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Florida County Makes Free Jail Phone Calls Available

On October 1, 2023, phone calls became free for some 860 jail detainees at the jail in Florida’s Alachua County, whose Board of Commissioners voted for the change six months earlier. That brought the cost from 21 cents per minute to zero, though for no more than three daily calls.

The Board voted to provide unlimited free calling, but the plan implemented by the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office (ACSO) allowed two free calls per day, each lasting up to 10 minutes and separated by at least 15 minutes.

“Start with two, see how that works,” explained Deputy County Manager Carl Smart.

When commissioners heard about the two-­call limit, they reportedly prevailed upon Sheriff Emery Gainey, newly appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) on October 2, 2023, to up the daily number to three. Calls must be monitored, and no calls are allowed between 10:00 p.m. and 8:00 a.m. Left unaddressed was the biggest constraint—the jail’s oversized population. With 293.5 jail admissions for every 100,000 residents over 18, the county’s incarceration rate is double Florida’s overall rate of 143.4.

At the same April 2023 meeting where they voted to provide free calls, commissioners agreed to eliminate a kickback from private telecom giant Securus Technologies, which holds the contract to provide phone service at the jail.

“What we’re giving up amounts to almost a half-­million dollars,” Smart estimated. “But we’ll be negotiating a new contract, so hopefully that number will come down a lot.”

If he is contemplating a competitive bid from another vendor, though, it’s going to cost him: Under the current contract with Securus, which owns the jail’s phones, the County will have to spend $800 to $1,000 per line to switch vendors.

Nevertheless, the change was celebrated by Gainesville native Graham Bernstein, 20, a University of Florida undergrad who worked with Florida Prisoner Solidarity to push the proposal through the Alachua County Labor Coalition and the Florida Student Policy Forum (FSPF) before they presented it to commissioners. He predicted it would lower recidivism rates by keeping detainees in contact with loved ones, who in turn will not be forced to sacrifice essential purchases to pay for calls. FSPF also won approval for a $1 million pilot program in the state Department of Corrections that began October 1, 2023, rewarding state prisoners for good behavior with free phone calls.

At commissioners’ December 2023 meeting, Gainey said ACSO was too understaffed to fully implement the plan, resulting in more detainee fights and gang activity over phone access, plus a spike in stolen detainee phone PINs from 15 to 93 per day. He can’t add phones, he said, without a dedicated “phone room,” which would require even more staff he doesn’t have to escort and monitor detainees using it.

But commissioners voted for Gainey to try unlimited free calling anyway, instructing him to set a per-­call time limit after which a detainee has to hang up and go to the back of the line to await another turn.  


Source: Gainesville Sun, Independent Florida Alligator, Main Street Daily News