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Inmates at Iowa's county jails finally see lower phone rates

Gazette - 2/23/2021

Feb. 19—After a two-year review, the Iowa Utilities Board is forcing companies that provide phone service for county jail inmates to lower rates from as high as $1 a minute to a quarter or less.

Once all the new tariffs are approved, the savings to Iowa families with jailed loved ones is expected to be more than $1 million a year, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, a national nonprofit advocacy group that has been working in Iowa and other states to lower jail phone costs.

"I am sure the inmates and the families will be very happy with this change," said Bremer County Sheriff Dan Pickett. "They will be able to talk to their families longer and make more calls to talk to them."

Until recently, Bremer County had the highest jail phone rates in the state at $14.10 for a 15-minute call, which included $3.74 for the first minute and 74 cents after. Their service provider, Securus, lowered rates to 21 cents a minute — meaning a 15-minute call now will cost just $3.15.

The Utilities Board has not yet approved Securus's new tariff, but has instructed the company and other providers to keep rates at 25 cents per minute or less for prepaid calls. The board has so far approved new, lower rates for five companies — Prodigy, Network Communication International Corporation, Combined Public Communications, ICSolutions and Global Tel*Link.

Global's proposal, which the board unanimously approved Tuesday after no discussion, calls for charging 22 cents a minute for prepaid calls from the Black Hawk County Jail, 16 cents a minute from the Scott County Jail and 11 cents a minute from the Boys State Training School in Eldora.

Staying Connected

COVID-19 has caused Iowa prisons and jails to suspend in-person visits, leaving people behind bars with fewer ways to connect with their families and friends. That contact is critical to reducing recidivism, studies show.

A study of 255 former prisoners participating in prison reentry programs in six states from 2004 to 2007 found phone calls with family were most consistently connected with lowering rates of reoffending later, the Institute for the Public Interest reported in 2016. But if phone rates are too high, families and inmates will talk less.

"At a time when the cost of a typical phone call is approaching zero, we thought it unconscionable that Iowa families were being forced to pay astronomical rates to call their loved ones or lawyers," Prison Policy Initiative staff attorney Andrea Fenster said. "Incarcerated people and their families are some of the poorest people in the country."

A Des Moines woman told The Gazette in December 2019 she had to limit the number of times her then-4-year-old son could talk each week with his father, who was incarcerated at the Bremer County Jail.

"How do I tell our 4-year-old son, 'Daddy loves you. He just can't call?'" Skylar Pinegar said in 2019. "My husband is my son's favorite person, so this time is very hard on him."

Pandemic Breaks

Many Iowa jails have made it cheaper for offenders to make calls and do video visits during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Johnson County Jail provides free phone calls for the first 10 days a person is incarcerated and then charges 17 cents a minute after — one of the lowest rates among Eastern Iowa jails. The jail staff also offer free on-site video visitation Sunday through Friday.

TurnKey Corrections, which provides services to jails in Johnson, Iowa and other counties, usually charges 39 cents a minute for off-site video visits, but has lowered that to 25 cents a minute because of Covid-19.

The Linn County Correctional Center is providing each person held there with one free eight-minute call per day and free postage for up to seven letters per week.

"We are currently offering two free 15-minute (video) visits per week," Sheriff Brian Gardner said. "We anticipate continuing the free off-site visits during the months of February, March and April. After that time the off-site visits will be charged at a rate of 25 cents per minute."

The Iowa Utilities Board in 2019 started reviewing the tariffs and fees charged by private companies that provide inmate phone service to Iowa's county jails. The pandemic and pressure from the Federal Communications Commission — which was pushing in August for rates as low as 16 cents a minute from jails — seemed to speed the review in 2020.


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