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For inmates, their friends and families, talk isn’t cheap in jail

Updated: 2013-08-09T00:05:56Z

By MARK MORRIS

The Kansas City Star

Granted, Joseph Camp is a chatty guy, but was all that talk worth $250 a month?

That’s about what Jeannette Frank, a close family friend, spent on phone calls to stay in touch with Camp while he was jailed in Kansas for three years on federal computer hacking charges. Frank estimated that she spent up to $750 the month before he pleaded guilty in April.

Talking on the phone in jail can be expensive, and on Friday the Federal Communications Commission will consider whether to impose rate caps on jail and prison phone calls and take other measures to help inmates’ friends and family members lighten what can become a heavy economic burden.

Because she spent her money on phone calls, Frank couldn’t afford to travel from her home in New York state to visit Camp, she said.

Camp, meanwhile, scrimped on food and commissary purchases to afford the prepaid phone cards that allowed him to call Frank, his lawyer and others, he said.

“It was ridiculous and hard,” said Camp, who has been released and now lives and works in New York state.

Prison and jail inmate calls, which are made either collect or through a prepaid arrangement, can range up from as little as about 5 cents per minute in New York to up to almost 90 cents a minute in Colorado, according to FCC records.

Rates can vary widely between city, county and private jails, such as the one in which Camp was held, and state and federal prisons. The rates usually are negotiated between the phone service vendor and the government entity that controls the facility.

Regular contact with family and friends can ease an inmate’s transition to freedom from incarceration, studies have shown. Expensive jail calls can interfere with that communication, experts say.

Pricey phone calls can interfere with the legal process as well, lawyers said.

Even lawyers can’t afford to accept every collect prisoner call, said criminal defense attorney John Picerno. And traveling to discuss the case can kill hours out of an attorney’s day if the client is being held outside of a downtown Kansas City jail.

“You can’t spend as much time with your guys as you want to,” Picerno said. “It’s unconscionable and oppressive. It serves to further isolate these guys and cuts them off from the world completely.”

Per-call commissions that phone vendors sometime pay jails and governments to get the contract are one factor that drive up jail phone costs. States that permit commissions have higher jail and prison call rates than those that do not, the FCC has concluded.

Jackson County has had an unpleasant history with commissions and jail phone contracts.

A judge sentenced the county’s former jail phone vendor to four years in prison in 2002 after prosecutors accused him of generating almost $4 million worth of false telephone charges from telephones he operated in the 1990s at the jail, Kansas City International Airport and correctional facilities in Tennessee and Ohio.

County officials also sued the vendor, arguing that he underpaid the county more than $100,000 in jail phone commissions, though a judge threw out the case, saying they hadn’t followed the proper procedure to get the money.

The vendor’s successor in the contract, Sprint Corp., also had problems. After an investigation by The Kansas City Star, the company acknowledged in 1998 that it had overcharged friends and families for thousands of collect inmate calls. The company made refunds totaling at least $129,000, a company spokesman said at the time.

Currently, the Jackson County Jail charges a flat rate of $2.05 for 30 minutes, which works out to nearly 7 cents per minute if the inmate uses all of that time.

Missouri, which no longer permits commission payments, has a competitive jail phone rate in its state prisons, according to the FCC.

The phone vendor for Missouri prisons charges 5 cents per minute for collect, prepaid and debit calls, with a $1 per call “set up” charge for collect calls, said David Owen, a spokesman for the state Department of Corrections.

International calls are 50 cents per minute with a 50 cent per call set up charge, he said.

Kansas also is working to keep its prison inmate phone charges out of the stratosphere, said Jeremy Barclay, a spokesman for the state Department of Corrections.

Inmates can pay as little as 17 cents per minute, according to a rate sheet on the department’s website. The priciest call available is 60 cents a minute for an international call, still far less than calling across town from a Colorado prison.

To allow inmates to stay in touch with the outside world and encourage a successful transition to law-abiding life, the department took steps to cut calling costs about five years ago, Barclay said.

“It’s known that lack of strong community support systems is a barrier to successful reentry (into society),” Barclay said. “We wanted to help knock down that barrier.”

To reach Mark Morris, call 816-234-4310 or send email to mmorris@kcstar.com.

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