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Feds cap jail phone rates but some bills to stay high [The Wisconsin State Journal :: ]
[February 23, 2014]

Feds cap jail phone rates but some bills to stay high [The Wisconsin State Journal :: ]

(Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, WI) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Feb. 23--If you're in the Jefferson County Jail any time soon and want to save your friends some money, consider calling someone outside Wisconsin.

That's because new federal rules have capped the cost of interstate phone calls from jails and prisons -- rates long decried as gouging inmates and their families -- but have done nothing to change the price of calls within states.

The rules mean a 15-minute collect call from the Jefferson County lockup to Minnesota or, for that matter, someone in Wisconsin with a Minnesota cellphone, will cost $3.75.

But a local call could be four times that: as much as $15.27.

The Federal Communications Commission put the limits in place on Feb. 11, capping the price of phone calls that cross state lines at 21 to 25 cents per minute.

Phone calls within states don't fall under the FCC's policy, however, and Wisconsin has no such rules for phone costs, officials said.

At the Jefferson County Jail, a collect call costs 69 cents per minute plus a connection fee of $3.95 to $4.92 for each call, jail clerk Denise Skelly said.

Out-of-state calls at the same jail used to cost 89 cents per minute, Skelly said.

Those rates are hardly unique: Jails in Columbia, Grant, Juneau and La Crosse counties, among others, also charge 69 cents per minute for phone calls, according to Securus Technologies. The Texas company provides phone services to Jefferson and many other Wisconsin counties' jails.

While inmates don't often garner a lot of sympathy from the public, advocates say the high cost of phone calls can prove too much for poor families -- cutting inmates off from positive influences and making life harder for their loved ones.

"The kids are serving the sentence right along with the parent," said Linda Ketchum, executive director of Madison-Area Urban Ministry. "If we don't owe it to the parent, we at least owe it to the kids to let them be able to have contact with their parents." The Public Service Commission of Wisconsin, charged with regulating the state's telecommunications industry, has no authority to impose caps on those rates, said Gary Evenson, assistant administrator for communication services. And it's not just in prisons and jails -- the commission has not been able to put limits on any phone costs for years, Evenson said.

"Nobody regulates that anymore," he said.

Jails and prisons bid their phone services out to various private companies -- the Dane County jail uses Inmate Calling Solutions, another Texas business, while the state Department of Corrections contracts with CenturyLink, which is based in Louisiana.

Those businesses set the rates and fees, which vary depending on the type of call -- if they are collect calls, for instance, or paid for with an account families set up with the company.

The accounts come with their own costs. Securus charges a "Payment Processing Fee" of as much as $12 each time a family adds money to an account, according to the company's website.

Counties benefit from the high costs because phone companies return a share of profits to the local government in the form of commissions.

Opponents of the rates say those commissions amount to kickbacks for the jails, and give counties an incentive to charge high rates.

The FCC says its capped rates cover the cost of security features to ensure prison phones aren't being used for criminal activity, including blocks to prevent inmates from calling victims or prosecutors, and monitoring of conversations.

Calls from Wisconsin's state prisons are relatively inexpensive: 12 and 18 cents per minute for in- and out-of-state calls, respectively, meaning they won't be affected by the FCC's policy, spokeswoman Joy Staab said. Inmates also aren't charged any connection fees, Staab said.

Since inmate advocates helped pass a 2007 Dane County Board ordinance, the county has not been allowed to consider commissions when bidding out the phone contract.

The Dane County Jail charges 33 cents per minute for collect calls with no connection fee, spokeswoman Elise Schaffer said. That's lower than in other counties, but still more expensive than calling across the country would be.

Asked if the county has considered lowering the price of calls, Schaffer said Inmate Calling Solutions decides the rates, which are locked in until the contract with ICS expires this December.

"Nothing really can be changed as long as that contract is in place," Schaffer said.

___ (c)2014 The Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, Wis.) Visit The Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, Wis.) at Distributed by MCT Information Services

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