York County commissioners trying to renegotiate prison phone contract
York County Prison inmates and their families could get a financial break soon in the form of lower phone rates.
Commissioner Doug Hoke, who serves as president of the prison board, said the county is attempting to renegotiate the prison's telecommunications contract.
The contract with Global Tel Link, or GTL, was the subject of a special report published in The York Dispatch on Sept. 19 and featured on the Sept. 18 Fox43 News broadcast.
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.
Hoke said he and the other commissioners met with Warden Clair Doll and representatives from GTL on Tuesday, Oct. 17, to discuss the history of the contract and details including profit margins and phone rates.
Negotiations: No decisions have been made, Hoke said, but the commissioners have asked Doll to continue talking to GTL about possibly lowering the rates for prisoner phone calls.
Doll could not be reached for comment Wednesday, Oct. 18.
The prison board previously unanimously approved a three-year renewal of the contract during its monthly meeting in September, but the renewal needs to be finalized during a county commissioners meeting.
Hoke had told The York Dispatch days after the special report was published that the prison board would wait to discuss the contract during its next prison board meeting before finalizing the renewal.
However, the contract was not discussed during the board's Oct. 10 meeting, and Hoke said he had not remembered that the contract was already approved by the prison board when he told The York Dispatch it would be discussed further.
If the contract is renegotiated, the prison board will need to approve any changes during its next scheduled meeting on Nov. 14. The renewal would then need to be finalized during the commissioners' meeting the next day.
The county's contract with GTL, which was originally signed in 2003 and has been renewed and amended several times since, expires Nov. 16.
Contract: Under the current contract, phone calls from the prison cost 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.
The money the county receives from GTL 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.
Hoke said commissioners are doing their best to strike a balance between reducing costs for prisoners' families and maintaining this necessary funding stream, which helps pay for required services without burdening taxpayers.
On the forefront: Aleks Kajstura, legal director for the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit prisoners' advocacy group, said the commissioners shouldn't be focusing on the commission when renegotiating this contract.
Studies have shown increased contact with friends and family members reduces recidivism in prisoners, Kajstura pointed out, which would save the county money in the long run.
As the county pursues lower rates, Kajstura added that the county should be wary of GTL adding other fees related to communication that will still end up costing prisoners' families the same amount.
In other prisons where per-minute rates have been lowered, GTL and other similar companies have tacked on connection fees and deposit fees and charged higher rates for the first minute of phone calls, she said.
Kajstura added that, even just by taking a longer look at these rates, the York County commissioners are proving to be on the forefront of this issue. Most other public officials around the country overseeing these types of contracts just allow them to continue unchecked as long as the commissions keep growing, she said.
— Reach David Weissman at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @DispatchDavid.