New Report Analyzes Phone Call Costs At County Jails, Finds Wyoming County Among Priciest

February 11, 2019

Inmates locked up in county jails sometimes pay a high price to make phone calls, especially in Wyoming County, according to a report released today.

An inmate’s 15-minute phone call from the Wyoming County Correctional Institution costs $12.20, according to an analysis by the nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative. That’s the highest of 60 mostly county-run Pennsylvania jails the organization explored as part of its most recent report on the prison telephone industry.

PPI, a Massachusetts-based public policy think tank, notes the average telephone rate in local Pennsylvania jails, generally run by counties or cities, is 4.4 times higher than that of state prisons. Among jails run by local governments, telephone rates vary widely. At the Susquehanna County Correctional Facility, for example, a 15-minute phone call costs just 54 cents — the lowest cost of any of the 60 institutions PPI probed.

The cost of 15-minute calls at other Northeast Pennsylvania jails included in the report are:

n Monroe County Correctional Facility: $4.75.

n Lackawanna County Prison: $3.15.

n Luzerne County Correctional Facility: $2.40.

The report did not include Pike or Wayne facilities.

Contract commissions

Part of the reason phone rates at local jails are significantly higher on average than at state institutions is that telephone providers “bait prisons and jails into charging high phone rates in exchange for a share of the revenue,” according to PPI’s report,

While high phone rates and fees can be financially onerous and make it difficult for inmates to contact family members and others, Wyoming County dedicates the money it makes as commission on its prison phone contract to provide services for those behind bars there.

Wyoming County officials in August 2018 approved a seven-year agreement with Texas-based Securus Technologies for phone service at the jail, which has a capacity of about 70 inmates. The agreement guarantees Wyoming County a $20,000 annual commission, which amounts to about $140,000 over the term of the deal.

“Every penny” of that commission is deposited into an audited “inmate welfare account,” Commissioner Tom Henry said.

A range of inmate services are paid from that account, including GED classes, a drug and alcohol program and a reentry programs. Other expenses paid from the fund include hygiene supplies, newspapers, inmate haircuts, sports equipment, cable television and more, Henry said, noting the high cost of the phone calls comes up often.

“I know that it sounds extremely high, but I want people to know the reason we justify that is because we give it back to the inmates,” he said.

As of Monday, the balance in the inmate welfare account is almost $43,651. Inmate’s calls to their lawyers are free, Henry said.

Susquehanna County, where inmates in the county jail enjoy the lowest phone rate of any of the jails in PPI’s report at just 54 cents per call, does not receive a commission under its contract with Virginia-based Global Tel Link, county Chief Clerk Martin Kane wrote in an email. The contract, signed in August 2016, is in effect until December 2020, he said.

Lackawanna County

Lackawanna County’s 2017 telecommunications contract with GTL set the rate for local and long-distance collect calls from the county jail at 21 cents per minute, which is a 16 percent reduction from the 2016 rates.

That’s much cheaper than at the significantly smaller Wyoming County jail, where PPI found the first minute of a call costs $2.68 and each additional minute costs 68 cents.

Lackawanna’s contract also guaranteed the county an upfront supplemental payment of $750,000 from GTL, and monthly payments of at least $37,000 for the three-year deal. That money went to the county’s general fund.

Of the 60 facilities PPI explored, Lackawanna County Prison’s $3.15 cost for a 15-minute call ranked 39th.

While inmates have complained of high phone rates in the past, LCP Warden Tim Betti said he hasn’t heard any such complaints since the 2017 GTL contract went into effect.

“I can honestly tell you that I haven’t,” he said. “Nothing’s gotten to my level.”

Contact the writer: jhorvath@timesshamrock.com; 570-348-9141; @jhorvathTT on Twitter





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