sentences are held post-conviction.

One of Sawyer’s goals within her first year is to bring a discussion or resolution before the county commission that tackles the total financial burden of food and phone costs that fall on inmates’ loved ones.

“It’s an urgent issue for me,” says Sawyer. “It’s one thing to charge the cost of a call. It’s another thing for people to be making money off another person’s misfortune.”

On face value, the $100 per month that it would take a person making weekly deposits to fund 30 minutes of calls per day may not seem prohibitive — even if well above market-rate prices for landline services in which a few dollars per month grants unlimited calls. But among court-involved families, who often grapple with poverty, many people simply don’t have it, Sawyer says. And because of related transportation costs, in-person visits don’t serve as a free substitute, she says.

American Community Survey statistics show that 28 percent of Shelby County households live below the federal poverty line of $25,100 for a family of four.

As for the direction of potential reform, Sawyer notes that her priority in looking at commercialization in county jails are juvenile detainees. “My biggest concern here are the kids who can’t get in touch with their parents, whose parents can’t afford to get in touch with them,” Sawyer says.

And she says that she’s not certain bringing the per minute cost down a few more cents is how the county can have the most impact in alleviating family members’ burden, given the other fees they face.

In New York, that dynamic prompted families and advocates to demand free calls from city jails, where the vast majority of detainees have yet to be convicted of any crime. And, with the passage of a new municipal ordinance in July, that’s what they won.

As opposed to focusing on smaller bills for families, the coalition backing the legislation pushed to eliminate their bill altogether, says Luke Noel, a staff member of the Corrections Accountability Project, which seeks to raise awareness on prison commerce.

For Steve Leech, chief administrative officer for the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office, free calls are a non-starter because GTL maintains the phone system and he says the office would have to hire IT employees to take their place. And a scenario like that in place in Nashville, where GTL still makes money but the county forgoes its share, won’t work either, Leech says, because the sheriff’s office uses that revenue to fund other aspects of its communications system. Without it, Leech says, the sheriff’s office would be forced to request that money from taxpayers.

But Doug Smith, senior policy analyst for the Criminal Justice Coalition in Texas, where rates were recently slashed to 6 cents per minute,disagrees.

“The way that you control costs is to not hold people pretrial. You institute pretrial reforms,” he says, citing a growing consensus on the elimination of cash bond, which keeps poor people in jail as they await trial, simply because they can’t afford it.

“What you don’t do is hold them in county jail and then raise revenue on low-income people while doing it. It’s a double injustice,” Smith says.

Bonner doesn’t disagree that the main solution for taxpayers lies in population decline. “At the end of the day, we need to reduce the population,” he says.

“We’ve got to serve the community in all facets, the incarcerated people as well as our taxpayers,” he says. Of any proposals that could lessen costs for families while meeting the sheriff’s office’s needs, Bonner says, “If there’s a way to do it, we would not be opposed."

Juveniles and pretrial detainees

In comparison to the county’s total $1.25 billion budget, the $1 million in jail phone revenue ultimately represents a negligible amount — .08 percent.

Within the total budget, county corrections and the sheriff pull in a combined $55.5 million. Phone revenue from GTL represents 1.8 percent of that.

Looking at juveniles and pretrial detainees, The Commercial Appeal analyzed monthly payments to the county from GTL and found that the cost of calls for juvenile detainees could be slashed with virtually no change to the county’s budget. Over the 2018 fiscal year, the total collected by the county from calls from minors in detention amounted to just over $4,200.

At Jail East and 201 Poplar — where the majority of pretrial detainees are held on misdemeanors — phone calls brought the county $517,435 in revenue during the 2018 fiscal year, representing less than 1 percent of the combined revenue of county corrections and the sheriff’s office.

Revenue generated from pretrial detainees’ phone calls in New York similarly represented a drop in the bucket of the city budget.

“It’s clear that it’s insignificant for them,” Noel says. “But we’re talking about a lot of money being returned to communities of poverty and communities of color.

“It was a matter of bringing up the conversation and saying, ‘We’re not stopping until these phone calls are free.’ ”

Harris, the county mayor, said he’s open to re-evaluating the county’s GTL contract. The $1 million in revenue is split evenly between the sheriff’s office and Shelby County, which manages the deal.

The county also administers the Division of Corrections, where more than 2,000 inmates sentenced to less than 12 years are currently held.

“Something that is really important to me is families,” Harris said. “Maybe we should revise the contract with GTL so that the county is not using inmates connecting with families as a source of revenue.

“We know when inmates stay connected to their families there is a greater chance they will stay out of prison once released,” Harris says, alluding to numerous studiesthat show that strong family relationships are a key factor in a person’s ability to successfully re-enter society after serving time.

According to Anthony Alexander, an administrator for Shelby County's Division of Corrections, a 2017 Tennessee Department of Correction study found the county has a 32.7 rate of recidivism — a percentage of former prisoners who reoffend.

Recidivism

DeAndre Brown isn’t one of them. After serving 25 months for bank fraud, Brown has since co-founded the organization Lifeline to Success with his wife, Vinessa Brown.

He thinks pretrial calls should be free for people who have yet to be convicted of any crime. Those who’ve been convicted, he argues, should have the opportunity to earn access to the phone for good behavior.

“If you remove the ability to keep in contact, it makes it very difficult for a person that is actually using prison the right way to come back to the society, to come home,” he says.

Over the past eight years, the Browns’ organization has served more than 1,000 ex-offenders in the process of re-entering society, through providing pathways to employment, life skills curriculum and faith-based counseling. Fewer than five of those people have since committed a felony, according to figures provided by the group.

But if DeAndre Brown hadn’t been able to make regular calls home a couple times a week while locked up, he says, “I don’t think that this would even be possible.”

“I was in the process of reshaping the way I saw the world, redefining who I was as a man,” he says. “To have the ability to call home … I didn’t feel so disconnected.”

For Brown, access to the phone meant he could teach his oldest son how to tie his first tie; be there for his mom and then-girlfriend, Vinessa, who both found themselves in chemotherapy during Brown’s incarceration; and support his little sister as she made her way to high school graduation.

“It provides hope,” he says of phone access, “and prisons are places that are hopeless.”

Prisons are also places with proliferating populations in Tennessee, which saw a 5.5 percent increase in the number of prisoners in 2017, according to a study by the Vera Institute. That figure runs counter to the national trend in which small declines have taken place every year for the past eight years.

In the meanwhile, support for policies that reduce the likelihood a person will reoffend has gone mainstream, given the costs to taxpayers that mass incarceration entails. In May, the Trump administration announced its support for a range of policies aimed at reducing recidivism.

“What a lot of people call reforms, I call common sense,” says Republican state Rep. James White of Texas. White was instrumental in implementing a 77 percent reduction in prison phone rates statewide.

“We know that calls enhance rehabilitation in prison and reintegration in society — from a quantitative standpoint,” White says.

Through the phone, Brown’s family helped him bridge the gap between his commitment to change and the harsh realities of incarceration.

“We understood that he did something he shouldn’t have,” Vinessa Brown says. “It wasn’t one of those, ‘We have to get you out’ things. It was ‘How do we get you through?’ ”

But, she adds, “The cost that the family has to pay, for someone else’s error, is heartbreaking.

“I hate to use the word, but it’s racket,” Vinessa Brown says of prison commerce.

“There’s something with the justice system that has to change, because the point is to change them,” she says of inmates, “not make it inconvenient and put people more in poverty — and not say, ‘Well, then don’t call them.’ Because that’s just inhuman.”

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