Feds want governors to make phone calls cheaper for inmates, including in 16 Utah jails

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Video visitation at county jails in Utah has become more commonplace. The Davis County jail, where people who come to visit their loved ones, up to twice a week on location, speak to them through a video monitor rather than a face-to-face or barrier visit. More than half of Utah's county jails now do video-only visitation, a practice that is concerning to advocates and upsetting to those who have family behind bars.

Federal regulators are asking governors — including Utah’s Gary Herbert — to put limits on how much jails can charge inmates and their families for phone calls.

The Federal Communications Commission noted that they don’t have the power to regulate how much county jails charge for in-state phone calls. So they urged state leaders to lower the costs for people who are incarcerated.

“We know that keeping inmates and their loved ones connected reduces recidivism and helps children with incarcerated parents,” said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. “And given that most inmates are incarcerated in the same state where their families live, the rates charged for intrastate calls are critically important. I hope governors, state legislators, and other officials will take action.”

The FCC on Tuesday released a list of every prison and jail in the county that charged rates for in-state calls above the long distance caps that FCC has set, which is no higher than 21 cents per minute. (That’s $3.15 for a 15-minute call.)

Sixteen county jails in Utah are on the list — about 75% of the jails currently operating. The highest rate in Utah, according to the FCC, is $17.32 for a 15-minute phone call in Garfield County.

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.

A state lawmaker attempted to put a cap on those costs during last year’s legislative session, but the bill didn’t make it far before the session ended.

Rep. Cheryl Acton, R-West Jordan, said then that inmates remaining in touch with their families is critical.

“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.”

Herbert’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

The FCC cited studies that show inmates who maintain contact with family and supportive community members while in prison are less likely to commit new crimes — and more likely to become productive citizens. The high costs of phone calls discourage that communication, the FCC said, particularly for families who are struggling financially.

The FCC capped out-of-state call rates in 2014, but under current law could not extend that regulation to local call rates. That means phone companies and county jails are free to negotiate contracts with few limitations.

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.

And 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.

These high phone call rates are hardly unique to Utah. The FCC’s list of jails with rates higher than the cap set for long-distance calls is 45 pages long, with some counties exceeding $20 for a 15-minute call. The highest rate was $26.25 for a 15-minute call in Clovis, Calif..