Excessive Phone Charges



Charges take a toll

Inmates call collect; families pay dearly

By Jason Massad/Staff Writer

Until last week, it cost an inmate in the Solano County Jail $4.16 to place a 15-minute phone call to a friend in Vacaville - more than eight times what he would drop into a pay phone outside of the jail.Thanks to a renegotiated county telephone contract with AT&T that took effect Wednesday, that same call now costs $3.15, but it's hardly a savings. Inmates in Solano County Jail and in jails across the state pay much higher rates for pay phone calls, a study by the Associated Press shows.

The average Solano inmate rung up phone bills of between $500 and $580 per year, according to jail records dating back to 1998 and obtained by The Associated Press.Unlike consumer telephone rates, calls from jails are unregulated.

Neither the California Public Utilities Commission nor the Federal Communications Commission has control over contracts negotiated by counties or over the rates charged for calls from jail. The system is decried by critics who say fees charged to use the phone are tantamount to extortion, preying on inmates and their families who have no choice but to pay for collect phone calls at exorbitant rates.Further, counties are seduced into signing contracts by phone companies n See Inmates,

Back Page that offer bonuses and other incentives, which distract them from the bottom line, they say."Inmates have no chance for family ties or meeting legal deadlines without a very high cost," said B. Cayenne Bird, a prisoner advocate. 

"The cost of phone calls is outrageously high for families."Sheriff officials counter the criticism, saying that 100 percent of telephone revenues are plowed back into operating the jail.Services "above and beyond" what jails are mandated to offer, including drug and alcohol counseling, books and magazines for inmates, and chaplains are available because of these revenues, they say.Solano's telephone commissions from the last five years almost doubled all other revenues generated at the jails, according to AP statistics.Telephone commissions in Solano's jails totaled $2.7 million in the last five years, more than any other revenue at the jail. Statewide, $303 million was generated for California's jails in the same time frame.

That money is important, especially in tight budget times, said Mike Medvedoff, director of administrative services for the Solano County Sheriff's Office."We're down to the minimum already," he said. "These services are not provided for in the budget, and we do not have a sufficient budget to do the programs."Solano has a mixed history with its phone rates. In fiscal year 2002-03, it had the 20th highest average bill per inmate in the state.

In other years, however, it has ranked in the lower half.Under its new contract Solano's phone rates decreased 24 percent and there is also a slight dip in the cost of local long distance calls.Both categories represent approximately 70 percent of the calls made from the jails, officials say.Also, sheriff's officials ignored lucrative signing bonuses and other incentives offered in contract bids by other companies with higher phone rates.

The SBC phone company, which had held the contract for 25 years, offered a $300,000 signing bonus and other incentives. However, SBC's rates were not as good as AT&T's, county officials noted.Neither was SBC's commission. Under its contract with AT&T, Solano will take 51 percent of the revenues generated from phone calls made at the jail. SBC handed over just 41 percent.

But because the overall rates are lower, Sheriff's officials are not sure if they will make more or less money from the phone calls in upcoming years."I think they will go up, but I'm not sure," Medvedoff said.Jason Massad can be reached at  county@thereporter.com .

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