County negotiates decrease for prison phone costs while adding tablets for inmates
A prison telecommunications contract that has been netting York County hefty commissions at the expense of prisoners' families will still net hefty commissions while slightly reducing the costs to prisoners' families.
Those commissions could, in fact, increase with the introduction of a wireless tablet program in the prison.
A York Dispatch special report published in partnership with Fox43 News in September showed that prisoners' families are paying rates far higher than those charged at state correctional facilities for phone calls with their loved ones.
The county's contract with Global Tel Link, or GTL, in turn was providing about $900,000 per year in commissions.
The county's prison board had unanimously approved a three-year renewal of the contract during its September meeting, but after the special report was published, the commissioners asked Warden Clair Doll to try to renegotiate with GTL for a lower rate.
Under the current contract — and the one originally approved for renewal in September — 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 prison board met Tuesday, Nov. 14, and voted to unanimously accept an amended three-year renewal that will maintain the county's 12-cents-per-minute commission on intrastate calls while reducing the cost to 19 cents per minute for prisoners and their families.
Out-of-state calls will remain 25 cents per minute.
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 and will remain 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.
Negotiations: Doll, who was promoted to warden in May, said his negotiations with GTL were really eye-opening in terms of what can be done to reduce costs and he looked forward to taking the same approach with future contract negotiations.
President Commissioner Susan Byrnes said the commissioners have instructed other county directors to take the same approach.
"It's amazing how much wiggle room there really is," Byrnes said.
Commissioner Doug Hoke, who serves as president of the prison board, said he heard from some family members of prisoners after The York Dispatch and Fox43 stories were published about the burden of these high rates, so he and the other commissioners made it clear when meeting with GTL that they were concerned about the costs.
The county did not consider accepting a reduced commission rate due to budget concerns, but it is an option the commissioners will consider in the future, Hoke said.
The contract with GTL still needs to be finalized during a county commissioners meeting, and Hoke said the plan is to finalize it during their meeting on Dec. 6.
The current contract expires Thursday, Nov. 16, but Doll said prison officials are working with the company to ensure there are no service interruptions.
Tablets: When the contract renewal is finalized, it will officially mark the modest price reduction for prisoners' families, but it will also mark the introduction of a wireless tablet program at the prison.
Under the new contract, GTL will provide 575 wireless tablets for inmate use at no cost to the county, though inmates' friends and family will be charged 25 cents per message when communicating via the tablets.
The tablets also will offer certain services including games, music and books that will be available to inmates for a cost of 5 cents per minute of use. Certain free services, including commissary ordering, access to the law library and grievance filings, also will be available on the tablets.
The use of tablets will serve as an additional money-making possibility for the county, as GTL will offer 20 percent of gross revenue from tablet usage as an additional commission on top of the phone commissions.
Doll said the prison requested the tablets be included in the new contract.
The state Department of Corrections utilizes GTL's tablet program and has distributed at least 16,000 tablets, according to spokeswoman Amy Worden, though the state prisons offer a different pricing structure than what the county will be using.
The department offers inmates the ability to purchase the tablets for $147 plus taxes, and they can keep them when they leave prison.
Still expensive: Aleks Kajstura, legal director for the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit prisoners' advocacy group, said the rates GTL will be charging York County prisoners for use of the tablets are "insane."
"Paying 25 cents per email (or text) is not something any of us would even contemplate," she said, "and these are some of the poorest members of society."
Kajstura said GTL and similar companies have been pushing the use of tablets with its customers as a way to supplement its profits with the federal government showing an interest in capping phone rates.
The Federal Communications Commission capped interstate prison phone rates at 25 cents per minute in 2016 and tried to do the same for calls within a state, but it was challenged by GTL and other companies, and a federal court placed a hold on capping those rates pending further legal review.
Kajstura said the commissioners moving to reduce the price of phone calls for prisoners and their families is a move in the right direction, but 19 cents per minute is still unreasonably expensive.
— Reach David Weissman at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @DispatchDavid.