Sheriffs Are Raking In Millions In Prison Phone Fees And Some Really Don't Want To Talk About It

from the cashing-in-on-people-with-nowhere-else-to-go dept

MuckRock is currently conducting a public records survey of prison telephone contracts. What it has secured so far will shock you, but only if you haven't been paying attention. There's nothing like a captive audience, and prisoners are the most captive of all. There's one way out via telephone and its routed through mercenary companies and the law enforcement agencies that love them.

Why so much law enforcement love for telcos specializing in prison phones? Because money buys a lot of love.

A recently-released contract for prison phone services in Bartow County, Georgia shows that the County receives a commission of 77% from its current provider of inmate communications, ICSolutions.

And it's not 77% of some small amount. In this agreement, phones calls are $0.16/minute and billing for calls involves fees of $3-6 for payment processing. The contract is so profitable for both ICS and the sheriff's department that ICS installs the system for free and provides the county with $225,000 in grants in exchange for an auto-renewing contract that helps lock out competitors. In addition, the county collects 50% of video visitation and "inmate tablet usage" fees.

This may be at the low end of prison phone contracts, as far as commissions go. Other records obtained by MuckRock show government agencies angling for higher percentages and larger payouts. The Bristol County Sheriff's Office sent out a handful of proposals with demands for anywhere from 58-72% of call revenue. Depending on contractor, the department would make $2-4 per call, along with a cut of other communications services provided by contractors. The end result is more than $2 million a year flowing directly from prisoners (and their families) into county coffers. Unsurprisingly, this sheriff's department is being sued for its high-cost prison phone system.

Also unsurprising is the fact those profiting from these agreements are reluctant to talk about them. Beryl Lipton reports one sheriff's department is seeking to withhold documents by deploying a dubious public records exemption.

According to the Laramie County Sheriff’s Department in Wyoming, a request for its contract with inmate phone service provider Inmate Calling Solutions (ICSolutions) cannot be made public because the agreement itself is consider a “trade secret.”

The letter from the county attorney's office claims the agreement between the sheriff and ICS prevents the documents from being released. Supposedly, the wording says the entire agreement is "confidential" or a "trade secret" (the attorney's letter doesn't specify which). Even if true, private companies can't do business with government entities and expect all of their documentation to remain out of the public eye. If the wording is similar in other ICS contracts, it hasn't stopped multiple government agencies from turning over copies of their contracts with the company to records requesters. This appears to be a case of someone at the county level finding a loophole to keep requesters from finding out just how much the local sheriff is making on prison phone calls.


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  • icon
    discordian_eris (profile), 4 Jun 2018 @ 4:17am

    If you're going to go full corruption, why bother hiding it? Let everyone know your good fortune!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 4 Jun 2018 @ 5:08am

      Re:

      They're not at the point where they can pull it off without significant resources and clout to mitigate the potential public relations backlash.

      Now if it was Trump doing it you can bet he'd be going the whole hog about it...

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      MathFox, 4 Jun 2018 @ 7:07am

      Re:

      Why do you call corruption? The sheriff is just recouping the investment he made in his election campaign. :-/

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 4 Jun 2018 @ 4:23am

    Why so much law enforcement love for telcos specializing in prison phones?

    Because many LEO's have a morose viewpoint that inmates are animals who are to be treated as horribly and sub-humanly as possible.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 4 Jun 2018 @ 4:43am

    ....Supposedly, the wording says the entire agreement is "confidential" or a "trade secret"


    Such a weak argument. Sounds like this attorney is just phoning it in.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    JoeDetroit (profile), 4 Jun 2018 @ 5:17am

    Who does this hurt?

    Who does this hurt? Directly: the families & loved ones of the inmates. $50 to talk for under 15 minutes. These are the people, likely the only people that can provide support when the inmate gets released.

    Indirectly: all of us. Recidivism. In my opinion, one of the first lines of defense against recidivism is family support on release.

    This is very stupid policy & one that could be easily fixed.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 4 Jun 2018 @ 5:41am

    >*"$50 to talk for under 15 minutes."*

    The rate listed in this case is $0.16/minute, which seems like an exceptionally cheap rate for a prison. The $50/15min call seems like the more traditional prison price that people often complain about. There were also other limitations as well, such as the call being made to a (land line) telephone that could accept collect calls.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      JoeDetroit (profile), 4 Jun 2018 @ 5:07pm

      Re:

      Anecdotal: $50 for 15 mins is what I paid for a relative in California State corrections. Collect call, a 15 min time limit & it always cost $50. This was over 10 years ago.

      However, talking with her, she convinced me to pay for a training in a field that she claimed would get her a job on the outside. I paid, she did the training, after release it took a while, but she got a job.

      She has excelled in the field, has had additional training, & has had a number of promotions. She bought a house, got her kids with her now, & is doing extremely well. She even paid me back some of the money (not that I wanted it).

      External family support worked very well for her. All together I likely spent more than $500 on phone calls.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 4 Jun 2018 @ 5:42am

    Prison or Jail?

    I'm curious if you are actually talking about prisons or jails in this article?

    In my state, most Prisons are run by the state, but county jails are run by the local Sheriff Department.

    What makes this even more heinous than some of the commenters realize is that many people held in a jail are still awaiting trial, so they are supposed to be assumed to be innocent.

    How we justify denying physical visits, and charging rediculous amounts for communications for those who are supposed to be assumed innocent is sickening.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      That Anonymous Coward (profile), 4 Jun 2018 @ 6:09am

      Re: Prison or Jail?

      C. All of the above.

      Denying physical visits allows them to cut back on staff & keep them more isolated so they act out more. They like to talk how it keeps everyone safer, but much like the cop who bought a $750K house using the food budget its to line pockets.

      There is also the company that was illegally recording & providing call recordings of discussions with their lawyers & leaked that out once or twice. (They recently got hacked, my heart (if I had one) would bleed for them).

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 4 Jun 2018 @ 6:14am

      Re: Prison or Jail?

      Sigh. WHY is the Internet full of pedants? Do you feel smarter now you mainsplained the difference between prisons and jails?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 4 Jun 2018 @ 6:28am

      Re: Prison or Jail?

      Basically it's 'prison' in the colloquial sense (though not necessarily the legal sense). Traditionally a jail's main purpose was to hold an arrestee for a day or so until his bail was paid, while people found guilty of crimes were sent to a penitentiary where they would perform penance. As the routine and ubiquitous practice of flogging came to be looked down upon, it seems that jails had to be expanded to carry out the short detention sentences that replaced flogging.

      As I understand it, telephone calls made by an arrestee after being booked into a jail are free as well as private, unlike a convicted prison(jail) inmate.

      Anyway, as 'prison' and 'jail' are basically synonyms, I'd like to know why adding the "-er" suffix turns them into antonyms.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 4 Jun 2018 @ 6:38am

        Re: Re: Prison or Jail?

        "As I understand it, telephone calls made by an arrestee after being booked into a jail are free as well as private, unlike a convicted prison(jail) inmate."

        where do you live?

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 4 Jun 2018 @ 6:58am

        Re: Re: Prison or Jail?

        Your understanding of the whole thing is as wrong as wrong can be. I am not aware of any jail that provides free, unmonitored phone calls.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 4 Jun 2018 @ 7:25am

          Re: Re: Re: Prison or Jail?

          So you mean that first phone call you make, to your lawyer, after getting arrested is neither free nor private?

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • icon
            JoeCool (profile), 4 Jun 2018 @ 7:39am

            Re: Re: Re: Re: Prison or Jail?

            In many states, it is not. You can make the call collect, but that is not the same as free. They also monitor all phones unless your lawyer makes special arrangements for an unmonitored phone to discuss the case with a client they can't meet in person.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

            • identicon
              Anonymous Coward, 4 Jun 2018 @ 8:31am

              Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Prison or Jail?

              In that case, I'll have to do a better job erasing from my memory all those old TV police/detective shows I grew up watching (who would have ever guessed that Hollywood TV shows we were raised on would turn out to be so removed from reality?).

              reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

              • icon
                JoeCool (profile), 4 Jun 2018 @ 8:45am

                Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Prison or Jail?

                TV and movies getting real life wrong?! SHOCKER!! :) Yes, TV and movies lie about police/detective shows all the time. Things like when they read you your rights, getting to make your calls (and yes, you're allowed more than ONE call), and many many other things. The funniest thing people see on TV they think is true is that if you ask someone if they're a police officer, they HAVE to tell you the truth or your case gets thrown out. :D

                reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

                • identicon
                  Anonymous Coward, 4 Jun 2018 @ 9:16am

                  Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Prison or Jail?

                  TV cops would always tell people "You're under arrest" while I've yet to see a single Youtube video of any real cop actually saying those words to anyone before handcuffing them. Instead they angrily tell people to (at best) turn around. Now, anyone who grew up on the mean streets of just about anywhere would know that you must never NEVER EVER turn around when someone is mad at you. I learned that lesson before I turned 10, though after getting probably the worst beating in my life.

                  reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

              • identicon
                John Smith, 4 Jun 2018 @ 8:55am

                Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Prison or Jail?

                Well on Blue Bloods Frank said you actually get three calls, but they let the suspects dial up everyone as that gives them more leads.

                Surely they get an e-mail.

                reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      John Smith, 4 Jun 2018 @ 8:49am

      Re: Prison or Jail?

      Looks like some of the hospital administrators have changed industry, though the prison rates are cheaper. Getting sick can be worse of a "crime" with regards to this.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), 4 Jun 2018 @ 6:16am

    "the wording says the entire agreement is "confidential" or a "trade secret""

    I hope they take the route the FBI prefers for questions about the Stingrays & drops the program to avoid talking about the program.

    The really funny thing is we keep hearing about how budgets are tight & they need civil asset forfeiture to keep the department running... yet many of them have these sick contracts that should be helping defray costs... funny how it never is enough.

    We are not happy with prison sentences, we demand they be made to suffer above & beyond... then we are shocked just shocked that when they get out we won't hire them, won't offer training, won't assist them, try to pretend we have rights to keep inflicting demands upon them and then they just give up & break the law again costing all of us much money to house them because no matter what we claim redemption is not possible & they deserve to be punished until they die.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 4 Jun 2018 @ 6:41am

    Once in the 'system' always in the system.

    Isolate, demean, dehumanize Beat, punish repeat.
    Push them down to the point where all hope is lost and force their humanity from them, turn them into animals suitable to only live in the system.

    New laws are passed every day, the rich get richer the poor get pushed into the system.

    They are coming for you.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 4 Jun 2018 @ 6:57am

    Prisoners have limited constitutional rights

    So, bypass the constitution by incarcerating all but the elite and rich, simple.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 4 Jun 2018 @ 7:01am

      Re: Prisoners have limited constitutional rights

      Perfect logic for those wishing for a bloody revolution.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 4 Jun 2018 @ 10:42am

      Re: Prisoners have limited constitutional rights

      It's been done before. After slavery was abolished, prison labor was used for many of the same purposes, and many of the prisoners providing free labor were --you guessed it-- former slaves. For example, the state Capitol building of Texas built in the 1880s.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 4 Jun 2018 @ 7:32am

    I don't understand...

    It seems like a bad idea to have a for-profit prison system. It would lead to perverse incentives, where the prisons have every reason to take in as many prisoners as they can, and to minimize their costs at the prisoners' expense.

    And, if you can't get enough prisoners, your only recourse would be to pay a politician a whole lot of money to adopt a "tough on crime" position to create more criminals, and...

    Oh, wait, I see why certain people would think it's a good idea now. Never mind.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 4 Jun 2018 @ 12:23pm

    Easy fix

    'Any contract between a government and private company that involves members of the public, indirectly or not, shall be available to the public so that it can be checked and read. Refusal to do so will instantly nullify any such contract and acting as though it was still in force will be treated as a criminal offense.'

    Might need some fine-tuning, but at this point I have zero patience for government agencies claiming they can screw people over and hide the paperwork via some 'trade secret' or 'NDA' crap. If it impacts the public then they damn well should be required to present the paperwork involved.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 4 Jun 2018 @ 1:45pm

    Don't worry

    Don't worry, the FCC just remove some proposed reforms of the prison phone system - so obviously the free market will now correct things and prices will plummet. /s

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 Jun 2018 @ 5:37pm

    Money talks for them.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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