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Ohio Prisons Cashing In On Inmate Phone Calls
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The old cliché about prison is inmates get “three hots and a cot.” They are stuck there, but everything is taken care of.
It turns out that’s not the case. Inmates and their families pay a lot of hidden costs for basic items and services. The state and private vendors are making a lot of money as they provide these services. One private company collected $21 million last year on prison calls in Ohio.
It feels like you’re incarcerated.
That’s how Betsy Trembly, from Upper Arlington, says she felt even though she wasn’t in prison. But her boyfriend was for about three years for drug possession. He was in a prison two hours away from her and they kept in touch by phone.
A necessary toll
And those calls were expensive. Trembly says she spent thousands of dollars on phone charges.
But it was necessary. She says her boyfriend, who Trembly does not want named because of unresolved legal issues, felt hopeless during his incarceration. The phone calls were a bright spot.
“The depression was almost crippling at times. Sometimes the only thing that kept him going through the day was being able to talk to me or talk to his mother, you know, talk to his family,” Trembly said.
Cost of calls
Inmates can call out but they or their families have to pay by the minute. In-state calls cost up to $0.25 a minute. Out-of-state calls used to cost a $1 a minute until the FCC recently capped them.
All those calls add up for families who accept collect calls or pre-pay for them. And all of those charges add up to big bucks for the state of Ohio and the private company it uses to provide phone services.
Last year, Global Tel Link – or GTL – made $21 million from inmate phone calls. It pays the state at least $15 million a year for the contract.
State prison officials says they use that money to pay for educational classes, addiction recovery services and inmate payroll.
Prison deputy director Annette Chambers-Smith says they need the money.
“Without any additional general revenue dollars we would have to stop doing something else we’re doing. And I have to say, I’ve seen our whole budget, and I don’t think there’s a whole lot we’re doing that’s optional,” Chambers-Smith said.
Many states prison systems collect hefty commissions from private phone companies which drive up rates.
Rhode Island stopped collecting commissions a few years ago after State Rep. Edith Ajello heard from a nun working in the prisons.
“This Sister of Mercy was very concerned about the surcharge that was on the phone calls making it really unaffordable for families really struggling to get by to maintain that relationship with their loved one,” Ajello said.
Ajello filed a bill. It became law. Rhode Island prison phone calls went from a $1 a minute to $0.07 a minute. The company that provides Rhode Island’s prison phone service is GTL, the same company Ohio uses. Only Ohio inmates pay 75 percent more that inmates in Rhode Island.
“[GTL] stiffs prisoners’ families in Alabama with $2.75 for a local call and charges $4.80 for local calls in Arkansas.”
Ultimately, it is left up to legislation in each state and contracts made when the phone rights are sold off to private companies which determines how much a phone call will cost.
GTL declined to comment. But the company website indicates it has contracts with more than half of the country’s state prison systems. And GTL’s rates vary widely between states.
Deputy director Chambers-Smith said Ohio prison officials made an effort to get the best price.
“We competitively solicited this contract, and this is the vendor that had the best value for the DRC and the families and the inmates,” Chambers-Smith said.
Inmate advocates want the state to do better
“Keeping in touch with a loved one who is incarcerated inevitably falls onto the backs of those loved ones who are outside of prison,” said Mike Brickner, director of public policy at the ACLU of Ohio.
Brickner said for low-income families the calls can be unaffordable. He wants Ohio to allow inmates to use cheaper pre-paid phone cards but are not allowed to.
“They’re not able to do that because of monopoly that is placed for these companies that run the phone system,” Brickner said.
Betsy Trembly is not looking for free calls. She gets it – her boyfriend was in prison. But she says the high rates hurt inmates and families who can’t afford to pay them.
“I have no idea how a family could make it,” Trembly said. “They probably would [have] very limited communication. [They] wouldn’t be able to talk to children that often, maybe once a week, maybe once a month.”