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In Cook County, the costs of catching a case

Cook County government is making money off people who are locked up in the county jail. It sounds conspiratorial, but it’s true. People who are arrested pay substantial fees to support the system that is detaining and prosecuting them. And even if they’re found not guilty, they don’t get any of that money back. This week we’re starting a series we’re calling “The Costs of Catching a Case” that looks at the millions of dollars Cook County makes each year by putting people in jail.

We start with a young man named Marvin Gresham Jr. He was arrested in December, a few days after he turned 17. He’d been arrested before, but he’d always gone to juvenile facilities. This was his first time in county, so when he called his dad, Marvin Sr. put up the $15 it takes to accept the collect call.

Marvin Gresham Sr. sitting in the kitchen of the apartment he and his wife rent (WBEZ/Rob Wildeboer)
"He was afraid.  He was very afraid," says Gresham. Gresham grew up in Englewood, and when he was 18 he spent about a year in county jail himself. He says "it’s important to the inmate, the person that’s locked up that he knows, that he or she knows that somebody cares, you know, about them.  Being in jail is like being dead."

Now, sitting at his kitchen table flipping through his bank statement from the last month, Gresham is seeing what it cost him to be there for his son, to accept all those phone calls at $15 apiece, paid up front or else the call doesn’t go through. "It’s just a rip off.  The calls are being done to people that live in the ghetto.  These calls, are, they not right," he says despondently.

Gresham has a little trouble going through his bank statement. He never finished high school and he seems to have some difficulty reading. Gresham does contracting work when he can get it. He’s fixed up the apartment he and his fiancé are renting. They put in new flooring, some new carpet, refinished the kitchen cabinets so they’re shiny and put in a new counter. His fiancé works the evening shift at the McDonalds at the skyway oasis, near one of the tollbooths. They’re barely getting by. We look at his account balance from the beginning of the month. "We had a little money in the bank, you know, at the time, just a little, I think it was $330 and they took $120 dollars of that from us.  It was $330 and this is our main bank account, the only one we have.  We have nothing more," says Gresham.

The bank statement shows 8 charges for phone calls at $14.99 apiece. A third of Gresham and his fiance’s net worth was spent on those phone calls, and that’s from just one month. "Fifteen dollars is a lot.  It buys a meal in my house and it helps to pay the light bill, the gas bill and everything else.  It’s just a loss, a loss that we didn’t need."

Gresham could have reduced his phone charges if he’d set up an account with the company that runs the phones in the jail during the two months his son was there. The calls would have dropped to about $7 each, but whether it’s $7 or $15 for 15 minutes, the question remains the same: Why are the calls so expensive?

For starters, Cook County makes money on each call and not just a little money. Using the Freedom of Information Act I got a copy of the contract between the county and Securus Technologies, the company that operates the jail phone service. The contract requires Securus to pay 57.5 percent of the revenue from phone calls back to the county. Last year that netted the county government more than $3.6 million. In the last three years under this contract the county has pulled in about $12 million  from inmates making calls out of the county jail, according to numbers supplied by the county. It’s like the ultimate command economy. The county locks up the inmate. In order to communicate with family and arrange their defense, the inmate has to use the phones. Cook County has given an exclusive contract to Securus, which sets the phone rates and prohibits any competition, and then the county gets more than half of the revenue generated.

Howard Brookins is a Chicago alderman, but he’s also an attorney and he says he still handles about 20 cases a year. I ran into him at the courthouse when I was there talking to families about the rates they’re paying. "It just doesn’t seem as though you should be rippin’ those folks off.  Yes it may cost a little more than a regular collect call that you may make today, but it should not cost that much more because quite frankly, phone calls are cheap.  And anybody with a cellular phone and unlimited minutes knows that it doesn’t cost $15 for 15 minutes or a dollar a minute to make a phone call," says Brookins.

Brookins says he ran for state’s attorney a few years ago to address these kinds of inequities. He says inmates can be charged all sorts of fees because the public doesn’t have much sympathy for those who commit crimes. But there's a dirty secret, he says. "Their bills are paid by mothers and grandmothers, and it’s a tremendous burden on them with the number of phone calls also that they receive from their particular loved one because, again, they’re there with nothing else to do."

Brookins points out that most of the people in jail waiting to go to trial are poor. If they weren’t, they would have posted bond and gotten out of there. Of course there are people who have really high bonds because they’re accused of extremely serious crimes but most of the people have low bonds, and Brookins says if they don’t have money for bond, they don’t have money for pricey phone calls either. But he says, politically, it’s easy to levy charges against people accused of crimes. "When you say this, people think I’m nuts.  People think that, oh these black guys or these black politicians, they’re just coddling to criminals and they don’t see the other side of the issue or the story about them being pre-trial detainees.  They don’t see the grandmothers out there struggling, what bills should they pay. ‘Should I pay my taxes or should I accept this phone call?’" says Brookins.

Brookins says he’s seen his constituents struggling to cobble together money for legal bills and fees, having bake sales and fundraisers and asking the pastor for help.

And he articulates something I hear a lot too, and that is that people in African American communities think they’re being locked up so that someone somewhere can turn a profit. I didn’t believe the county made money off the phones until I had the contract in my hand. But everyone who’s done time in county jail just knows the county’s making money off those calls. It’s a short jump from there to the false conclusion that the county incarcerates people simply to make money. Brookins doesn’t think that cynicism comes out of nowhere. He points out that local politicians always fight against closing prisons in their districts because of money, because of the jobs prisons provide. And he says those same politicians pass mandatory minimum sentences that ensure convicts spend a long time in prison and that helps to keep the prisons full. "It can only be said that a lot of what goes on there is not about rehabilitation, it’s not about stopping the behavior, but it’s about money," says Brookins.

On Thursday we'll take another look at how profiting from incarceration undermines the credibility of the whole criminal justice system, but on Wednesday we’re going to zero in on just one part of that: on the county’s phone contract with Securus Technologies.

We’ll see what county officials have to say about it and we’ll ask why Securus charges $15 for some of the phone calls made from jail.

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