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Prolonged COVID-19 Visitation Restrictions Net Georgia Jails Over $1.5 Million in Telecom Kickbacks

by Jordan Arizmendi

According to a report by the Georgia Current on April 14, 2023, jails in several of the state’s coastal counties were still profiting by extending COVID-19 visitation bans, forcing detainees and their loved ones to use more expensive phone calls or video calls to stay in touch.

When the report was published, over three years after the start of the pandemic, hundreds of detainees at the Chatham County Detention Center (DC) in Savannah were forced to choose from a menu of high-cost communication options: $1 to send out a tweet-sized text; $3 to make a 15-minute phone call; a whopping $8 to make a 20-minute video call. As a result, a detainee without a fat wad of cash is out of luck if he wants to speak to his wife or see his baby. Restrictions do not apply to visits with an attorney.

In-person visitation had resumed at the Glynn County DC. But there was still none at lockups in the other five counties: Bryan, Camden, Chatham, Liberty and McIntosh. In 2021 and 2022, these jails made at least $1.5 million in kickbacks from fees collected for phone and video calls, as well as text messages.

At both Glynn County DC and Chatham County DC, the largest of the six, communications are monopolized by Paytel Inmate Communications. At the Bryan County Jail, Securus is the vendor. At Camden County Correctional Facility, it’s GT*L. HomeWAV Services provides telecommunications at the Liberty County Jail, while Correct Solutions Group does so at McIntosh County Jail.

The sheriffs that run these jails justify the often-outrageous fees these firms charge by pointing to kickbacks the jails receive, which fund services for detainees who are too poor or too dangerous to post bail before trial. But the hardships on detainees and their loved ones have been immense. One woman said that she was able to afford speaking to her son in jail only by cutting back on the money she spends on food.

In March 2023, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) began rule-making for its expanded authority to regulate intrastate calls at prisons and jails under the Martha Wright-Reed Just and Reasonable Communications Act passed by Congress in November 2022. The law also grants the FCC power to set limits for fees on audio and video calls inside lockups. [See: PLN, July 2023, p.50.]

Sources: Georgia Current, PBS News