The cost of some phone calls to prison and jail inmates should drop substantially in the next few weeks as Tennessee officials finalize contracts against the backdrop of an ongoing fight over whether the state and Davidson County have been gouging inmates and their families.
At issue are contracts to provide phone service for inmates in Department of Correction facilities across the state along with those in custody of the Davidson County Sheriff's Department. Advocates have characterized the fees now demanded of inmates and their families as kickbacks.
While such groups are calling for sharp cuts in charges for calls to inmates made within the state of Tennessee, officials in the state and Davidson County will say only that any new contracts will comply with the law and a recent FCC rule change that is already under court challenge.
Under the new FCC rule, the rates charged for interstate calls to inmates are capped, and that cap will bring a substantial decrease in fees for most Tennessee inmates. The caps, barring a successful court challenge, will go into effect in February. Providers of inmate phone services say the order could effectively reduce rates on those calls by up to 78 percent.
Dorinda Carter, spokeswoman for the state Department of Correction, said in an email response to questions that the agency intends to issue a formal request for proposals before Jan. 1.
She said that bidders on the contract will be required to comply with the FCC order, but she predicted it would have little impact.
Under the existing contract, interstate calls can cost 62 cents a minute plus a $3.62 connection fee for each call placed.
Groups want more
But advocacy groups say simply complying with the FCC rule does not go far enough. They are calling on state Correction Commissioner Derrick Schofield to fashion a contract that cuts the costs for intrastate calls by eliminating a profit-sharing agreement with the phone contractor.
Under that agreement, currently with Global Tel Link, the state agency collects about $2.5 million a year, or half of the amount Global collects from state inmate calls.
Carter also noted that the FCC rule is being challenged in federal court by Global Tel and Securus Technologies, the largest provider of prison phone services in the country.
In the suit filed in the U.S. District Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., lawyers for Securus have charged that the new FCC rule was put in place without proper notice and "adopts incomprehensible rate regulation."
"The commission's new rate system combines the worst of two rate-making regimes," the 27-page complaint states.
Davidson County Sheriff's spokeswoman Karla West said a new request for proposals on inmate phone service for the county jail will go out shortly. While declining to provide further details, West said that bidders would be required to comply with the FCC rule.
Davidson has a revenue-sharing agreement with Global Tel Link that brings in about $1.3 million per year.
In a recent letter to Schofield, Alex Friedmann of Prison Legal News and the Human Rights Defense Center wrote that while the fees collected by the agency "likely fund worthwhile programs and services, there is no legitimate reason why such programs and services should be funded in large part by prisoners' family members and friends who pay inflated phone rates."
Friedmann urged Schofield to eliminate the fee-sharing arrangement.
The FCC also has initiated action that could result in a parallel cap on in-state calls.
"Since most prison calls are intrastate, that would have a major impact on the prison phone industry," Friedmann said.
Friedmann's organization also has moved on another front to bring lower rates for inmates by introducing a resolution to be presented to shareholders of locally based Corrections Corporation of America to end the profit sharing agreements with phone service providers in prisons that the corporation operates.
In the letter, Friedmann states that at one Tennessee facility run by CCA in Hamilton County, the prison firm gets a 48 percent share of revenues, which amounted to $205,136.78 in the last fiscal year.