The state's prisons and jails stand to lose millions of dollars in revenue if the Federal Communications Commission votes this week to slash inmate telephone rates.
The rule change -- proposed by FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler and Commissioner Mignon Clyburn -- would limit state and federal prison inmate calls to no more than $1.65 for a 15-minute call.
The rate caps for jails range from 14 cents a minute to 22 cents a minute based on inmate population numbers.
The proposal also "strongly discourages," but does not restrict, jails and prisons from collecting a commission on the phone calls -- a practice that is expected to generate more than $3 million for the Arkansas prison system this fiscal year.
"If the FCC does adopt this as a final rule, it will cost not only our state prison system in excess of a million dollars, but it will impact our county jails, which recoup fees from prisoners in a similar manner," Gov. Asa Hutchinson said. "There is a cost impact to both the state and the counties that we'll have to address."
The proposal -- which would go into effect early next year -- is on the agenda for the FCC's meeting Thursday in Washington.
"It will hamper our ability to fund necessary projects," Department of Correction Director Wendy Kelley said.
Prisons and jails across the nation have become dependent on "concession fees" paid by telephone-service contractors. According to the FCC, more than $460 million in commissions were paid in 2013 to jails and prisons.
Phone service at prisons and jails is a $1.2 billion enterprise for providers and the lockups, according to the FCC.
In fiscal 2015, which ended June 30, the state Correction Department received more than $1.7 million in commissions from inmate telephone usage. According to Correction Department spokesman Cathy Frye, the prison system's projected revenue from the telephone contract for fiscal 2016 is around $3 million.
Arkansas Community Correction received more than $275,000 in inmate telephone commissions in fiscal 2015 and expects to earn about $300,000 for the current fiscal year, said Dina Tyler, a deputy director of the department.
The state Board of Corrections at its April meeting approved two contracts with Securus Technologies -- one for the telephone service for the prisons as well as Arkansas Community Correction, and another to provide video visitation services for the prisons.
The video visitation service -- which has not yet been installed -- would cost an inmate $12.99 plus taxes, fees and surcharges for a 30-minute session. The Correction Department will receive a 20 percent commission on video calls after Securus recoups its estimated $3.65 million initial cost for installing the system.
Community Correction is paid a 79 percent commission on all inmate telephone calls within the state. The Correction Department receives a 73 percent commission on all local and statewide calls, with the possibility of an increase later, "depending upon the costs of establishing the video system," Frye said.
Neither department receives commissions on out-of-state calls.
Telephone calls in the Arkansas corrections system are much lower than the national average of nearly $3 for a 15-minute in-state call. Some states, such as Minnesota, charge as much as $6.45 for a 15-minute inmate call.
Local and in-state inmate calls for both agencies are 12 cents per minute -- or $1.80 for a 15-minute call -- plus a $3 connection fee and taxes. Out-of-state calls are not charged a connection fee, but are higher at 21 cents for prepaid calls and 25 cents for collect calls.
"On a yearly average, a little less than 9,000 interstate calls are made. We see about 60,000 intrastate calls," Frye said. "The out-of-state-calls are about 12 percent of the total calls."
In 2006, Arkansas rates charged to inmates were among the highest in the nation at $6.60 for a 15-minute call, providing the prison system about $4 million a year in commissions. After protests by prison advocates and the threat of legislative action, the Board of Corrections lowered the rate to $4.80 per 15-minute call in 2007 and reduced or eliminated several processing fees.
The rates continued to fall each time the board negotiated a new contract, Board of Corrections Chairman Benny Magness said.
"We continue to meet with providers to get the costs down every chance we get," Magness said. "People do not realize how important these phone services are to us. It not only allows the inmate to keep in touch with family, but they track phone calls and specific words that may let us know something is going on. There are slang words for 'escape' that they can catch. That's important."
The telephone system allows for the monitoring and recording of inmate calls but also allows for private, nonrecorded calls for attorney-client conversations or other approved private calls.
"People say, 'These rates are higher than I spend at home.' Yeah, but at home you don't have the recording and retrieval capabilities," Tyler said. "It's a smart move for the public's safety. We have stopped criminal activity through the phone system."
Most home-phone providers charge a flat monthly fee ranging from $25 to $50 for local and national long-distance calls. However, domestic collect calls can be quite costly. AT&T charges $1.49 per minute plus a service charge that ranges from $5.99 to as high as $13.50 per call.
Inmates in the Pulaski County jail -- the state's largest county lockup, which houses more than 1,200 inmates each day -- are charged $10.35 plus a $3.95 connection fee and taxes for a 15-minute, in-state phone call. Local calls are charged only the connection fee.
The county receives an 88 percent commission on the telephone charges inmates pay. In 2014, the contract for inmate calls plus the sale of calling cards generated $684,686, said Mike Hutchens, the county's director of administration and comptroller.
Since Jan. 1, Pulaski County has generated $553,352 from inmate telephone usage and calling-card purchases, said Pulaski County spokesman Jarrod Johnson.
"We have not finalized an assessment on how the FCC rule change will impact those revenues," Johnson said.
The FCC proposal caps the rates for county jails at 22 cents per minute for jails holding up to 349 inmates; 16 cents for jails with 350 to 999 inmates; and 14 cents in jails with 1,000 or more inmates.
The Pulaski County jail's current rate of 69 cents per minute for collect calls would be slashed by 80 percent, or 55 cents, if the proposal is passed. If an inmate uses a prepaid debit card, the current rate of 50 cents per minute would drop by 72 percent, or 36 cents.
The lost revenue to prisons and jails would affect the inmates the most, Arkansas officials said.
The funds generated from the telephone commissions go to make life better for the inmates and also fund "gate checks" -- the money, about $40, each inmate receives for incidental expenses when he's released, Tyler said.
"We're already short on funds. If you take another $300,000 away from us, we're going to have a hard time making life better at all," Tyler said. "It doesn't seem like a lot of money, but it's impossible money for this agency. We're trying to keep aging centers up to par."
She added that one thing she wants to accomplish with the revenue is to install covered walkways at Southeast Arkansas Community Correction Center in Pine Bluff.
"It really bothers me that the sidewalks are not covered," Tyler said. "We don't have another option though. The slim chance we had just went down to really slim if the FCC passes this."
Frye said the Correction Department uses the telephone revenue to fund Prison Rape Elimination Act compliance initiatives, emergency-preparedness equipment, computers, and construction projects that will benefit the inmates.
"One thing that came up today, for example, was the need at one unit to pave over the gravel where inmates play basketball," Frye said.
Magness said some of the money is used to improve visitation areas so visitors and inmates can be processed more quickly.
Chief Deputy Michael Lowery of the Pulaski County sheriff's office said the rate cap would cut significantly into the county's budget for patrol cars.
"We would have to find some money somewhere," Lowery said. "Even if they cut our rates, it's something that has to be funded."
Mary Neal, whose son was recently released from the Correction Department's Wrightsville unit, said she is glad the FCC is trying to cut the rates. Frequent contact with an outside family member builds a foundation convicts need to re-enter society, she said.
"The rates need to come down. People can't afford that," Neal said. "They lose communication with their home base. They can go in there once a week and see them, but the day-to-day contact is important. They're isolated. I understand why they are isolated, but that communication is so important."
Magness said there is no law that requires prisons to provide telephone service to inmates, but the corrections system works to provide the most affordable option because it is vital to the inmate's well-being.
"We do it because we feel that contact is important," Magness said. "At the time this [the FCC rule change] happens, we'll have to look at what we spend our money on or go back to the provider to see if we can cut a better deal."
SundayMonday on 10/18/2015
Print Headline: Jail-call fee cut up for FCC vote