Regulators look into $2 fee for local calls from prison inmates

Official says calls in jails cost more because they have to be secure

Posted: Wednesday, September 03, 2008

After complaints from businesses dealing with prison inmates, state regulators said they would investigate whether a $2 fee for local collect calls from inmates is reasonable.

The fee would apply starting Sept. 15 to all local calls from inmates, except calls to public defenders, to the Office of Public Advocacy and from telephones in booking areas. The "one free phone call" would still be free, said Richard Schmitz, spokesman for the state Department of Corrections.

Prison phone calls cost more because they have to be secure, Schmitz said. Corrections officers need to be able to record inmates' phone calls and monitor or block whom they're calling. The fee was a provision in a bid by Dallas-based Evercom Systems Inc. to provide the security for state prison systems.

Any charges for phone calls must be approved by the Regulatory Commission of Alaska. Phone companies must charge reasonable rates and not subject any customers to "unreasonable prejudice."

"The consumer complaints, the magnitude of rate increase, and the lack of cost support all lead us to question the reasonableness of the $2 fee," the commission wrote.

The corrections department and the phone companies said charging for local calls is a common practice nationwide.

The Department of Corrections announced July 31 that collect calls from the state's 12 correctional complexes would soon cost $2. Evercom was to collect the fee.

Three people with businesses dealing with inmates complained. Fred's Bail Bonding, owned by Fred Adkerson in Anchorage, said that inmates call an average seven times before release, and that the company deals with about 500 inmates a month. A $2 fee would cost $84,000 a year for the bail bonding company.

Another complaint called the fee "outrageous" and alleged financial harm to inmates' families and friends, bail bond companies, ankle monitoring companies and attorneys.

Part of the commission's concern was that Evercom isn't approved to charge that fee. The company's position, the RCA said, appeared to be that the company didn't need to apply for a tariff because its partner, Anchorage-based GCI Inc., already had one.

GCI owns the infrastructure and is the carrier in most areas. And its tariff allows it to charge $2 for local collect calls from prisons, though it has only charged for long-distance calls in the past, GCI spokesman David Morris said.

But Evercom also intended to charge for its service in Bethel, where GCI isn't the carrier. The RCA suspended the $2 fee for the Bethel prison.

The other question was whether the $2 fee was in fact reasonable. The commission asked the phone companies to justify the fee by showing their costs.

The commission said in its ruling that it had denied three similar proposals, for fees between $1.80 and $3 for local calls, partly because the phone companies hadn't shown the rates were reasonable. One denied in 1995 was AmeriTel Pay Phones Inc., a predecessor to Evercom.

The RCA will hold a public hearing at 9 a.m. on Sept. 11 in Anchorage.

• Contact reporter Kate Golden at 523-2276 or e-mail kate.golden@juneauempire.com.



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