A correction has been made to this story.
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle (D-Chicago) says the county should not be profiting from phone calls made by inmates at the county jail.
Preckwinkle says she and Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart are in discussions to figure out how to eliminate "extraordinary and exorbitant" phone charges at the jail.
Some calls are $15 for 15 minutes. Most are $7 or $10 for 15 minutes. They're so expensive because the phone contract requires the company, Securus Technologies, to pay 57.5 percent of the revenue from the calls back to the county. The county has made $12 million in the last three years from the contract, but Preckwinkle and the board of commissioners appear ready to give up that revenue stream.
“I don't think that, that it's appropriate for the county to look at inmate phone calls as a revenue source,” says Preckwinkle.
It's a sentiment that has a lot of support on the county board. Commissioner Bill Beavers (D-Chicago) says the “county shouldn't be making any money off these, okay, phone calls should be at a reasonable cost.” He says, “I think it's ridiculous and we're looking at trying to make some changes. Hopefully we'll be able to look at that contract because that's really too much money.”
Every commissioner I talked to this week agrees with Beavers. “I had a dad call me who said to me that he's paid more in phone charges than he's paid in getting his son out of jail,” says Commissioner Robert Steele (D-Chicago). “That’s not an income source for us.”
Commissioner Jeff Tobolski (D-LaGrange) says, “I am surprised by what I am seeing in here and I don't agree with the policies as they exist.”
The political will certainly seems to be against this phone contract, but if everyone now agrees that it inappropriately takes advantage of poor people who are locked up, one wonders how it got passed in the first place?
“We have to work backwards on this problem, find out, you know, when did this contract come about? Who touched it? What was presented to the board? And make sure that we don't get into these situations again,” says Tobolski.
The contract with Securus was originally signed by former Cook County Board President Todd Stroger. However, in June, Preckwinkle signed off on some changes to it. According to an email obtained by WBEZ, the Bureau of Technology under Preckwinkle pushed for a change to the fee structure, in part to bring in an extra $600,000 each year in additional revenue. Preckwinkle says it was Sheriff Tom Dart who pushed for the contract.
I caught up with Dart earlier this week outside the jail and he said that's only partially true. “I tell them what we want the phone system to do and then who they pick as the vendors, that's really their call. I really don't have any decision there and I could honestly care less.”
Dart says he pushed for Securus because they provide a good phone service, recording phone calls so they can be monitored for illegal activity. He says Securus helps them stop several attempted murders for hire every year. It’s clear from emails obtained by WBEZ that at least some of Dart's employees were aware that the county was making a profit, but Dart says he didn't know until WBEZ raised the issue with his office last month. He says he doesn’t get any benefit from the profit because it all goes into the general revenue fund.He says the revenue portion of the contract doesn’t affect him so he didn’t pay any attention to it. He says the county board is responsible for contracts.
“Do I have time to do the county board's job? No,” says Dart. “They get paid a nice salary; they should do their job, I do my job. If they gave me a phone system that did not work, then they'd be hearing from me, but do I have time to go through all the different contracts that they give out that deal with the jail? No.”
At a county board meeting Wednesday commissioners questioned a Forest Preserve District employee about a $239,000 dollar contract to buy picnic tables. Cook County commissioners spend a lot of time in their board meetings going over contracts and purchases.
COMMISSIONER BEAVERS: How many tables did we buy last year?
FOREST PRESERVE EMPLOYEE: Last year we did not buy any tables.
BEAVERS: All right, about 3 years ago we bought wooden tables.
EMPLOYEE: The last time we purchased tables we purchased two thousand table.
PRECKWINKLE: Alright, Commissioner Sims.
SIMS: Are these tables light where people are picking them up and putting them and taking them away?
EMPLOYEE: They are not light by any means, these are very heavy duty picnic tables.
One would think that a board that pursues picnic table construction with such vigor might be aware of a clause in the phone contract that provides the county $4 million a year from the pockets of some of the poorest residents in the county, but commissioners say they didn't know about it. In their defense the board does often sign off on dozens of contracts and purchases at each meeting. Take the phone contract. It’s 70 pages long and I can tell you it's not terribly interesting reading.
Republican commissioner Pete Sylvestri, who represents parts of Northwest Chicago and suburbs, says, “The board is not a day-to-day administrator obviously, it's a board. It oversees policy and procedures and contracts and so forth.”
Silvestri brings the blame game full circle. “This should have been caught at the administrative level before it came to the board. Either the Sheriff's office or the president's office should have caught that and thought of these concerns that we're talking about today before it comes to the board.”
Whatever the case, Preckwinkle, Dart, and the county board now all seem to agree that the county shouldn't be making a profit from inmate's phone calls and commissioners say they plan to take some action.
“I can just tell you that we are very concerned and that it is being addressed and hopefully in a few weeks you'll be able to report that we have gone in and worked hard to correct the problem,” says Tobolski.
As for how the county board is going to replace the $4 four million the county makes from the phone calls, Tobolski says it's their job to figure something out. That's what they do.
Clarification: An earlier version of this story said all calls from the jail are recorded. Phone calls between inmates and attorneys are not recorded.