Crime & Courts

How much would you pay to stay in contact with your loved one in jail?

Jails in South Carolina charge varying rates for inmates to telephone their relatives, lawyers and others.
Jails in South Carolina charge varying rates for inmates to telephone their relatives, lawyers and others. file photo

Lexington County jail inmates are being charged phone rates to call home that are substantially higher than their counterparts in Richland County – rates a state senator said take advantage of their relatives.

The money collected from inmate calls has added an annual average of about $290,500 to the budget for operating the jail during the past five years, figures from the county’s finance office show.

The company that has the contract with the Lexington County Detention Center, Securus Technologies, which is one of the nation’s largest phone providers for inmates, has been accused of predatory pricing by a human rights organization that focuses on jails and prisons.

Lexington County has one charge for calls made out of state, two pricing tiers for in-state calls and one for local calls. At $3.95 for the first minute for the most expensive in-state call, Lexington County’s charge is nine times greater than the most expensive charge at Richland County’s Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center, according to research done by The State newspaper.

The newspaper’s review has found phone calls from the jail are among the costliest in the area. The Lexington jail is one of more than 20 jails in South Carolina that contract with Securus.

Senate Majority Leader Sen. Shane Massey, whose serves on the S.C. Senate’s Corrections and Penology committee, called the prices “exorbitant.”

“Really, you’re not punishing the inmates in this,” Massey, R-Edgefield, said Friday. “You’re punishing the inmates’ families, because all the money is coming from the outside.”

Massey said the jail should be able to recoup the cost of having the phone system. But $3.95 cents for the first minute is too high, he said.

Securus charges staggered rates that depend on the time of day calls are made and whether they are local, in state or out of state.

Securus’ local attorney would not discuss the rates with a reporter and referred questions to the company. Securus’ Vice President and General Counsel Dennis Reinhold said the company typically does “not do interviews or comments.”

So which price is correct?

Documents reviewed by the newspaper also showed inconsistency concerning the fees. The state’s regulatory agency, the Public Service Commission, has documents showing that Securus is charging no more than $2.50 for the first minute and a maximum of 40 cents for every minute thereafter.

Lexington County officials say they understand the rates to be different from what the regulatory commission’s records show. Further, Securus’ website shows Lexington’s first-minute rates as being $3.95 and as high as 65 cents for each additional minute.

According to Securus’ contract with Lexington County, calls made within the state can range from $1.51 to $3.95 for the first minute, and 9 cents to 55 cents for every minute after that.

But paperwork filed with the state’s regulatory commission shows Securus is charging only as high as $2.50, according to May 19 filings. “Confinement facility rates will not exceed the below rates and charges,” a local attorney representing Securus wrote in the filing.

The fight for lower prison phone call rates is old, and one that the Human Rights Defense Center has taken on.

The Florida nonprofit aims to protect human rights in U.S. detention centers, and has made several filings with the Federal Communications Commission calling high rates by companies “predatory practices.”

Harrison Cahill, Lexington County government spokesman, said he could not address whether the fees are “predatory.”

“If the FCC or the PSC says Securus needs to lower their rates, then we will abide by that,” Cahill said, adding that the contract expires in about a year.

Capt. Adam Myrick, spokesman for Lexington’s sheriff’s department, which oversees the jail, said the agency makes “every effort to ensure the vendor is charging a rate that is compliant with all state and federal pricing requirements.” The contract was signed in 2012, which means it predates Sheriff Jay Koon, who was elected in March 2015.

Federal regulators step in

In 2015, the FCC ordered a cap for local, in-state and out-of-state phone calls, and attempted to close loopholes by preventing providers from adding surcharges and other associated fees. But the order was partially stayed by an appeals court in March that prevented caps on in-state rates.

Thursday, the federal agency announced phone calls would be capped at no more that 31 cents for out-of-state calls.

Because the FCC can’t regulate how much service providers charge for local and in-state calls, the responsibility falls to the states’ regulatory agency. No complaints had been filed from Lexington County jail customers with the S.C. Public Service Commission as of the end of business last week.

Carrie Wilkinson, the prison phone justice director at the Human Rights Defense Center, blames high rates at jails and prisons nationwide on the money the facilities get from the rates.

“Unfortunately, it’s the greed of these prison telephone providers, and the reluctance of the jails and the prisons to give up these kickbacks that make this a continuing issue,” Wilkinson said. “These kickbacks are nothing but the poorest people in the country subsidizing their government.”

In the case of Lexington County, those fees added up to $271,212 in 2015. The cash is reinvested in the jail, Cahill said.

“Those revenue funds don’t cover the costs of a lot of what it takes to make sure that the inmates have everything that you need,” Cahill said.

The county’s contract provides it with 81 percent of every additional minute after the first minute, Cahill said. The $3.95 first-minute charge goes to Securus, he said.

But how much Securus bills for every minute after the first depends on where you look. The Public Service Commission’ paperwork shows Securus planned on billing no more than 40 cents for some in-state calls that aren’t local. The contract Lexington County has calls for no more than 55 cents a minute.

There’s also a June contract amendment with Securus in which the county agreed to having fees hiked to $4.60 for the first minute and 65 cents for each minute after that, if the regulatory commission approves the new fee structure.

Cahill said the county believed the fees to be $3.95 and 55 cents for additional minutes. He could not explain the price discrepancy.

Across the river

All of Lexington’s fees are still much higher than at Richland County’s Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center, where calls range between 16 cents and 44 cents without a first-minute charge for calls within the state.

The South Carolina Department of Corrections’ charges range from 9 cents to 11 cents for calls made anywhere in the United States. There is no first-minute charge.

Wilkinson, of the inmate rights group, said several states manage to provide phone services at cheaper rates. At least nine states have rates as low as of 5 cents per minute.

“Companies have a right to make profits,” Wilkinson said, “but they don’t have the right to price gouge people who don’t have another option.”

After inquiries by the newspaper, the S.C. Office of Regulatory Staff launched an inquiry into Securus’ rate structure. The regulatory staff advocates for ratepayers to the Public Service Commission.

Nanette Edwards, the deputy executive director of the office, said the rates are supposed to be specified in documentation provided to the Public Service Commission.

In a letter sent to the company’s local attorney on Friday, Edwards requested confirmation that the fees Securus is billing are the ones approved by the commission in May. Securus has until Aug. 12 to respond.

Cynthia Roldán: 803-295-0435, @CynthiaRoldan

Inmate phone calls contribute to jail budget

A year-by-year tally of how much the Lexington County jail has received from its share of the contract with Securus Technologies.

$306,001 in 2012

$276,272 in 2013

$353,312 in 2014

$271,212 in 2015

$246,088 projected in 2016

Source: Budget Comparison Report provided by Lexington County