Cook County phone contract costs inmates and families

March 14, 2012

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Mimi Mattel has a lot going on in her life right now. She's in jail and she's currently transitioning from a man to a woman.

"You know not a lot of transgenders have support from their family, and thank God my mom is behind 100 percent about my transition and so it doesn't matter how much times I call, doesn't matter what the cost is, she's going to always answer," says Mattel.

But the cost is high. The calls are $7 on the low end, but can be as high as $15.  The rates are inflated because Cook County makes money on the calls. The county has a contract with Securus technologies that requires the phone company to pay almost 60 percent of what it makes from phone calls back to the county. The deal has netted the county about $12 million over the life of the three-year-old contract. The cost falls on the mostly poor families who can't afford to post bond so their loved ones are left in jail while awaiting trial. Those families pay for calls they can't afford, either.

Mattel is wearing an orange jumpsuit and sitting at a metal table in a windowless dayroom at Cook County. She refers to the jail as a billion-dollar franchise. She says, "Sometimes I be so depressed and I want to talk to my mother, my brothers, my sisters and my family and I have to call them so I have to make sure that my mom keeps money on the phone."

"Money's hard to come by now days.  Even for people out there, the economy's so messed up.  These people can't constantly have to be forced to pay 10, 15 dollars for a phone call even if it is to speak to their loved ones," says Ava, another inmate living on the wing set aside for transgendered people.  This is probably a good place to say that the fact that Ava and Mattel are transgendered has nothing specific to do with this story.  They just happen to be the inmates who were available to talk about phone rates when we visited the jail. Anyway, Ava says she likes to call her sister but hasn't talked to her in a month and a half. "These phones were made purposely to separate us from speaking with our loved ones and from getting the support that we need.  And the way that they do that is by implementing these charges," says Ava.

Actually Ava couldn't be more wrong on that point, according to Bob Pickens, the COO for Securus. "Do you want the call to go out?  Yeah, we all want the call to go out because we want the inmate to be able to contact the friend and family member, hopefully to set up an account," says Pickens. He says the company and the county don't make money unless inmates can contact the family members who will pay for phone calls.

As for the $15 calls, according to county numbers, inmates made more than 10,000 calls at that rate in just one month. So in our phone conversation I asked Pickens to explain why those calls need to be so expensive. I asked him to tell me what that $15 pays for, but he says he can't tell me. He says, "I don't know first of all, and two, that would be proprietary information.  We're a private company, we don't disclose profits."

Pickens says they do run an automated announcement on each of those $15 calls. "We're making sure everybody hears that they can set up an account and avoid those types of charges in the future, just set up an account.  You can get a call much cheaper than paying 15 bucks for it."

As I was reporting for this story I spent time at the Cook County Court Building talking to families who were there attending hearings for loved ones behind bars. All the families - all of them - were outraged by their experiences paying inflated phone charges.

But this isn't just an issue in Cook County. Securus has contracts with a total of 2,200 jails and prisons. According to its website, the Dallas-based company provides phone service for 850,000 inmates. It's one of several large companies offering this kind of phone service where governments can turn a profit. There's a simmering national backlash against these companies. In an attempt to raise public awareness on the issue, one group keeps an answering machine where people can leave their stories and then the stories are posted online. There's one particularly moving story left by a mother who says her son has stayed in touch with only five people because they were the only family members who could afford to accept the calls, and now that she's preparing materials for his parole hearings she's worried that he won't be able to prove that he has enough family support to get out. Here's a link to the Thousand Kites project where you can hear those stories.

According to the Center for Media Justice, eight states have passed laws banning jail phone contracts that generate revenue for government bodies.

Securus, the company in Cook County Jail, has contracts all over the state of Illinois, including profit-sharing contracts with the jails in nearby Lake and DuPage counties. The number one selling point that Securus pushes on their website, isn't about phone service, it's that Securus can generate revenue for governments.

"We're providing a service that allows inmates and friends and family to maintain relationships and for that service, which costs us a lot of money to put in place, we make an average profit for a telecommunications business," says Securus COO Bob Pickens.

I asked him what an average profit was for a telecommunications business, and he was unwilling to give even a range of profit the company makes.

Here's what we do know. Securus was purchased at the end of last year by Castle Harlan, a private equity firm. The press release from that purchase says Castle Harlan manages investment funds worth about $3.5 billion. Castle Harlan is unwilling to say how much they paid for Securus or how much profit it makes.

We do, however, know how much the county is making from the deal with Securus: $12 million over the last three years. Securus charges inflated rates and then makes monthly payments back to the county. Pickens says the calls are expensive but it would be easy to lower the prices.

"The largest portion of the charge is the commission back to the county government," says Pickens.

The county gets 57.5 percent of all the phone revenue billed. We asked Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle to talk with us about it, but she declined. Owen Kilmer, a spokesman for Preckwinkle, said the Cook County sheriff pushed this contract, and Kilmer says, "This is an operational issue in the jail and falls under the purview of the Sheriff's office."

Frank Bilecki is a spokesman for Sheriff Tom Dart. "We are not receiving any revenue whatsoever from this," says Bilecki. He says the sheriff's office was at the table to talk about the phone technology, but had nothing to do with setting phone rates. Bilecki says it was the Bureau of Technology under Preckwinkle that selected the rates inmates would pay. Those rates can be set higher or lower and that impacts how much money the county gets.

"The president's signature is on the contract.  The revenue that is brought in from this contract does not go into the sheriff's department or the sheriff's office for spending.  It goes into the general revenue fund for the county, which can be used for anything and everything," says Bilecki, adding that all that money is controlled by Preckwinkle.