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Harris County may consider cutting inmate phone costs

August 31, 2018

Days after the Texas prison system drastically slashed the cost of inmate phone calls, Harris County is already toying with the idea of following suit.

The possibility of reevaluating the current jail calling contract came up at the last Harris County Commissioners Court meeting, where local elected officials agreed - at the passionate urging of attorney Drew Willey - to revisit the existing arrangement, a suggestion that drew support from local activists, lawmakers and defense lawyers.

“It’s about time,” said Doug Murphy, president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association.

Under the current arrangement, phone calls to the outside world cost 20 cents per minute, more than three times as much as in the state prison system under the new rate structure there. It was those lower figures in lock-ups across the state that reinvigorated discussion locally, though inmate advocates have railed against high phone costs for years.

For years, inmate advocates have railed against the high cost of jail phone calls, which have exceeded $1 per minute in some correctional systems. Under the Obama administration, inmates and their families seemed poised to gain ground when the Federal Communications Commission put forth a new rule that would have capped the costs at 11 cents per minute. Last year, though, a federal court struck down the proposal.

But the state stepped up to the plate anyway, drawing laudits from watchdog groups when the nine-member Texas Board of Criminal Justice voted to approve a new contract cutting the calling cost for state prison inmates by roughly 75 percent, down to 6 cents per minute.

The new rates in the state’s 104 prisons haven’t taken effect yet - the contract starts Saturday - but the move quickly inspired Willey to renew the push for change at the local level, where more than 9,000 inmates struggle to stay in touch with friends, families and the attorneys handling their cases.

The Houston defense attorney showed up at the commissioners court meeting armed with information about current calling rates, newspaper articles detailing the state-level changes, and passionate quotes about the value of cutting fees.

“Ultimately, these charges are a tax on our poor families whose loved ones are incarcerated,” Willey said Tuesday. “And not only is the ability to communicate with loved ones for families and prisoners a fundamental right, it’s also smart policy. Research has showed that when inmates are able to communicate with their families, recidivism is reduced and reentry is aided, which ultimately makes our community safer.”

The suggestion to revisit the topic was met with support from commissioners - who asked for a report and agreed to put it on a future agenda - and from the Harris County Sheriff’s Office.

“We’re on board with a review happening to make sure that the system that we have in place is the best value for taxpayers and for the inmates that are using it,” said sheriff’s office spokesman Jason Spencer.

The current contract was put in place in 2010, as a five-year agreement with options to renew for three years at a time. In addition to a $6.95 account set-up fee, families pay a little under 20 cents a minute to receive calls from incarcerated loved ones, the county said. Seventy percent of the revenue comes back to the county, drawing between $3.5 million and $4 million into local coffers in recent years, according to local officials.

“It’s become part of their revenue stream and they just don’t worry about the consequences,” said state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, who last week applauded the state prison system for cutting rates there. “It’s been a problem from day one. The county does need to do something about that.”

But in order to make a quick change locally, both the county and the contractor - Securus, a major phone provider for jails and prisons - would both have to agree to amend the existing contract. Otherwise, the existing agreement won’t expire until 2021.

“When I became aware TDCJ had done that last week,” said Michael Allen of End Mass Incarceration Houston, “I was just amazed at the atmosphere of justice prevailed and the fact that Harris County could follow suit is an amazing development.”

Tarsha Jackson, a Harris County director for the nonprofit Texas Organizing Project, called it a “good move” to put the item on the agenda for discussion.

And, some advocates and attorneys contended, cutting phone costs could save money in the long run if it reduces recidivism.

“Some people that are in jail are not actually guilty and a lot of them are still waiting for their day in court,” said public defender Jackie Carpenter. “For them to have access or more access or cheaper access to their family and friends helps keep them more sane and less rowdy. I think it helps make the conditions at the jail more livable and suitable and ultimately if someone is guilty, the idea is to rehabilitate them and help them reenter society.”

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