Push for cheaper phone calls from jail sparks debate

Sen. John McCollister argues for cheaper jail phone calls Wednesday (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)
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February 21, 2018 - 4:46pm

A proposal aimed at lowering the cost for jail inmates to make phone calls sparked lively debate in the Legislature Wednesday.

The proposal, by Sen. John McCollister, grew out of a study by the American Civil Liberties Union that found high rates for phone calls by inmates in county and city jails. Leading off debate on his bill, McCollister argued phone calls are important. “It’s important for people behind bars to maintain lifelines to their families and their attorneys. Studies have shown that maintaining contact with the outside reduces chances for reoffending. So keeping family ties strong strengthens the offender’s chances of being rehabilitated,” he said.

McCollister said the ACLU study found there is a wide range of charges. In Saline County, four 15-minute phone calls per week for a month would cost a jail inmate nearly $320, and in Buffalo County, slightly over $160, whereas in Douglas and Sarpy County, it was slightly over $40.  McCollister said the charges hurt poor people. “You’re talking about prisoners and their families who are hard up to start with. And then to all of a sudden charge them these obscene rates is just not right,” he declared.

Counties and cities can get commissions from the companies that bid to provide phone service, and the cost of those commissions is reflected in the fees. Sen. Matt Williams of Gothenburg said county sheriffs have told him those commissions can be used to pay for things such as legal research services for inmates. “They are using the profits to pay for Westlaw access for their inmates. They’re using it to pay for cable tv, they’re using it to pay for magazine subscriptions and paper subscriptions; additional clothing that oftentimes is needed. And their concern is, where are those products and services going to come from -- where’s the money that’s going to come from to pay for those in the future?” Williams said.

McCollister’s original bill would have prohibited any commissions. An amendment he’s proposed would prohibit “excessive” commissions, meaning some could still be charged. It would be up to the Jail Standards Board, an independent body, to determine what’s reasonable, using as a guideline federal rates of 21 to 25 cents per minute.

Sen. Mike Groene opposed the bill, saying the current system works well, and the changes would wind up costing taxpayers. “There goes the local property taxes locally, ‘cause we got to be nice to the criminal,” Groene said sarcastically. “The reason you’re in jail is you’re being punished. You’re being sent a message: Change your ways, and then we don’t care how many phones you own, how many phone calls you make. Stay free, stay out of jail, and you’ll be fine.”

Sen. Laura Ebke said half the people in jail haven’t been found guilty of anything. “I’m very concerned about the continued apparent lack of appreciation for the fact that people are innocent until proven guilty. And just because somebody is in jail does not mean that they have been convicted of anything. They are awaiting trial, they are awaiting some other legal process. But it doesn’t mean that they’re guilty and we ought to be protecting their constitutional rights,” Ebke said.

Sen. Steve Halloran offered a practical argument for keeping the system the way it is. Halloran talked about what a sheriff had told him about inmates who have been unsuccessful in getting someone to agree to bail them out of jail. “When they’re done if they’re mad, several times he’s had instances where the inmate will throw the phone against the wall or on the floor and break the phone. And he says, so, how do we pay for that? Well, it comes out of the fees that are charged for these calls,” Halloran said.

Sen. Ernie Chambers, supporting the bill, paraphrased the Bible against its critics. “Then Jesus condemned his disciples, saying ‘When I was in prison, you visited me not.’ And they said ‘Lord, when were you in prison?’ The unspoken notion is, ‘If you were there, naturally I’d come,” Chambers said. “Jesus looked at them and said ‘Apostle Groene, inasmuch as you have not done it to the least of these my brethren, you have not done it to me.’”

Groene rejected Chambers’ interpretation. “Christ said visit the people in prison. He said don’t go let ‘em out. Don’t go buy ‘em a steak. He didn’t make a comment that they didn’t belong there,” Groene said.

The Legislature adjourned for the day before reaching a first-round vote on the bill. Speaker Jim Scheer said it would be up to McCollister to convince him he has enough support to make it worthwhile continuing debate; McCollister said he’s confident he does.

Correction: An earlier text version of this story, as well as the audio, cited costs found by the ACLU for four fifteen minute phone calls. Actually, the study reported the costs for four fifteen minute phone calls per week for one month.



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