Article in the Tennessean.com
Tennessee makes millions when inmates call home
Originally posted: http://www.tennessean.com/article/20130805/NEWS0201/308050014/TN-prison-phone-calls-pricey-families-profitable-state?gcheck=1
When Bob Peterson’s friend at the Tennessee Prison for Women in Nashville wants to call him at his home in Michigan, it costs her $3.62 just to connect and then 62 cents for every minute they spend talking. They rack up more than $22 for a single 30-minute call, he said.
At those rates, Peterson said some families can afford to talk to imprisoned relatives only once or twice a year.
The state’s contract is with a company called Global Tel Link, one of a handful of companies that specialize in providing phone services for inmates throughout the country — and for every dollar that Global charges, the state gets a little over half.
Under the contract, the state doesn’t pay Global, and the full cost of the system is passed along to inmates and their relatives or friends. In fact, the state makes money under the contract, sharing Global’s profits. That has stirred controversy among advocacy groups for inmates and their families.
Similar arrangements nationwide have caught the attention of the Federal Communications Commission, which is considering whether to set a maximum rate for inmates’ phone calls that would apply all over the country since the states make millions.
Tennessee’s contract generates about $2.5 million a year in revenue for the state, or 50.1% of the total revenue Global collects from hundreds of Tennessee inmate customers, said Dorinda Carter, spokeswoman for the state Correction Department.
“Personally, I think they are overcharging,” said Peterson, who calls himself a reluctant customer.
Inmates are not allowed to have phones of their own, and prison officials say they need a controlled and limited system.
The phone companies contend the rates are based on actual costs. Local calls cost 90 cents, and long-distance charges vary from 45 cents a minute to the rate Peterson’s friend pays at 62 cents a minute.
Shirley Cole of Ripley, who has a relative in a state prison, said the costs can reach $100 a month, and family members end up shouldering the cost.
“It’s very expensive and the phones are really bad. Often,” she said, “they go dead.”
The state awarded Global its contract in 2008 and extended it earlier this year through December, Carter said.
Daron Hall, Davidson County sheriff, said the county also has a contract with Global Tel that expires in December. Under its agreement, 58% of the revenue goes to Metro. Over the past year, that amounted to $1.3 million, which Hall said goes into Metro’s general fund, not to the sheriff’s office.
“We don’t get any of it,” he said.
“It’s uncertain whether the department will seek bids or renew the contract,” Hall said.
“The FCC may suspend the process,” he said, and instead mandate a different system such as setting a universal charge per minute.”
For years, advocacy groups for inmates and their families have been petitioning the FCC to address prison phone system costs. The issue lay dormant for more than a decade but finally came to life when new leadership was named at the FCC, said Joseph Petro, an attorney in Washington.
Mignon Clyburn, appointed acting chairwoman of the FCC in May, commented recently on what she called “the exorbitant interstate inmate calling regime,” saying that she was proposing reform.
“Multiple studies have shown that meaningful contact beyond prison walls can make a real difference in maintaining community ties, promoting rehabilitation and reducing recidivism,” she said.
The FCC has been conducting hearings and inviting comments on proposals to set a maximum rate. Petro said his group, the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice, filed comments earlier this year.
Petro is advocating that the FCC set a benchmark of 7 cents per minute for all prison phone systems. But, who sets those rates?
One of the issues, Petro acknowledged, is whether the FCC has the legal authority to set rates for calls within a state since that is normally handled by state regulatory officials.
“We think the FCC has the authority,” Petro said.
“In Tennessee, the state regulatory authority lost its power to regulate prison telephone charges through an act of the legislature in 2009,” authority spokesman Greg Mitchell said.
In filings with the FCC, lawyers for Global and its competitors have opposed setting a national standard, stating that costs “vary from state to state,” but they declined to provide a breakdown.
“There is no justification for a one-size-fits-all rate regime for interstate inmate calling services,” Global Vice President David J. Silverman wrote in a recent filing with the FCC.
Global did not respond to a request for comment for this story.