<<Home Niagara Falls Reporter Archive>>

FCC's Cap on Jail Phone Call Rates Will Cut Revenues Niagara County Jail Might Be Affected

By Frank Parlato

The Niagara County Jail, like hundreds of county jails and state prisons across the United States, is facing a potential loss of revenue as a result of a recent Federal Communications Commission ruling.

And the taxpayers will pick up the slack, or so it seems.

After a decade of consideration, the FCC, declaring that prison phone companies' rates were "exorbitant," voted 2-1 in August to set maximum rates for collect and prison debit card calls.

The new maximum rate for an inmate collect call will be 25 cents a minute for interstate (out of state) and 21 cents for pre-paid interstate calls.

The FCC ruling may have a direct bearing on the Niagara County Jail.

Last year, Niagara County made a five-year deal with Global Tel Link, the nation's largest provider of inmate phone services, under which the county will get 58 percent of the total proceeds collected from its pay phones in the jail. The rates charged, counting connection fees and extra charges, by Global Tel Link are, in many instances, higher than the new FCC maximum charges.

Global Tel Link provides similar profit sharing services to more than 470 correction agencies nationwide.

Niagara County, which received a $40,000 signing bonus when they inked the deal, projects annual earnings of $240,000 in jail phone revenue. As of the end of September, the county had earned $180,000, around $20,000 per month, according to Undersheriff Mike Felicetti, putting it right on schedule for the county's $240,000 projection.

Global TelLink also paid for the equipment, including a system to monitor the calls, and installed them.

With an average of 485 daily prisoners in the Niagara County Jail, so far, inmates average $41 in phone calls per month.

Speaking of the entire private-equity-backed prison phone call industry, a $1.2 billion a year business that typically shares its profits with host prisons profit sharing inmate phone services industry, the FCC said prison inmates phone call rates are kept high in large part because of the profit sharing or commissions that the phone service providers pay to prisons as part of their contracts.

Extra fees and commission charges to connect calls are banned by the FCC ruling.

Intrastate (within the same state) calls have not been capped, but the FCC is expected to consider placing caps on intrastate (within New York) rates as well.

Local calls make up the bulk of the market.

Nationwide, the FCC action may end fluctuating phone rates for inmates that vary depending on the provider, the type of call and size of prison facility. It is not clear how much of an impact it will have on Niagara County.

Prison reform advocates have quoted rates as high as $17 for a 15-minute phone call in other states, some of the highest rates coming from the deep South. No rates that high were documented at the Niagara County Jail.

Typically, Global Tel Link and similar companies pay a "site commission" from as low as 15 percent up to 75 percent (45% on average) that goes to the prison.

The 58 percent deal Niagara County Jail gets was based on a statewide deal cut by the New York Sheriffs Association, according to Sheriff James Voutour.

The Reporter spoke to several other past and current Niagara County inmates and family members about the service.

One inmate told the Niagara Falls Reporter, "When I call my wife (Niagara County) it is a $1.85 to connect and 10 cents per minute. When I call my mother (Erie County), it's $1.95 to connect and 20 cents a minute."

One said he had problems with his wife not hearing him; another said his calls got cut off frequently with his mother. When he called back, she had to pay another $1.85 connection fee.

Another woman, whose son is an inmate, tells the Reporter that Global Tel Link is "ridiculously expensive," saying that she deposits $50 at a time into a Global Tel Link account over the phone. She said, "My balance is usually eaten up with four to five phone calls. In the state [prison] system that same $50 will last about two months of calling four to five times a week. It doesn't hurt the inmate, it hurts the family members."

A former inmate said, "Being able to communicate with my family is important to my mental health. It's like being able to get out of here for a few minutes a day inside of your head. It really keeps you from going insane," he continued, "We're already being punished; they're punishing us even more and ripping off [our families] by not being able to afford to call home."

At the end of the day, whether it is Niagara County or elsewhere, whatever is earned in profits is a savings to taxpayers. The $240,000 earned this year from Global Tel Link goes into the general revenue fund to offset some of the annual $17 million in jail costs. Any reduction will have to be picked up by taxpayers.

Even those who do not pay property taxes have landlords who will pay the increase and pass the cost on to tenants.

Currently Niagara County taxpayers pay $81 per year each to fund the county jail.

"It's a service," Niagara County Undersheriff Mike Felicetti said. "We provide a service. It is jail. I think people lose sight of it. In the fashion we do it, I think the taxpayer does benefit by it."

At the end of the day, whether a inmate phone FCC required rate drop reduces income or increases it due to higher volume of usage, it is clear that whatever is not paid by Global Tel Link - collected from the families and friends of inmates - to the county jail, will be picked up by the public, people who, in the main, stay out of jail and have little or no need to speak with anyone within the stark prison walls.



Niagara Falls Reporter - Publisher Frank Parlato Jr. www.niagarafallsreporter.com

Nov 05, 2013