Collect calls from inmates at the Sedgwick County Jail will cost their families and friends less beginning this week. At the same time, the county will make a higher commission.
The cost for a 20-minute call, whether local, in-state or out-of-state, will be $3.50 under the countys new five-year contract with Securus Technologies Inc. That is 55 cents lower than it was under the countys previous contract with Global Tel*Link, commonly called GTL. The new rates begin Wednesday.
Securus will pay the county a 71 percent commission on gross revenue, up from 56 percent from GTL.
Some prison advocacy groups say such commissions amount to a kickback. Eight state prison systems across the country ban commissions, as does one county, Dane County in Wisconsin.
The commission is a large and unnecessary tax on the poorest residents of the county, said Peter Wagner, executive director of the Prison Policy Initiative, based in Massachusetts. The research is clear that allowing families to stay in touch makes it easier for both the family and the person incarcerated to succeed. High commissions are a penny wise and pound foolish way to drive families apart.
Dave Unruh, chairman of the Sedgwick County commission, objected to the characterization of commissions as a kickback.
He said the county sends out requests for proposals and negotiates with companies to get the best overall cost for collect calls from jail.
Revenue from the commissions go into the countys general fund to help offset the cost of operating the jail, he said.
The county has received as much as $1 million in annual commissions from inmates collect calls, records show. Last year, it made just less than $510,000, records show. Joe Thomas, the countys purchasing director, said revenue generated from inmate calls is not earmarked for any specific expenditure.
So far this year, the county has received almost $169,000 in commissions.
Commissions are standard for contracts between jails and prisons and providers of inmate calls, said Maj. Glenn Kurtz of the Sedgwick County Sheriffs Office.
Its a very competitive industry, he said.
Kurtz said he did not consider the commission when negotiating the countys recent contract as much as he considered the cost to inmates and the capital investment Securus agreed to make. Securus also is handling the jails video visitations, scheduled to debut in July or August.
Theyre responsible for everything from the handset that the inmates picks up, the wires, the phone, the switching gear, hooking it up to the hardwire phone system. They take the loss if somebody doesnt pay the bill, Kurtz said of Securus contract for inmate calls.
The trend nationwide has been call rates dropping and commissions rising, Wagner said.
A commission of 71 percent is among the highest in the country, he said.
I believe the record is 81 percent, he said.
The Kansas Department of Corrections contract with its inmate phone provider features a 68 percent commission, records show. The state also received a $250,000 signing bonus from CenturyLink.
If Sedgwick County did not accept a commission, it stands to reason that inmates families and friends would pay less for calls, Wagner said.
Calls from prisoners in state custody in New York cost seven cents a minute after commissions were banned, he said. GTL has the New York prison contract.
Jail inmates can use the phone from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. but must ask permission from a pod deputy to do so. Phones are mounted on the wall in day rooms.
Inmates families and friends sporadically complain about the cost of collect calls, Kurtz said. Unruh said he has not received complaints.
It is basically free money for the county, said Alex Friedmann, managing editor of Prison Legal News, a publication of the Human Rights Defense Center., of which he is associate director. The gross revenue comes from prisoners families and thus theyre the ones who are paying the commissions.
The argument that if inmates dont like the cost, they shouldnt break the law doesnt compute because its not the inmates who pay the bills, he said. Even if inmates were to pay, that doesnt mean you price-gouge them. It doesnt mean we can line our pockets while theyre in jail.
Staying in touch with family and friends is important for inmates because that maintains their support systems, Friedmann said.
Kurtz, of the sheriffs office, agreed.
The person that is incarcerated in the Sedgwick County detention facility will possibly be back in the community tomorrow. They have contacts back to the community to support them and help them when they get out of here. We dont want them to just walk out the door, starting over without a support system, he said.