LANSING, Mich. —
The Ionia County jail charges $21.99 for a 15-minute phone call from an inmate. At the Eaton County Jail, it's $15.42. In Ingham County, it's $13.65.
Most county jails in mid-Michigan charge sky high rates for phone calls from inmates, costs borne by the family members and friends on the receiving end.
Much of the money from those calls go right back into the jails' budgets.
Local sheriffs say the companies that provide phone service to the jails provide other essential services, like monitoring inmate phone calls. They say the calls pay for amenities like holiday parties, classes, and church services.
Advocates say it amounts to an added fine that no judge gets to rule on.
“When I was locked up from age 18 to 28 I watched the extreme financial burdens [on my family] in regards to the high costs of inmate or prison phone calls, it’s just insane,” said Aaron Kinzel, the executive director of the Youth Justice Fund. “I feel like it’s almost like a secondary sentence that’s not even really placed on the individual who committed the crime but the family, friends, and loved ones who are spending 50 cents, a dollar per minute sometimes.”
In mid-Michigan counties like Ingham, Clinton, Livingston and Jackson the price for inmates to make phone calls range from $.21 to $.97 cents per minute.
Some county jails also charge minimum fees or high prices for the first minute on the phone. The Ionia County Correctional Center, for instance, charges a $5.95 minimum. The Clinton County Jail charges a one-time $3.91 connection fee.
It can add up quickly.
Mike McKenney makes frequent phone calls to a man he mentors inside the Jackson County Jail.
“It turned out it was somewhere around $15 dollars for a 15-minute phone call," he said. "Well, you can’t accomplish much in 15 minutes."
Many people held at these jails have not been convicted and are being held before their trial or until they can make bail. McKenney said that the families of inmates are often the ones who can least afford to pay high prices just to talk with their loved ones.
“What happens is, at least from my experience with these families that were involved with this guy is that they have to go into debt in order to make that work,” he said. “That really could not happen so he did not have contact with his own family.”
The prices of phone calls at prisons have gone down in recent years because of caps on the cost of prison phone calls imposed by the Federal Communication Commission and new legislation. Those reforms have yet to reach county and city-run jails.
Jails get a percentage of the money paid to the companies that provide phone services like Securus or ICSolutions. In some cases, they get most of it. Ionia County, for example, receives a 70 percent commission for all calls made from its jail.
Sheriff Gary Schuette in Jackson County said it’s important to use calling services like Securus and ICSolutions for safety.
“It's really important for us to be able to monitor the calls because there's all sorts of things that occur as a result of inmates talking with people on the outside,” he said. “Now, it could involve escape plans that could involve witness intimidation, things of that nature.”
Wanda Bertram who works with the Prison Policy Initiative said that's now what's driving the costs.
“It does not actually have to do with the overhead costs of providing a prison or jail with telephone service,” she said.
The Prison Policy Initiative has been researching the cost of inmate phone calls for the past several years. The nonprofit says the calls are so pricey because of the money that goes to jails.
“Yes, there are overhead costs but they don’t justify the amounts that these companies are charging,” Bertram said. “A key part of the bids [phone companies] send to jails is a part where they say ‘we will kick back X percent of the revenue to you,’ the jail or prison.”
The payments vary between facilities. The Jackson County Jail, for instance, receives a 60 percent of phone call revenues under their contract with Securus Technologies. They also received a $75,000 signing bonus for their first year in contract with the calling service according to documents released in response to a FOIA request submitted by Fox 47.
Jackson County Jail charges $12.24 for a 15-minute phone call. Schuette acknowledged that the price jails charge is significantly higher than the cost to monitor calls.
“I don't feel that that is appropriate,” he said. “I want people to be able to have access to their family, to their clergy, to their attorneys. I still want to be able to make sure that we're safe and the facility is secure and we're doing the best that we can to ensure that that safety continues.”
Other jails see those payments as essential funding.
“These dollars pay for our jail teacher who provides a plethora of services. The funds also cover supplies for her. It pays for our TVs and cable bill,” said Livingston County Sheriff Mike Murphy. His jail charges only $3.15 for a 15-minute phone call. The money also goes towards buying supplies for Narcotics Anonymous, Alcoholics Anonymous and church services in the jail.
“We also host Christmas in the jail and provide pop, pizza and candy with these dollars. So… as you can see, the inmates are essentially funding themselves to some degree,” he said.
McKenney pointed out that it’s not the inmates funding themselves but rather their families. Additionally, he said, being cut off from family members can contribute to recidivism.
“More than that is the idea that’s just not the way you treat people,” he said. “It doesn’t matter that they’ve made mistakes, we all have. But you don’t treat people as if they don’t deserve to be communicated with and to be loved and to be provided for.”
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