Jail phone sys­tem an­other tax on poor

The Commercial Appeal - - Viewpoint -

Ev­ery time a par­ent or child talks on the phone to a loved in the Shelby County Jail, a hedge fund in New York makes more money. So does Shelby County gov­ern­ment.

As The Com­mer­cial Ap­peal’s Sarah Macaraeg re­ported, Shelby County gov­ern­ment receives at least $1 mil­lion a year (3.7 cents per call) in “com­mis­sion” kick­backs from Global Tel, the cor­po­ra­tion that pro­vides in­mate call­ing ser­vices here.

Global Tel, the na­tion’s largest such provider, and its hedge fund own­ers make three triple that -- by charg­ing in­mates and their fam­i­lies 10-cents a minute per call (2-3 times com­mer­cial rates) in ad­di­tion to ser­vice fees. There’s also a Fed­eral Univer­sal Ser­vice Fund fee of 18.2 per­cent.

That’s preda­tory pric­ing -- prey­ing on the poor.

Nearly all of the peo­ple locked up in Shelby County jails have not been con­victed of crimes. Many are there be­cause they can’t af­ford bails un­der $5,000.

And Global Tel is the only provider of in­mate call­ing ser­vices at the four Shelby County de­ten­tion fa­cil­i­ties, which in­clude Ju­ve­nile Court, Jail East and 201 Po­plar.

“I hate to use the word, but it’s racket,” Vi­nessa Brown, co-founder of Life­Line to Suc­cess ex-offender pro­gram, told Macaraeg.

Brown was talk­ing about the en­tire for-profit pri­son in­dus­trial com­plex, which plays a ma­jor role in main­tain­ing Shelby County’s re­lent­lessly high poverty rate. The jail phone sys­tem is a per­fect ex­am­ple of it.

Jail in­mates are al­lowed to make col­lect calls to any­one will­ing to ac­cept the charges. Global Tel pro­vides pre­paid ac­counts that al­low in­mates to make di­rect calls to fam­ily, friends, their lawyers.

Ev­ery time a mother or spouse or child adds any amount to their ac­count, Global Tel deducts a ser­vice fee up to $5.95.

Un­til the 1990’s, in­mates could call their fam­ily mem­bers and lawyers at rates sim­i­lar to other con­sumers. Since then, in­mate call­ing sys­tem has be­come a $1.2 bil­lion-a-year in­dus­try dom­i­nated by hedge funds.

In 2014, the Fed­eral Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Com­mis­sion (FCC) tried to rein in the preda­tory pric­ing by capping out-of­s­tate phone calls at 25 cents per minute. The pri­son phone com­pa­nies just raised their in-state rates and ap­pealed.

“In my 16 years as a reg­u­la­tor, this is the clear­est, most egre­gious case of mar­ket fail­ure I have seen,” the FCC’s Mignon Cly­burn said at the time. The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has de­clined to fol­low up.

For­tu­nately, county gov­ern­ment’s new lead­er­ship is look­ing into the price­goug­ing here.

County Mayor Lee Har­ris and Com­mis­sioner Tami Sawyer, chair of the Law En­force­ment, Cor­rec­tions and Courts com­mit­tee, are re­view­ing Global Tel’s con­tracts (which has ter­mi­na­tion clauses), as well as other pri­vate con­trac­tors that pro­vide in­mate ser­vices at ex­or­bi­tant rates.

“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 said. Stud­ies show that chil­dren of in­car­cer­ated par­ents do bet­ter in school and life when they can talk to them reg­u­larly.

Other states have found com­mon sense ways to un­bur­den fam­ily mem­bers and friends who pay for the calls. Michi­gan elim­i­nated the ser­vice fees. Texas slashed rates to 6 cents a minute. In New York City, jail­house calls will soon be free.

It’s en­cour­ag­ing to see Shelby County lead­ers look­ing for and find­ing com­mon sense ways to be­gin to dis­man­tle the pri­son in­dus­trial com­plex.

Hun­dreds of non­vi­o­lent of­fend­ers are be­ing kept in the Shelby County Jail for fail­ure to ap­pear in court, or pay court costs or bail, or for driv­ing with sus­pended li­censes.

Begin­ning in Jan­uary, peo­ple with traf­fic and other mis­de­meanor ci­ta­tions will have to re­port to court only once in­stead of twice. And the dis­trict at­tor­ney’s of­fice has stopped pros­e­cut­ing the thou­sands of cases of sus­pended or re­voked li­cense.

Lo­cal re­form advocates like Just City’s Josh Spick­ler are push­ing to end the cash bond sys­tem, which has turned our jails into debtors’ pris­ons.

“Wealth should have noth­ing to do with who sits in jail,” Spick­ler said re­cently.

Nor which child gets to see or talk to her par­ent.

View­point Ed­i­tor David Waters wrote this ed­i­to­rial on be­half of The Com­mer­cial Ap­peal Ed­i­to­rial Board, which also in­cludes Pres­i­dent Mike Jung, Ex­ec­u­tive Ed­i­tor Mark Rus­sell, Colum­nists Tonyaa Weathers­bee and Ted Evanoff, and Dig­i­tal Strate­gist Dann Miller.

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