Jail Phone Call Prices Up for Potential Debate

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Prices for phone calls in Orange County’s jail system, which have drawn concern from two county supervisors recently, are up for potential debate this week as the current phone contract goes for a 6-month extension.

Supervisor Todd Spitzer recently noted that federal officials have said high prices for inmate phone calls make it more difficult for inmates to maintain relationships with family members.

The Federal Communications Commission said many jail phone prices are punitive and are “creating this barrier to them communicating with their family,” Spitzer said at the June 24 supervisors meeting.

“I do believe we have to do whatever we can to make sure inmates can have good communications with their family because they do reintegrate back into society,” he said.

“It’s really family support” that’s so critical, he added.

At the same time, the $2.6 million in annual revenue to the county from jail phones is used for education and rehabilitation programs.

The system is set up in a way that a reduction in prices could lead to cuts to such programs, unless another funding source is added to cover the reduced revenues.

Alternatively, county supervisors could lower rates and require a higher cut of the revenue than the current $1.3 million over the next six months, or 54 percent of revenue if the county’s share would be higher.

Board of Supervisors Chairman Shawn Nelson said the current rates are unfair – especially to youth who are locked up for low-level offenses for the first time.

If you’re a 17 year-old juvenile making collect calls, “those fees are astronomical,” said Nelson.

“That family’s not having communication with that inmate.”

The county’s staff report for the contract extension does not provide any of the prices for inmate phone calls.

A search of the sheriff’s website also didn’t reveal any prices, nor did a search of the website for the contractor that provides the service, Global Tel Link Corporation.

However, information on the website of Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky states that Orange County inmates are charged $4 per phone call.

At those rates, a phone call per day for a 6-month jail stint would rack up a bill of over $700.

An additional 19 percent fee is assessed to deposits for calling accounts, according to a local bail bonds website.

Nelson said he’s concerned the system is set up in such a way that “if you can pay the bill you get the privilege, if you can’t you don’t.”

He also took direct aim at the prices, saying “there’s a huge mark-up.”

“The fees that are charged for phone access don’t match up to the reality” of the costs to provide the service, Nelson said.

“I am certainly not opposed to the notion that the lowest cost telephones, at least [for] the juveniles” is appropriate, said Nelson.

Tuesday’s proposal would be the 13th contract extension or amendment for Global Tel Link for the jail phone service.

The company’s cut of the revenue is likely over $1.2 million a year, in addition to what the county makes, based on county figures.

Washington Post article last year noted Orange County’s inmate call revenues go into an “Inmate Welfare Fund,” which is used to “pay salaries and benefits of prison employees.”

The corporation is “owned by private-equity giant American Securities, which owns the Potbelly Sandwich chain as well,” the Post reported.

Tuesday’s supervisors meeting starts at 9:30 at the county Hall of Administration.

You can reach Nick Gerda at ngerda@gmail.com, and follow him on Twitter: @nicholasgerda.

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