County renews phone services contract for jail

11/07/2018

Marin County has renewed its contract with a major telecommunications company to provide inmates with telephone, mobile device and tablet services. Last month, supervisors approved a three-year agreement between the Marin County Sheriff’s Office and Global Tel Link, one of two companies that together provide more than 70 percent of prison technology services across the country, according to the nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative. 

Under the contract, domestic calls to or from the Marin County Jail cost 21 cents a minute, or $3.15 for 15 minutes. The rate for remote video visitation is $10.50 for 25 minutes, and the cost of loaning an e-book for two weeks is $1.74. The contract also includes debit release cards, which carry the money inmates have left in their jail accounts upon their release. 

While video visitation and tablet services are not currently available in full, Captain Jamie Scardina, the jail’s custody services commander, said he estimates they will be up and running by February.

The Sheriff’s Office has not received any complaints about the fees being onerous for inmates, Capt. Scardina said, but critics of the prison technology system argue that its charges further penalize the poor. 

Nationwide, over 60 percent of people in jail are there simply because they cannot afford to pay bail. 

Critics also characterize the communication charges as a regressive tax on poor inmates. The county makes money off of its contract with Global Tel Link: The Sheriff’s Office received an upfront payment of $175,000 and will receive additional annual payments of a minimum of $160,000. 

All of that money goes into the inmate welfare fund, which pays for recreational and educational programs for inmates and for items like combs and
toothbrushes. 

“This is a very inefficient way for Marin County to raise revenue, and it comes at the expense of the poorest families in the county,” Peter Wagner, executive director of the Massachusetts-based Prison Policy Initiative, said. “If the inmate welfare fund pays for things that are socially beneficial or constitutionally required, the government should pay for that. Creating a regressive tax to pay for social good for the poor is not a good idea.” 

Across the country, the prison phone system industry brings in over $1 billion annually. Bianca Tylke, director of the New York-based Corrections Accountability Project, has estimated that jail calls cost families nearly $10 million a year after the addition of system fees and long-distance charges. 

In 2015, the Federal Communications Commission attempted to cap the cost of prison and jail phone calls. But when Ajit Pai was appointed the agency’s chairperson under the Trump administration, he refused to defend the policy in court. 

The commission’s interim caps of 21 cents a minute for debit and prepaid calls, and 25 cents a minute for collect calls, remain in place, but only apply to interstate calls. State and local governments control the regulation of all other prison calls, including domestic ones, which advocates have estimated make up 80 percent of all inmate calls. 

Some cities and states have taken strides in recent months to reduce call fees. In August, a New York City law eliminated phone call fees in jails. Previously, local calls from Rikers Island cost 50 cents a minute for the first minute and 5 cents for each additional minute. The same month, the Texas prison system voted to reduce the cost of calls for inmates from 26 cents a minute to six cents.  

Global Tel Link has come under fire in recent months for improperly recording calls made through its system. In California, it is a felony to record inmates’ phone calls with attorneys, doctors or clergy without permission, and the company recently was taken to court over charges of mismanaging that monitoring. 

This fall, the company said a “technical error” had improperly recorded over 1,000 inmate calls over the course of three years inside Orange County jails; 58 of those calls—the majority of which were to public defenders—were accessed by either the sheriff’s department or Global Tel Link staff. 

During a court hearing in August, the company admitted that similar situations had occurred in two counties in Florida. 

Debit release cards are also criticized by criminal justice advocates, who say that tacked-on card fees end up eating away at the balances. In Marin, the cards have a monthly service fee of $5.95 that kicks in after five days, an ATM fee of $2.95 and an ATM balance inquiry fee of $1.50. Capt. Scardina said the cards are preferable to handing out checks, especially for inmates released from jail on weekends or in the middle of the night.

“With the debit cards they can go to various locations in the civic center when they’re released and use those cards,” Mr. Scardina said. “There is no hidden fee if the inmate cashes the card within five days. That was something we negotiated with G.T.L. The Sheriff was very adamant he did not want inmates to be charged.” 

The Marin County Jail provides 376 beds for inmates, and has an average daily population of 293, according to a 2017 civil grand jury report. Mr. Scardina said the average length of stay is under 30 days, though some prisoners are there for extended periods due to a 2011 state law that diverted inmates who had committed felonies that were not categorized as serious, violent or sexual in nature from state prisons to county jails.