Inmate families' outcry halts prison phone deal

State uses high fees from collect calls to aid incarcerated

May 31, 2001|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

Reacting to complaints that relatives of Maryland prison inmates are being gouged by high prices for prison telephone calls, the Board of Public Works delayed action yesterday on two new contracts for the service.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening asked that the five-year contracts be pulled from the board's agenda, pointing to a request by Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., a Prince George's County Democrat.

The charges for prison phone service are high, largely because a big share of the revenue generated goes to the state, which uses the money for inmate welfare programs.

Vallario said he was astonished to learn how much relatives are forced to pay for phone calls. The prison system requires that all outgoing calls -- local or long distance -- be made as collect calls that are billed to the person who agrees to accept the call. Under the current contracts, the charge for a 10-minute phone call from a prison inmate in Cumberland to relatives in Baltimore is $7.50.

"It's not right to gouge people," Vallario said. "Hopefully, the governor's action may send a message to the telephone companies that this is not an acceptable practice."

Vallario said no new long-term contract should be signed until a study on prison telephone charges requested by the legislature is completed in November.

Frank M. Dunbaugh, executive director of the nonprofit Maryland Justice Policy Institute, said he was pleased by the board's decision to delay action. "Some of the poorest people in Maryland are paying telephone bills based on extremely high profit margins that are unnecessary," he said.

Dunbaugh, who has spearheaded a campaign to cut the costs of prison phone calls, said one major reason the charges are so high is that the state collects a hefty commission from money generated by such calls.

Under the current contracts, 28 percent of revenue generated from local calls and 43 percent of revenue from long-distance calls go back to the state as a commission. That has generated nearly $6 million a year for inmate welfare programs. The proposed contracts call for the state to receive a 48.5 percent commission from local calls and a 63 percent commission from long-distance calls. State officials estimate that would generate nearly $8.5 million a year for inmate welfare programs.

The new contracts actually would reduce the cost of long-distance calls for inmate families.

The cost now is $3.45 for the first minute and 45 cents for each additional minute. The new charge would be $3.27 for the first minute and 27 cents for each additional minute. The charge for local calls would remain the same, 85 cents, state officials said.

Verizon would handle long-distance calls from the prison system, while T-Netix, a Colorado-based company, would be responsible for local calls. AT&T has been handling long-distance service and Verizon has been handling local calling services.

State budget and prison officials who proposed the contracts did not return phone calls yesterday seeking their comment. Verizon and T-Netix officials also did not return calls.

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