Jail vendors make millions from inmates’ families on snacks and phone calls 

Dialing for dollars

click to enlarge Inmates here and nationally pay dearly for snacks, basic needs and calls. - SHUTTERSTOCK.COM
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  • Inmates here and nationally pay dearly for snacks, basic needs and calls.

Ashley Smith has shelled out roughly $3,000 since October to a phone contractor to pay for calls from her husband who’s incarcerated at the El Paso County Criminal Justice Center.

“It’s hard on people who have family members in jail,” she says.

She’s not alone.

Private companies across the country have found a jackpot of riches by selling everything from Pop-Tarts to phone service to inmates and their families.

In El Paso County, jail vendors sucked more than $6 million in the last 34 months from thousands of people with incarcerated loved ones.

Of that, $2.2 million in commissions to the county landed in a Sheriff’s Office bank account earmarked to benefit inmates, as required by policy. But the Sheriff’s Office has spent very little of that money.

Sheriff’s spokesperson Jackie Kirby rejected the idea of reducing the county’s cut by slashing prices, saying, “You don’t want to deplete [the account] when there could be a larger project that needs to be done. Then there’s no money to pay for it.”

She did not specify what a future “larger project” might be, but examples of eligible expenses include GED instructors and study tools.

Wanda Bertram, with the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI), a nonprofit that researches incarceration issues, says gouging inmates’ families — often the most disadvantaged in a community — takes a toll.

“Even in a situation where all money is spent down to the letter of the law,” she says, “we’re still talking about a regressive tax.”

Just ask Bradley Watts, who lives in Michigan. He paid a fee just to use a credit card to create an account for his son to call him from the El Paso County jail. Watts relies on disability, and the charges, he says, cut into his meager budget.

“It may not seem like much to other people,” he says, adding that even a $25 extra expense could prevent him from buying groceries or prescriptions he needs.

El Paso County’s vendor programs mimic others across the country. Nationwide, private contractors that supply commissaries and phone service haul in about $2.9 billion a year, according to a 2017 report by PPI.

The county’s commissary vendor, Keefe/Trinity Services Group, brought in more than $4 million from August 2016 through early June 2019 by selling hundreds of items, including cookies, chips, soap, boxer shorts, playing cards and earbuds.

Families aren’t allowed to deliver food to inmates, so the jail population is a captive audience for the vendor and whatever prices it chooses to set.

Those prices aren’t staggering but higher than in some stores. From the commissary’s list: Snickers bar, $1.72; two aspirin, 29 cents; Ramen soup, $1.02, and 4 ounces of shampoo, $1.56.

Most inmates and their families hurt for cash, and small costs can add up, says Bertram. “It doesn’t look like much, but over the amount of time someone’s in jail, it really has an impact,” she says.

El Paso County carves out a 39 percent kickback from the vendor’s total, or nearly $1.1 million for the 34-month period reviewed by the Independent.

Keefe/Trinity didn’t respond to an email seeking comment by the Indy’s deadline, but its charges appear modest compared to the sizable slice the county claims from phone vendor Global Tel*Link Corp.

GTL, which takes revenue from phone banks located in jail wards, pays the Sheriff’s Office 16 cents a minute for every call made. Charges start at 19 cents per minute for a local call and rise to 44 cents for a call that’s in-state but outside the immediate area. That’s a commission ranging from 36 percent to 84 percent. (Inmates’ calls to their local attorneys, if the attorneys are on the jail’s list, are free. An out-of-town attorney must pay for calls from a client.)

The jail limits inmates to 15 minutes a call, so charges range from $2.85 to $6.60 per call. The nationwide average is $5.61, PPI reports, and federal rules allow jails with fewer than 350 inmates to charge more than twice the 19-cent-per-minute rate allowed in jails that hold more than 1,000.

GTL also adds charges to use credit cards ($3 per use) and to access a live operator ($5.95 per use).

All those charges added up to nearly $2 million for GTL during the roughly three-year stretch, with the county’s piece of that pie coming to just over $1 million.

GTL didn’t comment prior to the Indy’s deadline.

Commissary, phone calls and $48,850 in commissions from the remote online visitation vendor, Black Creek, combined to make the county’s haul $2,171,545.

As the money poured in, the Sheriff’s Office spent only a fraction, $475,858, on inmate benefits, and posted a hefty $1.4 million fund balance at the end of 2018.

Although the county isn’t bound by a law requiring state prisons to spend canteen commissions on inmates’ education, recreational and social benefits, the Sheriff’s Office abides by a similar policy.

Those guidelines detail what’s allowed — reading glasses, hand lotion, pens and paper, and, oddly, sunscreen — and what’s not — janitorial supplies, vehicles and expenses related directly to jail operations.

The big ticket item funded annually, at about $50,000 a year, is “subscriptions,” more details for which wasn’t available. The money also is used to buy women’s underwear and bras, Kirby says, as well as stationery and postage, games and sports equipment. 

“It can’t be a construction project,” Kirby says. She hints that officials plan a significant expenditure to be funded with inmate money but refused to disclose anything about it.

Asked who monitors for policy compliance and spending, Kirby says the account is subject to the county’s annual audit, which covers all accounts, and notes its restricted use “gives it accountability” via “checks and balances in the system.”

Phone charges pose a particularly onerous burden because they directly impact families and children, according to the Federal Communications Commission, which has jurisdiction over prison and jail phone charges.

“Reforming inmate calling service benefits society by making it easier for inmates to stay connected to their families and friends,” the commission said in a 2014 ruling, noting studies show family contact during incarceration “is associated with lower recidivism rates.”

Moreover, the panel said an estimated 2.7 million children with a parent in prison often suffer economic hardship and do poorly in school, which is “exacerbated by the inability to maintain contact with their incarcerated parent due to unaffordable inmate calling rates.”

Jerilyn Combs, mother of a former inmate, says, “It’s a racket.”

A woman who recently visited her son via the video visitation center near the jail tells the Indy it’s a hardship to scrounge money for phone calls. She avoids the $3 credit card fee by depositing money at a kiosk in the visitation center. “I have to limit him to two calls a week,” says the mom, who didn’t want her name used. “That’s all I can afford.”

Then there’s Ashley Smith. She speaks with her husband, Jared, at least once and sometimes three times a day. “Why are you made to pay?” she asks.

After she recently got a higher paying job, the charges haven’t been so burdensome, she says. But because the jail food is so “terrible,” her husband works through $65 a week in snacks and coffee from the commissary, she says.

As Darik Murray leaves the visitation center one recent day, he says he’s never used the jail phone system but was appalled to hear of GTL’s charges.

“You have people getting rich because people are in jail,” he says. “They’re profiting off the poor. If I go to jail, my whole family suffers. What’s wrong with a local call being free?”

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