Picking up a phone call from an inmate at the Monroe County Jail can feel a bit like a stick up.
At a time when the price of a local call is next to nothing under most phone plans, a call to the 585 area code from the jail costs $1.85 for the first minute and 10 cents each additional minute.
Those charges are paid by the receivers of the calls, typically family and friends of the incarcerated, who have to set up pre-paid accounts with the private vendor that runs the jail-phone system.
But new legislation before the County Legislature would significantly lower the cost of a local call to a flat rate of 10 cents a minute – a rate that would be among the lowest in jails across New York state. The legislation is expected to pass with bipartisan support next month.
"I thought the price was, I wouldn't say gouging, but overbearing," Sheriff Todd Baxter said. "Families only have so much to spend."
The move follows a nationwide push from prison-rights advocates, public defenders, and relations of the incarcerated to limit private companies from profiting off the imprisoned.
The measure, which was introduced by County Executive Cheryl Dinolfo at the request of Baxter, calls for the county to enter into a five-year contract with a new vendor, Securus Technologies.
Securus is one of two companies that monopolize the prison-phone pipeline in the United States. The other, Global Tel*Link, or GTL, is the county's current vendor.
The billion-dollar prison phone industry has drawn increased scrutiny in recent years, having been the subject of a federal investigation that focused on the commissions that municipalities and states received from the vendors in exchange for contracts.
The arrangements amount to what critics describe as a legal kickback.
Monroe County currently collects a 66 percent commission on each call, generating roughly $870,000 in revenue annually. The county would take a higher cut of 78.5 percent under the new contract, but anticipates netting around $500,000 a year due to the lower cost of each call.
For example, the county currently makes $2.15 on a 15-minute call that now costs $3.25. The same phone call would cost $1.50 under the new contract and provide a commission of $1.18.
Commissions go into something called the "Telephone Trust Fund," which county officials said currently has $3.4 million on hand. Officials have described the fund as being used to pay for capital projects, like upgrading security features and buying GPS monitors.
Baxter said the Sheriff's Office intends to use some of the proceeds to buy "safety blankets" that are designed to reduce inmate suicides.
Legislator Rachel Barnhart, a Democrat representing Rochester, commended the sheriff's push to lower the cost of inmate calls, but said calls should either be free or offered at cost considering how much money is in the fund. She said she would not support the legislation.
"It was obvious during discussions (with the Sheriff's Office) that this money – profits from phone calls – is very important to jail officials," she said. "We need a better accounting of this fund. The budget should not be balanced on the backs of inmates and their families."
New York City recently became the first major city in the United States to make phone calls from its jail on Rikers Island free.
Paperwork detailing the new contract provided to legislators by the Sheriff's Office estimated it would cost the county $237,000 a year to make phone calls from Monroe County Jail free, based on a break-even charge of 3 cents per call.
Baxter said the people using the phone system should be the ones financing it.
"I do have empathy and compassion for the families of people who are incarcerated," Baxter said. "That's why I said, 'Let's see how we can renegotiate the system.' But I don't think taxpayers should be paying for that system."
Inmates can make calls that are mandated or considered emergencies for free.
Research has shown that inmates who maintain contact with their families are less likely to be reincarcerated.
Legislator Vincent Felder, a Democrat from Rochester who supports the legislation, said he has had relatives incarcerated and knows firsthand the burden of prison-phone charges.
"Ideally, you'd like it to be free, if possible," Felder said. "But this is certainly a step in the right direction. I think the fact that they've made this move shows a certain level of compassion."
David Andreatta is CITY's editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.