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Imagine Pleading Guilty Because You Can’t Afford to Call Your Lawyer

In some jails, it costs $20 to make a 15-minute phone call.

In some jails, it costs $20 to make a 15-minute phone call.

Imagine paying $20.12 for a 15-minute phone call. That’s how much a call from the Jennings Adult Correctional Facility in Missouri costs.

In 2013, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) set price caps on interstate calls from jails, prisons and detention facilities. Now, interstate calls can cost no more than 21 cents per minute (or $3.15 for a 15-minute phone call). Two years later, in 2015, it did the same for intrastate (or in-state) calls, which make up 92 percent of all calls from incarcerated people. Prison phone providers filed lawsuits challenging these restrictions and, in June 2017, a federal court ruled in the phone companies’ favor. The ruling means that intrastate calls are not subject to FCC regulation and rates fluctuate wildly depending on each facility’s contract with the phone provider.

Jennings isn’t the only local jail with outrageous phone prices. The Arkansas County Jail charges $24.82 for a 15-minute call; in contrast, the same call from the state’s prisons costs $4.80. In Michigan, a call from the Benzie County Sheriff’s jail costs $22.56, but $2.40 from the state prison.

Even when phone costs aren’t as exorbitant, they still add up quickly. The Allegheny County Jail in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which contracts with the company GTL, charge $3.15 for a 15-minute call. That doesn’t count the fee to add money onto a phone account. Carol Speaks, whose son is currently in the jail, says that for every $20 that she adds to her phone account, she gets $17 in calls. In other words, GTL takes $3 of every payment, leaving her with four 15-minute phone calls. Speaks, who earns $15 an hour, said the money she spent on calls meant that, at times, she had to forgo putting gas in her car or buying groceries.

On February 11, 2019, the Prison Policy Initiative released State of Phone Justice, a report examining the prices of jail phone calls in over 2,000 county- and city-run jails across the United States.

“Jails have managed to escape the political pressure that forced many prisons to bring their rates down,” said Peter Wagner, Prison Policy Initiative director and the report’s co-author. “We found that many jails are charging three, five or even 50 times as much as their state’s prisons would charge for the same phone call.”

Why the discrepancy? The report points to several reasons. Because people in jails are frequently released within hours or days, their families aren’t as able to organize to put sustained political pressure on jail administrators or local governments to reduce these costs. In addition, many state legislatures and other regulatory bodies pay less attention to its local jails. Plus, jails, which tend to be smaller than state prison systems, don’t have as much staff to analyze the costs and benefits of proposed contracts or to write contracts with the phone provider. Prison systems, in contrast, often have career staff with years of negotiating experience with billion-dollar companies seeking contracts.

Sky-high phone prices have real implications not only for maintaining relationships while people are incarcerated, but also for the legal outcomes of their cases. Across the nation, approximately 450,000 people are jailed pretrial, meaning that they are technically innocent — they have not been proven guilty and are still fighting their criminal charges. Many are jailed not because they pose a threat to public safety, but because they and their families cannot afford to post bail. Being jailed pretrial decreases a person’s ability to organize their defense. The high price of jail phone calls further limits this ability, making it hard for them to call attorneys or access other resources that might help with their defense.

“When poor people in jail can’t afford to make phone calls, the fairness of the justice system is distorted – and everyone pays an outsized price,” says Wendy Sawyer, senior analyst of the Prison Policy Initiative.

That’s what happened to Carol Speaks’s son. Speaks asked that Truthout not name her son, who is currently in the Allegheny County Jail. Unable to call his attorney, he sometimes attempted to call through his mother. Jail rules prohibit three-way calling, so their calls were often cut off after a few sentences. But even when Speaks had not had the full 15-minute call, she was still charged as if she had.

Other times, her son had to wait until his court date and hurriedly speak with his attorney in the couple of minutes between being brought from the court’s “bullpen” (the holding area for incarcerated people) and appearing before the judge. Plus, jail rules prohibit bringing items from the jail to court, so he was not able to bring a list of questions. With barely any communication with his lawyer, Speaks’s son was unable to adequately participate in his own defense. Ultimately, though he had never been arrested before, he was sentenced to over a year in prison for possessing an unlicensed gun. He will spend his 21st birthday behind bars.

Once Speaks’s son is transferred from the local jail to the state prison system, the cost to call home will decrease. Pennsylvania’s state prison system contracts with Securus, GTL’s main competitor in the prison phone industry. A 15-minute call from a Pennsylvania prison costs only 89 cents, even for an in-state call. Speaks knows about the struggle for prison phone justice and says that jails—and the phone companies that provide calls—need to reduce their rates as well.

“I’m Flat Broke Right Now, But I Have Money on My Phone”

Gloria Berkley accepts every phone call from her 18-year-old son, who is currently held at the Davidson County jail in Nashville. “Being that he’s so young, it’s very important for me to talk to him,” she told Truthout. “I want him to stay connected to the outside world.”

Berkley spends between $150 to $200 each week on phone calls alone. She tries to deposit $50, the maximum amount allowed at one time; each time, phone provider GTL charges a fee of approximately $4 for the deposit. If she deposits less money, she still must pay the $4 fee.

The cost of phone calls has left Berkley unable to save money toward her son’s $200,000 bail. (She’s required to put 10 percent down — $20,000 — if he is to be released.) She noted, “It’s difficult to save money for that when I constantly have to put money on his phone.” This means that her son, who was arrested at age 16 and charged as an adult, has spent nearly two-and-a-half years behind bars, first in the county’s juvenile detention facility and now in the adult jail.

The phone bill has also left her unable to pay for a private attorney. “It’s a catch-22,” she said. “Which do you do?” Her son has a court-appointed lawyer, but Berkley still must pay for his calls to her office. “She’s not always available when he calls,” she noted, but the phone company still charges for the call.

Berkley, who works overnight shifts as a nurse, is the only adult working in her household. But her concern for her son means that she prioritizes putting money on his phone account before paying her mortgage or other bills. “I’m flat broke right now, but I have money on my phone,” she said.

Families Fight to Reduce Phone Charges

During his three years in the Santa Clara county jail, Benee Vejar’s husband never called his attorney. This wasn’t because each 15-minute phone call cost $5.50 (not including the additional fee to put money on a phone account); it was the fact that the jail recorded each and every phone call—and turned them over to the district attorney’s office. The cost of phone calls did mean that he only called Vejar and his children twice a day—once in the morning and then once to wish them good night at the end of the day. If he needed to speak with his attorney, he would ask Vejar, “Tell my attorney to come see me.” Once they hung up, Vejar would email his attorney who then made arrangements to visit.

But her husband’s three years in jail and the accompanying cost of calls meant that Vejar had to struggle to provide not only for their three children, but also legal resources for her husband. The phone call fees left her unable to pay for him to finish a paralegal course. When he needed a legal book or pamphlet to help fight his case, she scraped money off the already-stretched household budget to buy it for him while keeping funds in her phone account so that he could stay in contact. This was especially important after he was beaten by jail staff as retaliation for the numerous grievances he’d filed about jail conditions.

Vejar and other family members came together with local advocacy group Silicon Valley De-Bug to demand improvements to jail conditions and fight for their loved ones’ safety. They also began attending meetings of the Board of Supervisors which, in California and five other states, oversees the operations of the county government and organizing to have the costs of jail phone calls, as well as the costs of commissary items (such as essential toiletries and food), lowered. Their organizing, coupled with hunger strikes from the men inside the jail in 2016, pushed the Board to reduce the cost of 15-minutes phone calls from $5.50 to $1.50. For Benee Vejar, now an organizer with Silicon Valley De-Bug, the results were immediate—she could buy more groceries, pay bills that were overdue and begin to pay off the credit cards she’d used to keep the family afloat—and still financially support her husband behind bars.

In New York City, 26,000 phone calls are made from local jails each day. According to the Corrections Accountability Project, until last year, those 26,000 phone calls cost family members over $21,000 on a daily basis. That changed in June 2018 when advocates, including formerly incarcerated people, successfully pressed for a law making all jail phone calls free.

In California, Vejar’s husband was sentenced to prison in December 2016 and, the following month, transferred to a state prison. More than two years later, Vejar says that she’s still paying for those jail phone calls. “I’m still catching up on the bills I made extensions for,” she said.

When told about the price of calls from Missouri’s Jennings Adult Correctional Facility and the Arkansas County Jail, Vejar is shocked. She urges family members in those areas to organize and fight to reduce these and other charges. “I would say start going to the Board of Supervisor meetings and see where the money is allocated,” she said. “You have a right to know where your money is going. Get advice from [other] advocates.” And above all, she says, “You don’t give up fighting.”

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