JACKSON, Mich. — Inmates at the Jackson County Jail soon will pay a lot less to call their friends and families. The Jackson County Office of the Sheriff switched to a new technology provider that charges far lower rates for outside calls and offers other features as well.
“The inmates and their families are going to have more access to one another. That makes that a lot easier. In fact, there’s 24 hour visitation possible through video on the tablets. They’re going to have more access and greater access because the phones are going to be cheaper,” Jackson County Sheriff Gary Schuette said.
The Board of Commissioners approved the five-year contract in November. Phone call rates will drop from 75 cents per minute to 19 cents per minute. That means an 15 minute phone call from an incarcerated person would go from $11.25 to $2.85.
“I’m glad to hear it,” Prison Policy Initiative Communications Strategist Wanda Bertram said. "You make something cheaper, people are going to avail themselves more. So you might see more phone calls, and a net revenue, increase or decrease of zero. We don’t really know about that.”
She believes it’s good for the incarcerated people and their families but says the county can still do better.
“We really need these calls to be free. We need private companies to not be making money off of the misery and lack of connection between people who are in jail and the people that love them,” she said.
Youth Justice Fund Executive Director Aaron Kinzel once spent 16 months in jail. He says these phone calls can get expensive.
“When I came home from prison, looked at some of the phone bills that my grandparents had, it was annually a few thousand dollars,” Kinzel said. “They were paying at a minimum $500 a month, sometimes $600 or $700 for me just to stay in basic contact with them. I wasn’t even really calling that much maybe two, three times a week.”
But, what does this actually mean for a family of an incarcerated person?
“We’re hearing that families are having to choose between paying the money to stay in touch with their loved one in jail, and paying the mortgage or making the car payment, paying for insurance,” Bertram said. “I heard from a woman in Wisconsin recently who said, ‘I took a second [mortgage] so I could afford to stay in touch with my loved one who’s incarcerated”
Schuette said he looks at it as almost as a fundamental right as inmates have to “access their family, their clergy and their attorney in order to maintain calm while in here.”
“This is an anxiety ridden environment," he said. "It’s not like a prison where everybody has been sentenced. This is an environment where they haven’t been found guilty yet so there’s a lot of things they are very concerned about and they’re worried over. They need to talk that staff through.”
That's something Kinzel agrees with.
“Nineteen cents a minute, which is dramatically lower than a lot of other places, I think that’s a good start," he said. "I definitely want to give them kudos for that, but more can be done. I think it needs to just be out there in the public’s eye that this something that’s devastating families. Would you want to lose contact with your brother or your sister or have to pay a few hundred or $1,000 a month to stay in touch with them? It’s just totally ridiculous.”
Schuette said this should provide some stability to individuals who may need it.
“If they don’t have that ability they act out in many different ways which makes it very difficult on my deputies here. It causes havoc inside the facility. It can cause people to get hurt. So, it’s really important they have that access. Plus, it just seems wrong to overcharge people that are in here and literally our captive audience,” Schuette said.
Smart Communications will give equipment to the Office of the Sheriff that will monitor their mail.
“Just last week we had mail come into the facility that had suboxone, an opiate derivative, in it hidden under a stamp," he said. "That creates problems when we do our mail call, obviously, and we pass this out to our inmates. It’s a way contraband can come into the facility. What we’re going to do with Smart is all of our mail will go directly to them. They’ll take the mail. They’ll scan it. We’ll get a copy of all of the mail and then we’ll be able to disperse that to the inmates in a much more safer fashion."
It also has voice activation software which will help with safety, in Schuette’s words, by giving the Office of the Sheriff the ability to look into phone calls in a deeper fashion by using that voice recognition software instead of a phone card which will cut down on investigative time.
“That phone card was a number that was assigned to a particular inmate and, then when we wanted to know if that inmate was making phone calls out that might be threatening to witnesses on the outside, we’d have to look for that particular phone number. Now, we can just use the voice pattern recognition software and we know that, if he is using somebody else’s card, we can still make a determination as to whether or not he’s actually reaching out to try and harm witnesses or try and harm somebody on the outside.”
Kinzel understands that monitoring is necessary but said the high price tags on using systems needs to come to an end. He'd like to see state and federal laws that would mandate that.
“Things now with mobile cellular networks and everything like that are much cheaper," he said. "There could be really huge deals where we can dramatically increase or decrease the cost of these calls.”
Smart Communications will be giving the Office of the Sheriff $300,000 a year. The first year that money is going to be up front and then the following years it will be $25,000 a month until it is paid. That money will then go back into their jail fund that will be used for various things inside of the jails and will use it to pay for overtime for jail employees, according to Schuette.
Bertram believes lowering the price of a phone call is a good start but said counties should structure these deals so they don't make a profit.
“Let the county say we’re not going to take a cut of the money. In fact, Dallas just did that. They got the phone rates in Dallas County jails to about one cent per minute. So, if you want to make a phone call from a Dallas county jail now for 15 minutes, it’s going to cost you about 15 cents. Now, that’s still making money for the companies but it’s not making money for the county. That county is going to have to make up that revenue elsewhere and I know they have found a way to do that,” she said.
Smart Communications will also charge 15 cents per minute for video visitation rates, one cent per minute to use tablets and two free weekly e-messages and then 50 cents per message afterwards.
The changeover could take several months.
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