Oregon Lawmakers Prohibit Prison and Jail Telephone Kickbacks
by Mark Wilson
This isn’t just an issue of economics,” said Oregon Senator Sara Gelser, the chief sponsor of a bill prohibiting jail and prison telephone contract kickbacks that passed nearly unanimously. “This is really about the humanity of the people that are in our prisons and the ability of people to remain connected to the people that they love, the people that they need to be successful in their programs in prison.”
A February 2019 study by the nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) found that prisoners as well as pre-trial detainees in the U.S. are charged up to $22 for a 15-minute phone call, though that rate has been declining over time. As previously reported in PLN, some companies which offer video-visitation – now available at over 500 prisons and jails in at least 43 states - require prisons to restrict in-person visitation, as well.
“The jail phone industry is broken largely because jail phone companies compete for monopolies,” said PPI’s Wanda Bertram. “They do this by sharing revenue with the facilities themselves…That means part of the contracting process is distorted by collusion between jail phone companies and facilities.”
During a February 2019 public hearing on Senate Bill 498, Gelser noted that “this is the third session in a row I’ve sponsored this bill, first time it’s been referred to judiciary and the first time it’s gotten a hearing.” The legislation ultimately passed the Senate by a 27-2 vote and the House by a vote of 54-1.
“Exploitive prison phone call rates actively frustrate support systems that are known to keep folks out of the prison system,” observed Mary Sofia, then legislative director for the Oregon Criminal Defense Lawyers Association (OCDLA). “Over several decades, numerous studies have shown that family contact and communication reduce recidivism,” Sofia told lawmakers, citing a Prison Legal News article written by Alex Friedmann. (PLN, Apr. 2015, p. 24).
“OCDLA believes that families should not be forced to endure substantial economic burden in order to maintain bare minimum communication with those they love,” said Sofia. “We can better support and protect Oregon families and reduce recidivism rates in the Oregon prison system.”
Senator Gelser agreed, recognizing that “contact with family improves performance and compliance and success both inside and outside. So just providing basic access to families is so important.”
The committee also heard from Rebecca Whetstine whose son, Ga-lo Vann (aka Joshua James Vann), is an Oregon prisoner. Whetstine offered extensive testimony about the high cost of prison telephone calls and the burden those costs place upon prisoners and their families.
She also informed the committee of a far-too-common problem, noting that her son frequently cannot even make a call because the Telemate voice biometric system is so bad that it will not accept his voice. Other times, the call quality makes it impossible to hear her son.
“It is news to me, the quality of the phone service and the quality of the phones,” admitted Gelser. “I think that’s something really important that we can explore further. It doesn’t matter what the price is if they don’t work.”
Senator Shemia Fagan agreed, saying the problem had to be solved. “Your testimony is some of the most compelling I’ve heard in my four-plus years as a legislator,” said Fagan. “My mom was incarcerated for much of my childhood so this is something that is very important that people are able to communicate with their families.”
Nevertheless, Marion County Sheriff Jason Meyers testified on behalf of the Oregon Sheriffs Association, claiming that small counties are dependent upon kickbacks from prisoner telephone charges to fund jail services. “Any revenue that a county gets ... goes into the inmate welfare account that is for the greater good of all the people that are in custody,” Meyers claimed.
Lawmakers weren’t having it. “The way that I understand this, and correct me if I’m misunderstanding, is that essentially an inmate that is making a telephone call is taking on the burden of paying more than it costs to provide the services that allow that call to be made for a substandard service, for the purpose of paying for things for other people, that their communication with family, their attorneys, the media is used as a revenue source for items they may or may not participate in and that is therefore not equally distributed across all people,” summarized Gelser. “Why are we basically taxing very poor people to talk to their families to pay for things that they might not ever use?”
Senator James Manning, Jr., chairman of the Public Safety Subcommittee of Ways and Means, echoed Gelser’s incredulity. “This is a small part of a larger problem, which is total criminal justice reform,” said Manning. “My major concern about this is that when you have people that are disenfranchised, that don’t have any money that can’t make any phone calls, how this is definitely impacting them.” Manning acknowledged that “our jails are under resourced and we need to provide more for them, but added, “I do have a problem with this particular company and how they are dealing when you are making a dime off the backs of people who are already in a bad condition.”
Failing to appreciate that his talking points were not carrying the day, Sheriff Meyers continued to defend the practice. “I share my diplomatic colleagues’ comments that this feels like an unacceptable system to me,” Fagan told Meyers. “I cannot emphasize enough how compelling I found Rebecca’s testimony and how unacceptable this situation is.”
Gelser agreed. “Correctional facilities ... enter into contracts with businesses that basically pay you,” she noted. “They pay you money so that they can offer very expensive, low quality services to incredibly vulnerable people. So why not just not take the kickback, look for another revenue source and improve the quality of the phone services?”
Sheriff Meyers could not offer an answer, suggesting instead, that he’d “look into it.” Fortunately, lawmakers did not wait for his answer.
Under Section 2 of the bill, the Oregon Department of Corrections (ODOC) is prohibited from entering “into a contract with an inmate telephone services provider that authorizes the department to receive a fee or commission for telephone services provided to inmates” other than the reimbursement of ODOC’s “internal and external costs to oversee and manage the inmate telephone service” and “to pay third party providers.” This is a loophole big enough to ensure both continued high rates and kickbacks to the DOC.
Section 4 addresses jail telephone services, prohibiting “a fee or commission ... other than a fee of five cents a minute or less.” This thus limits to kickback to five cents a minute.
Section 5 provides express per-minute rate limits for jails based on the size of the facility.
Prepaid intrastate and interstate telephone calls are capped at $0.21 per minute for jails with less than 350 beds, $0.19 per minute for jails of 350-1,000 beds, and $0.17 per minute for jails with more than 1,000 beds. Similarly, collect intrastate and interstate calls are capped at $0.25 per minute in jails with less than 350 beds, $0.23 per minutes for 350-1,000 beds, and $0.21 per minute for more than 1,000 beds. In all jails, calls to Mexico and Canada are capped at $0.50 per minute while all other international calls are capped at $0.67 per minute. Since telecom companies pay less than a penny a minute for the phone time they resell this locks in massive profit margins for the companies and kickbacks to prisons and jails while giving the illusion of reform.
Any fee or commission received by a jail, city or county for inmate telephone services “must be deposited in the Inmate Welfare Fund Account,” established under section 6 of the bill. That account is to be used for the purpose of providing “items or programs that enhance the lives of inmates, including but not limited to education programs, job training programs, drug and alcohol treatment programs, exercise equipment, televisions, cable subscriptions, electronic law library access, magazine subscriptions, books, board games, microwaves available for inmate use and meals or other food provided for special events.”
The legislation expressly prohibits the use of the Inmate Welfare Fund Account to pay “for regular inmate meals, inmate clothing, inmate medical care, facility maintenance or staff salaries, staff clothing or staff equipment.”
Jails are also required to publish a quarterly report, which must be made available to the public, detailing: (1) a monthly accounting of the total revenue received from the inmate telephone service provider; (2) the total per-minute fees received; (3) the share of revenue received by the jail, city or county; and (4) a detailed list of expenditures during the quarter from the Inmate Welfare Fund. A link to the report must also be placed on the jail, city or county website.
Declaring an emergency, lawmakers applied the legislation “to contracts for inmate telephone services entered into, extended or renegotiated on or after” July 1, 2019.
Sources: Senate Bill 498(2019) & Supporting Exhibits; Recording of 2.6.19 Senate Judiciary Hearing, prisonpolicy.org, badgerherald.com