Jail phone system another tax on poor
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.