A recent Baldwin County Commission request for proposals for an inmate calling services provider has some prisoners’ rights advocates wondering if the county is trying to avoid new regulations from the Federal Communications Commission.
Attorney Lee Petro, who represents a group of families petitioning the FCC for lower prison phone costs, said providers often pay from 60 percent to 90 percent of their revenues in “commissions” — something prisoners’ rights advocates prefer to call “kickbacks” — to corrections facilities in order to maintain exclusive contracts.
Petro said his investigations highlighted the practice of “site commissions” in which providers bid for the right to be exclusive at the jail, competing with each other over who will share the most money with the jail.
In October of last year, the FCC approved a plan to limit the price of phone calls from state and federal prisons to 11 cents per minute, cap fees and discourage commissions. However, the FCC did not impose an outright ban on those commissions.
The FCC also approved limits on how much jails can charge, setting limits between 14 cents and 22 cents per minute based on inmate population.
According to the FCC, the new plan will close loopholes by barring most add-on fees imposed by inmate calling service providers, which can add nearly 40 percent to the cost of a single call, and set strict limits on the few fees that remain.
The FCC claims its new caps will reduce the average rates for inmate calls from $2.96 to no more than $1.65 for a 15-minute intrastate call, and from $3.15 to no more than $1.65 for most 15-minute interstate calls. The rules affecting prisons are set to be imposed on March 17 and jail rules on June 20.
In January, the Baldwin County Commission released a request for proposals for the service and operation of inmate telephone and video visitation services for the Baldwin County Sheriff’s Office. In the bid proposal, the county specifies the bid will be selected based on which provider will give the highest cost recovery rate back to the county.
The bid describes the cost recovery rate as any and all gross revenue generated by the use of the inmate phone system.
The county’s RFP returned five proposals. For total cost of recovery, Securus Technologies proposed to pay the county 20 cents per minute of use, Legacy Inmate Communications would pay the county 85.6 percent of revenue and an annual $175,000 guarantee, Infirmity Networks Inc. would pay the county 3 cents per minute, Global Tel Link would pay 2 cents per minute and Inmate Calling Solutions LLC would pay the county 69 percent of revenues.
“We are concerned that, in places like Baldwin County, it appears that inmate communications service providers are shifting $500 million in site commissions onto the backs of families,” Petro said. “We want to make sure the public is aware of what is going on.”
Baldwin County Commission Attorney David Conner said the county is confident the RFP is within the guidelines set forth by the Alabama Public Service Commission, which Conner said reviewed the county’s RFP before it was sent out.
“The FCC is releasing some new guidelines about inmate calling services, but we are confident that what we sent out is in line with those regulations,” Conner said. “We did run this by the Public Service Commission, and it is my understanding that the new rules are similar to what the Public Service Commission requires. Based on what we know from the Public Service Commission’s review of our proposal, we feel like we are in good shape.”
Conner said the County Commission should have a proposal to vote on at one of its public meetings in the near future.
According to the Baldwin County Commission’s online contract database, the county signed an inmate calling services contract with Inmate Calling Solutions LLC in 2013, which expires this year. That contract shows Inmate Calling Solutions LLC agreed to pay a commission of 84.1 percent of gross revenue with a guaranteed minimum commission of $55 per inmate per month.
According to Petro, 50 percent of incarcerated people are locked up more than 100 miles from their home, making travel costs for family visitation difficult for most. More than 2 million children have at least one parent who is incarcerated.
The FCC claims inmates given regular access to phone contact with family members are less likely to return to jail in the future. If inmate phone rates are high, the FCC argues, inmates are less likely to maintain regular phone contact with their families.
According to the Justice Department, 75 percent of those released from prison return within five years, but many of those who don’t return credit regular phone contact with family for their reintegration into life outside of prison.
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