Flagpole magazine published a column this week by A4E’s Tim Denson on the ‘Inmate Phone System’ contract that was recently passed by Athens-Clarke County Unified Government. Please read the Flagpole piece here (edited by Chris Dowd with graphics by Jennifer Denson). Below, you can find the full, unedited piece by Tim Denson that goes into even more detail about the situation:
ACC Shouldn’t Be Profitting Off of Inmate Phone Calls by Tim Denson
At this past September’s Athens-Clarke County Mayor & Commission meeting, the County Commission voted on a contract that would bring in $1.25 million dollars in revenue over the next 5 years. No public funding would be necessary and almost all labor would be provided at no cost to the County. When it came time to vote, 8 of the 9 Commissioners present voted in favor of the contract and chose to keep in place a very harmful policy that profits off of individuals, and their families who have the misfortune of being incarcerated in our County Jail, guilty or not.
Athens-Clarke County is not doing this by itself, the Clarke County Jail outsources its inmate phone service to private prison companies, currently Securus Tech, inc.. When an inmate makes a telephone call the company charges fees to the caller and/or callee, takes a percentage for itself, and then kicks back a “commission” to the county. County Manager Alan Reddish says, “It’s a practice we’ve been following in this community for many years.”
The specific contract passed last month gives Clarke County an exceptionally high “commission” of 80%, meaning that the County takes 80% of the money collected from each call. It is predicted that inmate telephone calls will bring in $300,000 a year on average; Securus Tech will take 20% of that, or $50,000, for its services and will then give Athens-Clarke County $250,000. That’s the kind of markup you can expect from ticket scalpers selling UGA-Tech tickets. This does not include a separate contract that ACCUG has with Securus Tech to offer inmate phone services to the rarely spoken of Clarke County Corrections Institution, where up to 121 adult male felons are held. That contract includes higher fees imposed on inmates and families for calls, but only a 61% commission to the County. Revenue, no matter how badly needed, should never be raised in such a way and at such an exorbitant cost.
Even worse is that a majority of this $1.25 million dollars will be coming from Clarke County residents who happen to be part of the 38% of our County population struggling under the poverty line. You see, nationally 53% of individuals arrested are already in poverty (I presume this to be higher in ACC). Since people above the poverty line that are arrested can afford to pay bail and be released, 80% of people who fill jails are in, or close to, poverty. The phone calls are being made by the people who are in jail, not the ones who had the money to get out. Minutes turn to hours, hours turn to days, days turn to weeks, and these people unable to pay bail sit in cells awaiting their trial. Once this cycle of jail to poverty to jail starts it can be hard to break. They are sitting in a jail cell being presumed innocent as they are punished financially, physically, and emotionally for a crime they have not necessarily been found guilty of.
As of January 2015, 72% of the people in Clarke County Jail were there awaiting their trial, many of them supposedly still presumed innocent and there because they are unable to afford bail. A person with enough money for bail can be arrested, out of jail within hours, making phone calls with whatever service they choose, awaiting justice in the comfort of their own home.
It is not difficult to see that there is something morally wrong with making money off of people you are holding captive. County Commissioner Andy Herod noted, “There does seem to be something distasteful about making a quarter of a million dollars off of phone calls from inmates at the jail” right before he voted to approve the contract to Securus Tech.
Commissioner Sharyn Dickerson gave a justification for her Yes vote in a way I heard from many County officials when she said, “Maybe this isn’t the best way to handle the inmate (phone) call situation but, you know, this isn’t something that we’re doing that nobody else isn’t doing”. If a person on trial defended themselves by saying “Everyone else does it” and “I’ve always done it” they would probably be sentenced to a jail that would profit off of their phone calls to their mother.
The other argument made by many County officials is that “the jail is expensive”. That is true, but not because of phone calls. The jail is so expensive because our nation, state, and county have seen huge growths in the number of people held in jails and prisons. Over just the last 30 years, the number of people being incarcerated nationally has increased by 500%. The war on drugs, rise of private prisons, and policies that punish poverty with jail time have all contributed to this increase in incarceration. If we want to lower the $11 million dollar operational budget of our County Jail we should continue to look at ways to jail fewer people, not make money off of people in jail.
County officials are quick to point out that Securus Tech offered much lower call and fee rates with this contract than compared to previous contracts. This is certainly true and I was confused why a profit-driven private prison corporation would all of a sudden offer it’s services at these lower rates. The kindness of its heart? To mend their ways? More likely it’s because the Federal Communications Commission will very possibly be handing down a ruling on October 22 capping these inmate phone fees and rates to numbers very close to the ones offered to the Clarke County Jail. This does show though, that this private-prison corporation is prepared to lower the amount of revenue it receives from inmates and inmate families, but Athens-Clarke County is simultaneously preparing to increase the amount of revenue they receive from inmate phone calls to $1.25 million dollars.
At the September Commission meeting many Commissioners seemed unfamiliar with the policy they were voting on to raise revenue from phone calls between inmates and their families. Once it was brought to the Commission’s attention I hoped that the item would at least be tabled and visited the following month after more research. Unfortunately, all Commissioners except Melissa Link voted to pass the Contract as is (Commissioner Kelly Girtz was absent). We cannot let our Mayor and Commission pass policies that will actually help perpetuate systemic poverty. Our Commission should be instead passing whatever policies, such as an ACC Living Wage Policy, that will fight the income inequality and poverty our community faces.
I hope that the Mayor and Commission will look closely at how this negatively affects our community and vote to get rid of the revenue taken by the County next year. I want to be clear that I’m not advocating for the phone calls to be free and the County pay for them. I’m asking that the additional 80% cost the County is taking be ended and that callers only pay the cost of the service offered by Securus Tech. From talks to Commissioners, 5 admit that the County needs to look at changing this practice. Please, contact your Commissioner and ask them to stop raising revenue in this way.
The Mayor and Commission often hear from people of privilege about privileged-people issues like historic districts and sidewalk cafes. We people of privilege need to be just as willing, if not more so, to stand up for our neighbors whose voices are silenced with poverty, inequality, and jail cells.
The phone is ringing, answer the call.
Athens-Clarke County Commissioners who voted in favor of the Inmate Phone System contract: Harry Sims (made motion to accept Contract); Mike Hamby (seconded motion to accept conract); Allison Wright; Sharyn Dickerson; Jared Bailey; Jerry Nesmith; Diane Bell; Andy Herod
Commissioners who voted against the Inmate Phone System contract: Melissa Link
Commissioners absent: Kelly Girtzby