Utah inmates shouldn’t have to pay high fees for phone calls, lawmaker says

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A video visitation kiosk at the Davis County jail.

A Utah lawmaker wants to put limits on how much jails can charge inmates and their families for phone calls.

The state’s county jails currently negotiate individual contracts for phone services, which has resulted in a patchwork system where rates fluctuate wildly.

For instance, while a family in Weber County pays $1.95 to talk for 15 minutes to an inmate, someone who calls from jails in San Juan or Garfield counties pays more than $10 — even though all three of those jails use the same phone company.

Rep. Cheryl Acton, R-West Jordan, wants to change that and is sponsoring HB405 that would put a cap on phone call rates. It would prohibit jails from signing contracts where people are charged more than the rate used by the Federal Communication Commission, which is currently 21 cents per minute for a long-distance call. (That’s $3.15 for a 15-minute call.)

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Acton’s bill would also require county sheriffs to have their contracts approved by the Utah Public Service Commission, a regulatory body that primarily oversees utility services.

Acton called her bill “family-friendly” legislation intended to keep inmates better connected with their loved ones.

“Many inmates are there for addiction issues,” she said. “And that connection is so important. We can try treatment programs, but the main thing they need is human connection.”

But limiting how much jails can charge its inmates could have an effect on local sheriffs’ budgets. County jails receive a kickback on the profits from those inmate phone calls — which can add up to tens of thousands of dollars.

Wasatch County, for example, charges $9 for a 15-minute call, and brought in nearly $17,000 in revenue in 2018.

The Utah Sheriffs’ Association says it doesn’t have a position yet on Acton’s bill. Sevier County Sheriff Nathan Curtis, who is the president of the organization, also didn’t want to talk about the money jails would lose, though he did say, “Any revenue resulting from phone calls is placed in a restricted account that can only be used to fund programs or services that benefit the inmates directly."

The bill has support from the Utah Prisoner Advocate Network, a group of inmate family members and others concerned about the well-being of those who are incarcerated.

Sign up for our Top Stories newsletter

UPAN spokesman Shane Severson said he wishes the bill went even further to enact free phone calls for inmates — a change that New York City made in its jails last year.

“But anything that helps take the burden off inmate families is a positive,” he said.

In Utah, many of the inmates who are in rural jails with the highest phone rates are there because the state prison is paying the county to house them.

As state inmates are shuffled between jails with different phone providers, it often leaves their families scrambling to get their money back or transferred to another account. And every time they add more money to their accounts, phone companies charge a $2 or $3 fee.

Severson said he spends between $50 and $100 each month to talk to his brother twice a week — a price that has gone up since his brother was moved from the Draper prison to the Uintah County jail.

It’s a cost that many family members involved with UPAN simply can’t afford, he said.

“They’re really bilking the inmate families,” he said. “When people are sentenced, they are also sentencing their families. You’re going along with that journey. You want to stay in contact for their mental health, but it’s really hard to stay connected.”

Acton said she’s heard from others with similar struggles, like a woman on a fixed income who spends her money just on necessities and talking to her husband who is incarcerated.

The legislator said it made her think of her own family, and how weekly phone calls with her parents living out of state helped in maintaining their relationship. Inmates and their families are no different, she said.

“They are still members of families,” she said. “And their families still want contact.”