York County commissioners want more info before renewing prison phone contract

David Weissman
York Dispatch
Just two days after his release from York County Prison, Chris Guido and his fiance Keena Minifield discuss the high price of trying to co-parent Minifield's two children through phone calls during an interview at their home in York City, Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2017. Dawn J. Sagert photo

York County commissioners will hold off on finalizing a prison telecommunications contract until they can discuss it further at their next prison board meeting in October, according to Commissioner Doug Hoke.

The contract with Global Tel Link, or GTL, was the subject of a special report published in The York Dispatch on Tuesday, Sept. 19, and featured on Fox43 News's 10 p.m. broadcast on Monday, Sept. 18.

The reports showed that prisoners' families are paying rates far higher than those charged at state correctional facilities for phone calls with their loved ones, while GTL provides the county about $900,000 per year in commissions.

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That money goes into 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.

The county's contract with GTL was originally signed in 2003 and has been renewed and amended several times since.

The prison board, which includes all three commissioners, unanimously voted to approve a three-year renewal of that contract during its meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 12, with minimal discussion beyond whether the rates and commissions would stay the same.

Prison warden Clair Doll told the board that the rates and commissions would remain the same and added that he was happy with the level of service GTL provided.

More discussion: Commissioners could have finalized that contract renewal as early as Wednesday, Sept. 20, during their bi-monthly public meeting, but a motion to take that action was not on the agenda.

After the meeting, Hoke said that commissioners have until Nov. 16, when their current contract with GTL expires, to finalize that renewal.

Asked whether he was having second thoughts, Hoke, who serves as president of the prison board, said members planned to discuss The York Dispatch article during the next prison board meeting, which is scheduled for 9 a.m. Oct. 10 at the prison.

In this file photo, York County commissioners, from left, Chris Reilly, Susan Byrnes and Doug Hoke hold their weekly meeting at William Penn Senior High School in York City, Wednesday, April 20, 2016. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Hoke added that the board has asked Doll to compile more information about the prison telephone rates prior to that meeting, and commissioners wouldn't finalize the renewal until that discussion.

Under the current contract, phone calls from the prison are 25 cents per minute plus various billing fees. The county receives a commission of 12 cents per minute, but only on intrastate calls.

The county does not receive a commission on interstate calls, the rates for which the Federal Communications Commission capped at 25 cents per minute in 2016.

The FCC tried to do the same for calls within a state, but it was 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.

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.

Still, the rate charged in York County is far more than the 6 cents per minute charged at all state-run prisons.

Previous statement: Hoke and the other commissioners had declined interviews about the contract prior to publication of the previous report, deferring to prison board 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 capped rates for interstate calls.

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"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."

Hoke said Wednesday that there was nothing in The York Dispatch article that he didn't already know and that the phone rates and commissions are topics that have been discussed in the past.

Hoke has previously praised the telephone revenue fund because it allows the county to purchase needed improvements at the prison without charging taxpayers.

— Reach David Weissman at dweissman@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @DispatchDavid.