Federal agency plans to cap the cost of inmate telephone calls

August 22, 2016

The Federal Communications Commission earlier this month set new caps for local and long-distance phone calls to and from jail inmates that are expected to take effect next year in county jails, and although the Washington County jail warden said his facility is in compliance, it’s an issue that the county prison board took action on Wednesday.

At the request of Warden Edward Strawn, the prison board extended the county’s contract for inmate telephone services with GTL, GlobalTel Link, on a month-to-month basis to allow other providers to respond to a request for proposals.

“They put a maximum on that,” Strawn said before the prison board convened. “Some other facilities’ phone companies had too-high rates for inmates’ families. We weren’t one of those. It really didn’t affect us at all.”

Last year, the FCC said inmate calling service companies sometimes charged rates of $14 per minute.

The FCC says its interim rate cap applies only to interstate calls, not to calls within a state or local calls. That rate is 21 cents a minute for debited or prepaid interstate calls and 25 cents a minute for interstate collect calls. Once new rate caps take effect for local and long-distance debit and prepaid inmate calls, the fee will be 13 cents per minute for state and federal prisoners; 19 cents a minute for jails with 1,000 or more inmates; 21 cents a minute for jails with 350 to 999 inmates; and 31 cents a minute for jails of up to 349 inmates.

The Washington County jail reported 339 inmates as of July 31, but its population as of June 30, for example, was 353.

Rates for collect calls are slightly higher in the first year and will be phased down to these caps after a two-year transition period. Charges on inmate calling services that exceed these rate caps will be in violation of federal rules.

The FCC began reforms in 2013, when it acted on a petition by Martha Wright, a grandmother from Washington, D.C., for relief from the exorbitant rates she was paying to call her grandson in prison. “While contact between inmates and their loved ones has been shown to reduce the rate of recidivism, high inmate calling rates have made that contact unaffordable for many families, who often live in poverty,” according to the FCC.

In a news release last week, GTL of Reston, Va., states that it opposes new rate caps in the FCC’s order, claiming the governmental regulatory body failed to account for the costs of administering inmate calling services and that the agency has exceeded its jurisdiction by pre-empting state, county and municipal officials on rate-making and correctional security without clear authority to do so.

Strawn said providers of inmate telephone services are “strongly suggesting you don’t use the word ‘commission.’ So now they call it ‘cost recovery.’”

Except for confidential discussions between attorneys and clients, calls between jail inmates and outsiders are subject to recording, which adds to the cost of phone service. Strawn said some inmates do not object to the recording of attorney-client conversations, but if an inmate insists on confidentiality, the discussion can take place on what Strawn called a “house phone” or in person when the attorney visits the jail.

In other matters related to the correctional facility, Strawn asked the board to approve a $795,000 contract to replace two air-handling and condensing units for air and heat to Hranec Sheet Metal Inc. of Uniontown, Fayette County.

The board also agreed with Strawn that the county should advertise for bids for a new loading dock security gate, inmates’ shower and bathroom floors, carpeting and a kitchen refrigeration system.

The vote to approve the warden’s agenda was 6-0. Sheriff Samuel Romano was absent.

At a meeting of the Washington County Salary Board on Thursday, the commissioners and Controller Michael Namie approved the position of deputy warden in charge of security at the county jail with a salary of $59,089, effective immediately. Strawn said Wednesday that the person filling the position would be Maj. Christopher Cain, whose duties have centered on jail security. Strawn was deputy warden in charge of security until being named acting warden and warden this summer with the retirement of warden John Temas.

Barbara S. Miller covers politics, Washington County government and a variety of other topics for the Observer-Reporter. She is a graduate of Washington & Jefferson College, majoring in English and history. Follow her on Twitter @reporterbarb.

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