Special report: York County Prison maintained by 'phone tax' on prisoners' families
With her fiance serving nine months in York County Prison, Keena Minifield faced tough financial choices.
Some weeks, that strain meant deciding between filling up her gas tank or a 20-minute phone call with her imprisoned betrothed.
"There were many times when I didn't think I could afford it," Minifield said of accepting phone calls from the prison. "I'd have to keep him updated on the burden."
She said she ended up spending about $300 on phone calls to the prison during that nine-month span.
Minifield didn't know it at the time, but those high costs were part of a prison telecommunications contract that provides the county about $900,000 per year in commissions.
Contract: The county's contract with Global Tel Link, or GTL, was originally signed in 2003 and has been renewed and amended several times since.
The contract provides telephone services to prisoners at no cost to the county, instead charging the prisoners and their families on a per-minute basis plus various fees.
In exchange for the exclusive rights to provide prison phone service, GTL pays the county a percentage of its gross revenue — as high as 69 percent at one point in the contract — in the form of a monthly commission.
That money has totaled about $900,000 per year since 2013, including a high of nearly $1.25 million in 2013, according to records obtained by The York Dispatch via Right-to-Know request.
That money goes into the the county's Inmate Telephone Revenue Fund, which is spent on items and services at the prison ranging from roof repairs to body-armor vests for the guards.
A York Dispatch review of county commissioners public meeting minutes dating back to 2014 found that more than $165,000 from the fund has been spent on various vehicles and nearly $440,000 has been spent on closed-circuit cameras and related equipment for monitoring the prisoners.
This type of contract isn't unique to York County. GTL is the largest of a handful of companies that offer prison phone commissions to counties and states across the country.
Targeting: Aleks Kajstura, legal director for the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit prisoners' advocacy group, said these contracts are unique as far as public service contracts are concerned.
Whereas most government agencies will seek to contract with the company that can provide the best combination of high-quality service and low price, counties and states are incentivized to seek higher prices for the prison phone contract because that means higher commissions, Kajstura said.
"If (an agency) bids out for bridge repairs or a truck, they get what they pay for," she said. "With prison phone service, they're not paying for it, so there's that disconnect."
Commissioner Doug Hoke, who serves as president of the prison board, praised the telephone revenue fund at a recent commissioners meeting because it allows the county to purchase needed improvements at the prison without charging taxpayers.
But Kajstura argued that taxpayers should be paying for these items and services.
"If, as a policy, you've decided locking people up is in the best interest of (the general public), you have to be willing to pay for it," she said.
Kajstura said capital improvements such as county-owned building repairs are a classic taxpayer expense, and it's not fair to target specific members of a community — prisoners' families, in this case — to pay an extra "phone tax."
"(The county) doesn't expect someone to pay to fix a pothole on a public road just because it's in front of their house," she said.
GTL is facing numerous lawsuits, including a class-action suit in Arkansas alleging extortion of a "captive market."
Stephen Converse, a local immigration attorney, said the high phone rates are back-breaking for the average person with a family member in jail because the person in jail is often the primary earner in the family.
He said many of his clients have complained about the high rates, but they understand it as just a fact of life for someone in their situation.
"It's not something they feel they have any control over," Converse said. "Either you're able to make the call or you're not. ... If they can't (afford it), then they simply have to forgo staying in touch with their relative."
Kajstura added that the high rates could end up costing the taxpayers in the long run because studies have shown increased contact with family members while in prison can reduce recidivism.
Minifield's fiance, Chris Guido, now back with her and her children in their York City apartment, said he and other prisoners were trying to get their lives together, and staying in communication with a support system outside prison is a big part of that.
"By making it so expensive, you're taking (family and loved ones) out of the picture for some of us," he said, recalling one fellow inmate who hadn't talked to his family in 20 months.
Renewal: The latest iteration of the GTL contract expires Nov. 16, but the prison board unanimously approved a three-year renewal during its meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 12. They subsequently approved purchases totaling more than $130,000, from the telephone revenue fund.
That renewal could be finalized as early as the county commissioners' next meeting, on Wednesday, Sept. 20.
Prison warden Clair Doll, who was promoted to the position in May, said he looked at other providers but elected to stick with GTL because they've provided good service.
The contract renewal does not include any changes to rates or commissions, and Doll said he didn't attempt to negotiate with the company for a lower rate.
Under the current contract, phone calls from the prison are 25 cents per minute plus various billing fees, with the county receiving 12 cents per minute, but only on intrastate calls.
The Federal Communications Commission capped interstate prison call rates at 25 cents per minute in 2016. The commission tried to do the same with intrastate calls, but they were challenged by companies, including GTL, and a federal court placed a hold on capping those rates pending further legal review.
When President Donald Trump appointed a new FCC chairman, Ajit Pai, the commission backed out of its court challenge, which is still being pursued by prisoner advocacy groups.
"With the FCC backtracking, it's important for states and counties to take matters into their own hands," Kajstura said.
Seven states, including New York, have altered state law to forbid commissions from prison telecommunications contracts, and the prices have dropped as low as 1.25 cents per minute in Nebraska, according to Prison Phone Justice, a nonprofit organization that monitors rates.
York County Prison doesn't have the highest rates in the state — Wyoming County Correctional Facility charges $2.68 for the first minute and then 68 cents per minute — but it is more than the 6 cents per minute charged at all state-run prisons.
Phone-call rates from state prisons used to be as high as $1.65 per minute, but Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel renegotiated for lower rates in January 2015 because he wanted it to be more affordable for inmates to stay in contact with family and friends, according to department spokeswoman Amy Worden.
The department still receives commissions from its telephone provider, Securus, but the amount has decreased, Worden confirmed.
Necessary purchases: Doll said the items and services purchased through the fund are necessary for safety and security at the prison, and he would still request they be purchased if the fund didn't exist.
County controller Robb Green, who manages the fund, said the commission money has been spent for constructive purchases that benefit the prisoners, often including corrective maintenance that has been postponed.
The commissioners, who all serve on the prison board, declined interviews about the contract. Hoke had originally agreed to an interview before deferring to the prison board's solicitor, Donald Reihart.
With Reihart unavailable for an interview, the prison board issued a statement explaining that its rates are compliant with the FCC and Pennsylvania Utility Commission, and that those rates have been reduced since the FCC ruling last year.
According to rates provided by county spokesman Mark Walters, a 10-minute in-state call that once cost $5.39 now costs $2.80, which includes a 30-cents-per-call fee.
The revenue allows for critical maintenance and services for the prison, which already costs taxpayers about $53 million annually from the general fund budget, according to the statement.
"We endeavored to strike the right balance between the needs of our inmate population and the needs of our taxpayers," the statement reads. "We believe GTL offers a quality product, and the prison board is fully confident in the county's treatment of the revenue generated for the benefit of all."
A GTL spokesman declined via email to comment for this story.
Surprised: Minifield expressed bewilderment when she was told how much money the county was making off phone calls from the prison.
Also surprised was Stephanie Roberts, who said she spends about $100 per month on phone calls to her imprisoned husband.
Roberts moved from York City to Indiana with her three children shortly before her husband's incarceration, so the distance makes visits impossible and phone calls more important, she said.
She said she felt like the prison is taking advantage of her and others in her situation.
"A lot of people rely on those phone calls," she said. "If they lowered the rate, I'd probably talk to him more."
— This story was done in collaboration with reporter Mark Roper, of Fox43. Check out his report.
— Reach David Weissman at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @DispatchDavid.