Talking Politics: Boone County Reviews Bids for New Inmate Phone System

Oct 25, 2017

Boone County began reviewing bids this week for a new contract for its inmate phone system in the county jail. The county is looking to overhaul its current system after critiques of the high costs to detainees and their families making calls.

County jails across the state contract with private companies to provide phone services for inmates, in return the jail gets a cut of the phone charges.

The last time Boone County got a new contract was in 2009. It picked a company called Securus, which it has renewed until October of 2017. According to the contract, Securus offered the county 53 percent of all revenue generated from collect calls and a signing bonus of $20,000, among other services. Boone County makes nearly $60,000 a year by charging for phone calls, according to the county's 2017 annual budget.

The 2009 contract stipulated that the inmate phone system must, “generate maximum financial return,” to Boone County.

However, in the current search for a phone service the county has a different goal.

The new request for proposals states that its goal is to keep the cost down for users, while still providing necessary safeguards and "generating sufficient revenue to support the phone system services," according to the request.

Northern Boone County Commissioner Janet Thompson said the costs of supporting the phone system often come from information requests. She said the goal is for the phone system to be revenue neutral, so it would not cost the county any money, but would not generate a revenue either. Thompson said the estimated cost of support the phone system will be around $10,000 to $15,000 dollars a year.

Some have criticized the high costs that fall on the detainees and their families. Gary Oxenhandler, a retired Boone County judge who studies the Boone County Jail, found the high phone rates to be a problem.

“The amount that they’re being charged for a phone call is simply exorbitant,” Oxenhandler said. “There is not a good rationale for it other than the fact that the counties motivation in the 2009 request for proposal was that maximum revenue be generated, which just flies in the face of everything Boone County can be so proud of for how we have been able to operate the jail system so effectively with the prisoners in mind.”

The Federal Communications Commission has tried in the past to enact regulations that would cap the price of phone calls for prisons and jails. In 2016, they set new rate caps for local and long-distance inmate calling. However, in a 2-1 decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia found that the FCC lacked authority to set rates for calls between inmates and people in the same state.

Aleks Kajstura, legal director for the Prison Policy Initiative, has studied the rates across the nation.

“This is really a point in time where the FCC has started taking a look at these rates and started to regulate out of state rates,” Kajstura said. “But especially for jails, a lot of calls are in-state, so it’s really up to the jails and the individual states to start taking a look at internal regulations to clamp down on these rates before they get even more out of hand, and hopefully to get them back to some sort of rational pricing.”

Melinda Bobbitt, director of the Boone County Purchasing Office, said in an email that an evaluation team selected by the county is reviewing bids. She said the bids will be evaluated for approximately three months and the county expects to implement the contract in early 2018.