Md. to vote on prison phone services deal

New contract could lower rates by up to 76 percent

December 17, 2003|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

High phone rates - one of the most vexing problems affecting the families of Maryland prison inmates - may soon be coming down.

The state Board of Public Works is scheduled to act today on a new prison telephone services contract. If the board approves the contract, rates could decrease by up to 76 percent for certain long-distance calls.

The high cost of accepting phone calls from prisoners imposes a heavy burden on family members, said Janeth Welch, whose husband served 17 months in a state prison in Hagerstown. A 30-minute call would cost $30, and phone bills could run into hundreds of dollars. "It meant we just couldn't talk very often," said Welch of Gaithersburg.

Advocates say lower rates can help inmates keep up family ties- an important factor in avoiding a return to prison.

"If the rates are about to be cut like that, they are going to make a lot of families happier - maybe not completely satisfied," said Tara Andrews, director of the Maryland Justice Coalition.

The lingering dissatisfaction stems from the fact that new rates will continue to be much higher than they are for people outside prison walls: $3 to $5.55 for a 10-minute in-state call. Prisoner rights groups say that's too expensive for many low-income families to afford.

The advocates say rates could go much lower if the state didn't insist on making money from its arrangement with the company that provides the services.

Frank Dunbaugh, executive director of the Maryland Justice Policy Institute, said the reductions will make a "substantial difference." However, he said, the almost $7 million the state is receiving under the revenue-generating contract amounts to "an illegal tax" on the families of prisoners.

The new contract with T-NETIX Inc. of Carrollton, Texas, replaces two local and long-distance phone service contracts with Verizon Inc. and AT&T. The contracts were originally awarded in 1989, and the rates reflect the costs and technology of another era in telecommunications.

Under the current contract, a prisoner making an in-state call would pay $7.50 for a 10-minute conversation, which would have to be placed as a collect call.

The new contract would cut that cost to $5.55 for a collect call, but it would also give the prisoner the option of setting up a debit account that the inmate or family could pay into. By using a debit card, the prisoner could call home through an automated system that would cut the cost of the call to $3.

The reductions for long-distance calls would be more substantial - from $12.85 to $3 for a 10-minute call if placed with a debit card.

That call could be placed on the outside for about 50 cents, but prison telecommunications have security requirements that add to the cost of the systems. For instance, prison officials want the capability to monitor calls to prevent the inmates from making threatening or fraudulent phone calls.

The cost that infuriates prisoner-rights advocates is the "commission" the vendor pays the state on each call it handles. The money, estimated at $6.8 million in the contract the board will vote on, goes to the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services' Inmate Welfare Fund.

Department spokesman Mark A. Vernarelli said the fund is used to pay for such things as psychological and educational programs, chaplain services, inmate medical monitors and toiletries for indigent inmates.

"The Inmate Welfare Fund is so crucial to funding these programs that otherwise wouldn't be funded," Vernarelli said.

Lester Welch, Janeth Welch's husband, said the rate cuts are "a step in the right direction" but that the state could cut more if it weren't taking so much money. He said the department uses the inmate fund to pay for things prison officials are obligated to pay for anyway.

Welch, a retired nuclear physicist who was released four years ago after serving a term for sex offenses, said he saw men walking away from the phones because their families could not afford to accept their calls.

" "The stronger the family ties these guys can keep, the more apt they are not to [return to prison]," he said.

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