County jails statewide are charging "exorbitant" fees for inmate phone calls, taxing the resources of families already strapped for cash, an ACLU of Nebraska study shows.
The costs, the ACLU said, result from kickback agreements with private for-profit companies that offer a cut of the profits for exclusive rights to provide the service. People detained in county jails can be charged up to $19 for a 15-minute phone call, even though they rarely or never have the chance to earn money.
Nebraska county jails are permitted to receive unlimited commissions from phone companies, according to the report, with no limits on rates from intrastate calls and no caps on surcharges.
Omaha Sen. John McCollister introduced an interim study of the phone call fees in the 2017 session, then worked with the ACLU to get it done.
"As you can see from the study, some of the charges are incredible," McCollister said.
Saline County has one of the highest rates. It costs $318 for four 15-minute phone calls a week. In Buffalo County, it's $161 for the same number of calls.
The three largest phone call providers in Nebraska are Encartele, in 26 counties, with an average cost of $7-$10 for 15 minutes; Protocall, in 15 counties, with a cost of $14-$19 for 15 minutes; and Securus, in five counties, at a cost of $8-$14 for a 15-minute call.
In Lancaster County, it costs 21 cents a minute to call out, and 25 cents a minute to call collect, or about $50 a month for four 15-minute calls a week. The county uses IC Solutions Advanced Technology, based in San Antonio.
The cost is not unreasonable, said Brad Johnson, director of the Lancaster County Department of Corrections.
"It costs money to incarcerate folks and these types of contracts provide revenue that defers that cost from the tax base," he said.
Income from the calls to the county was $398,000 in fiscal year 2017, Johnson said. A portion of that is spent on an inmate benefit fund for programs such as drug treatment, G.E.D., parenting classes and recreation. The rest goes to the county general fund.
The cost of those calls usually falls to the families of prisoners, the study said.
"Sad to say that some of those people who are pressed for resources as it is are having to pay those exorbitant telephone fees," McCollister said.
The state Department of Correctional Services is a model, he said, in that it has banned all phone commissions and set a standard for county jails to follow, with $1.50 for a 15-minute call.
ACLU of Nebraska Executive Director Danielle Conrad said county jails should follow the department’s lead, particularly as state prisoners are being housed in county facilities because of overcrowding, she said.
“Every aspect of Nebraska's criminal justice system disproportionately impacts poor Nebraskans and communities of color, so this exploitation is especially burdensome on low-income Nebraskans," Conrad said.
Research confirms that when people keep in touch with their families while in prison, they are less likely to commit new criminal offenses, Conrad said.
Amy Miller, ACLU of Nebraska legal director and lead author of the report, said someone accused of a nonviolent offense who cannot afford to post bond spends an average of 48 days in a Nebraska jail. If that person were to make four 15-minute phone calls a week, including calls to an attorney, in one month, the inmate would spend enough money to buy dozens of gallons of gas.
In several Nebraska counties, a family too poor to bail out an inmate could purchase 129 gallons of gas with the money used to make those calls, Miller said.
“The poor Nebraskans who are finding a way to pay the outrageous rates aren’t just paying the county," she said. "Most county jails in Nebraska use private, for-profit companies that literally have pictures of sheriffs swimming in piles of money in their advertising.”
The ACLU received repeated complaints from families struggling financially to stay in touch with a family member in jail. Attorneys said they also weren't able to speak confidentially on the phone with their jailed clients.
The organization used open-records requests to learn more about the cost of the phone calls.
In Nebraska, about 41,000 children — one in 10 — have a parent who is incarcerated or has been in jail or prison. For those families, the report said, the phone is often the only way to regularly connect.
More than half of those in county jail are awaiting a trial and are not yet convicted of a crime. They lack the money to post bond and go home, the report said.
The ACLU recommended reform of the phone call system through regulation by the Nebraska Public Service Commission, the Nebraska Jail Standards Board or county boards.
McCollister said he plans to introduce legislation in January that could impose a cap on the fees. More than six other states have passed laws to cap rates and end the practice of commissions.
"Nebraska has a role to play in reducing America's addiction to incarceration and providing programs that help those accused or convicted of a crime to turn their lives around," the study's authors said.