Criticism of Commission-based Phone Contract at Pennsylvania County Prison
by R. Bailey
Prisoners and their families in York County, Pennsylvania are outraged that Global Tel*Link (GTL), one of the nation’s largest prison and jail telephone service providers, has contracted with the York County Prison under a “commission” arrangement that provides kickbacks to the county through inflated phone rates.
At least 11 states have prohibited telecom companies from paying commissions to their departments of corrections, since commission-based contracts result in higher rates that are an unfair burden on prisoners’ family members. [See: PLN, Dec. 2013, p.1]. Pennsylvania state prisons charge $0.06 per minute for phone calls.
Records obtained by The York Dispatch, as reported in September 2017, indicate the $0.25 per minute charged by GTL at the York County Prison, “plus various billing fees,” would amount to $900,000 in annual commissions for the county – all paid for by prisoners and their family members. Aleks Kajstura, with the Massachusetts-based Prison Policy Initiative, called those rates “unreasonable.”
Notably, high prison and jail phone rates are being charged in a market where non-prison telecom companies provide flat-rate unlimited calling, texting and emails for about $40 a month. In response to pressure from prisoners’ rights advocacy groups, county officials later reduced the phone rates at the jail to $0.19 per minute – but the facility will continue to receive a commission of over 60 percent.
York County Prison Warden Clair Doll attempted to justify the high rates by claiming the kickbacks paid by GTL save taxpayers money and make the facility safer and more humane because they fund security measures that taxpayers would pay for otherwise.
He did not address the hardships exacted on prisoners’ family members and friends, who are charged inflated phone rates. Those hardships place some families in an emotional and financial “Catch-22,” as they want to accept calls from their imprisoned loved ones but the high costs make it difficult or impossible to do so. Nor did Warden Doll explain why people who receive calls from prisoners should pay for the safety and security measures funded by the phone service kickbacks, to the exclusion of other taxpayers.
Advocacy projects like the national Campaign for Prison Phone Justice, a project of the Human Rights Defense Center, PLN’s parent organization, have put prison telecom firms and the inflated phone rates they charge into the national spotlight.
GTL and its competitors, such as Securus Technologies, have expanded into additional prison and jail services, including video calling and secure e-mail. Kajstura called York County’s proposed electronic message service “insane” – e-mails sent to prisoners will cost $0.25 each. Additionally, the York County Prison offers the option of video calling for families at rates of $15.00 for up to 30 minutes.
Chris Guido, a York County prisoner previously held at a Philadelphia correctional facility, reported that he received 10 minutes of free phone time in Philadelphia. Rates have dropped in states where commissions have been banned, but remain high at local jails – particularly for intrastate (in-state) calls, which are unregulated at the federal level.
The Federal Communications Commission issued an order capping intrastate prison and jail phone rates during the Obama administration, but that order was successfully challenged by telecom companies and law enforcement agencies after FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, appointed by President Trump, prohibited FCC lawyers from defending the agency’s intrastate rate caps in court. [See: PLN, July 2017, p.52].
“With the FCC backtracking, it’s important for states and counties to take matters into their own hands” with respect to lowering prison and jail phone rates, Kajstura stated.