Jail phone calls ring up big bills
November 2, 2009
Responding to complaints about the high cost of telephone service in Los Angeles County jails, the Board of Supervisors has moved to open up bidding on the multi-million dollar jail phone contract in an effort to lower the cost of calls while still providing key funding for jail programs.
The jail phone contract with the Sheriff’s Department governs the rates charged when inmates call family, friends and attorneys from the jails’ nearly 4,100 telephones. The current provider is Global Tel*Link, a privately-held Alabama firm that operates phone services in jails and prison systems nationwide, including many in Southern California.
The contract brings in about $30 million a year. The company keeps 48 percent while paying 52 percent to the Sheriff’s Department, which uses the money to help pay for inmate programs and jail maintenance.
The contract, which runs through December 2010, allows GTL to charge $3.54 for the first minute of a collect local call from the jail, making the average call of 17 minutes a $5.20 expense for the inmate families, according to a 2008 report by the county CEO’s office, prepared for the Board of Supervisors. The county initially cut the deal in 2005 with the then-SBC/AT&T, which later sold its jail business to GTL. Inmates can also buy prepaid phone cards and save 10 percent on calls, but few do.
The rates are among the highest in the region, about 10 to 30 percent above most prices paid in other county jails and many prisons nationally.
GTL says the county negotiated and approved the contract in 2005. The company says comparisons of per-call rates from one jurisdiction to another are unfair. “Variability in rate structures and costs [between counties] is to be expected” because each jail system negotiates prices based on a different menu of services and product features, GTL’s western regional vice president for sales, Michael Palovik, said in an e-mail exchange.
Palovik says GTL prices in L.A. can be as low as $3.35 for the first minute during daytime local collect calls; later minutes can cost as little as $.759 per minute.
The amount of money charged is controversial because studies show that maintaining strong family contact during incarceration through phone calls, correspondence and visits can aid parole success and reduce recidivism.
The supervisors believe it’s possible to get a better deal for both the inmates and the county if several companies vie for the next contract, which begins in January 2011. “The one way you find out about the best deal is you put all the sharks in one tank and let them fight it out,” Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said during a board meeting last year.
County CEO William T Fujioka agreed. “I’m absolutely convinced, you put this out on the street, we’re going to get a more competitive contract,” he told Supervisors during the 2008 meeting. “The County wants to achieve two goals. One goal is to lower the rates. The second goal is to make sure that this valuable resource for the Sheriff’s Department is maintained.”
Supervisors rejected a GTL offer to pay the county a $3.5 million fee to extend the current contract through 2013. The supervisors’ goal in putting up the contract for bid is to lower per-call costs to families while maintaining steady revenues for the Sheriff’s Department.
The fund nets about $15 million a year for the sheriff’s Inmate Welfare Fund, which helps supplement the costs of inmate education, drug recovery and training program as well as maintenance programs in the overcrowded jails.
The Sheriff Department’s 52 percent cut is “at the high end of the range” compared to figures paid to other correctional facilities, according to a County CEO’s report last year. Most commission rates, as they are called, fell between 40 and 56 percent.
As his office is preparing the terms of the Request for Proposal, the initial step in soliciting new bids, Sheriff Lee Baca is pushing against any plan that would lower revenues to the department. “I oppose any effort by the Board to alter the rates through a bid process,” Baca told Supervisors in a letter dated September 22.
“We can’t look at this from the perspective that the inmates are overcharged, because they are not,” he told Supervisors at a hearing last year.
The first-minute charge exceeds every Southern California county except Orange County, which charges a flat $4 rate whether the call lasts a minute or an hour. The price of the average Los Angeles call, at $5.20, is roughly 10 to 30 percent higher than other jurisdictions, except San Bernardino ($6.40)—including several operated by GTL. A 17-minute call from an LAPD lockup is $4.48, similar to Ventura County’s $4.49. In Riverside County, the call would run $3.73.
“How could it be possible that a company can charge people fees like that?” complains Evelyn Boligan, whose son Nicholas, 21, awaits trial for attempted murder. Boligan, a Department of Motor Vehicles employee from Gardena, paid over $900 in collect phone calls during her son’s first five months of incarceration in 2007 at Men’s Central Jail.
She complained to the company without success about charges for dropped calls or conversations she had to cut short because of static or overwhelming background noise at the jail. But she is unapologetic about the value of staying in touch with her son. “I had to pay those bills,” she says. “When it’s your child, you want to know that he’s okay.”
GTL’s Palovik counters by pointing out the rates are set in the terms of the county contract. The decision as to how often and low long to talk with inmates is at “the discretion of persons who chose to accept those calls,” he says.
Some families say they have had to reduce phone calls from the jail. After Janet Harris’ son Andrew Arthur, 20, was arrested on assault with a deadly weapon charges this summer, she says her phone bill shot up significantly. Even the second month’s additional $68 in jail calls was too high for Harris, a custodian at LA County + USC Hospital. “I had to tell him he could only call me every two weeks,” says Harris. “It was too high.”
Defense lawyers complain that the collect call system interferes with client contact. Glendale criminal attorney Sue Brown says she cut off client calls from jail clients after getting angry over high rates and charges for calls she never received. “It’s really a rip-off,” Brown insists. “Now I go visit my clients at the jail. It really interferes with my representation, but I don’t think I have to sacrifice my principles to represent my client.”
Attorney Christopher McCann notes that whenever he adds another $50 to the debit account that allows the clients to call him collect, GTL takes a $9 cut. “They call it a one time transaction fee,” he complains. “Well, it’s one-time every time I do it.”