County phone deal will save families money | WBEZ
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New Cook County phone contract will save families money

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For a long time inmates at the Cook County Jail and their mostly poor families have been hammered by the high cost of phone calls. That's partly because the county has been making a profit from the calls detainees make to people outside.

But county board President Toni Preckwinkle will sign a new contract Tuesday to significantly reduce the cost of those calls. The county will continue to make $300,000 a month off the deal.

Cecily Cortez works as a housekeeper at the Marriott Hotel on Michigan Avenue and has a son.  Her fiancé was charged with residential burglary. The calls from him are expensive, but she said they're priceless and way better than letters.

"You get to hear his voice, feel his emotions through his words and pretty much it's just more contact rather than something written,” Cortez said.

The cost of phone calls is tough on Monica Ingram too.  She’s a nurse providing homecare for a quadriplegic person. She recently received a text from her cell phone company saying she needed to pay her bill before she could receive more collect calls from the jail. She'd already spent $60 on the calls that week and broke down into tears as she said she’s been forced to start ignoring her son's calls.

“That bothers me and that bothers me, because he always says 'don't stress, I don't want you to stress over anything' but I got to deny his calls sometimes," Ingram said. "What can you do?”

 Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle. (WBEZ/Rob Wildeboer)
The county has given an exclusive contract to Securus Technologies, a company that, according to its website, operates phone systems in 2,200 jails and prisons across the country. Securus charges inflated phone rates then pays back to Cook County 57.5 percent of the revenue.

When WBEZ first reported on this last spring, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said she thought it was wrong for the county to view inmates as a revenue source, but the county continues to make $300,000 a month from the contract. And next year's budget counts on at least another $3 million. Preckwinkle's long-term plan is still to stop the practice.

“So the president has made it abundantly clear that by 2014 all of the calls in Cook County will be revenue neutral, or I won't be here," said Cook County chief information officer Lydia Murray.  "We will not be talking.  So she has made it abundantly clear that this year is a transition year and we're lowering the rates.”

Since September, it’s been Murray's job to oversee the contract. She negotiated the new deal with the phone company, which Preckwinkle is announcing Tuesday.

“They are going to cut many of the calls in half and double the time that detainees can talk to their family and friends,” Murray said.

For example, Securus charges a more than $3 connection fee for every call and calls are cut off after 15 minutes so the caller has to pay another connection fee.  Now calls can last as long as 30 minutes.  Including the per-minute rates, under the new deal a 30-minute call will cost $7. Last spring, that would have cost $30.

Under Preckwinkle the county was able to ring out millions of dollars in concessions from Securus.

Phones at a Cook County jail. (WBEZ/Rob Wildeboer)

The company did not immediately return calls for comment.

Cook County Board Commissioner Larry Suffredin said it seems the county wasn't paying much attention to how the contract affected the families of inmates.

“I think that we were asleep at the switch,” Suffredin said. “The company sees this as a very valuable contract for them, and once we put some pressure on them they seemed very amenable to re-negotiating this contract.”

The new deal extends the Securus contract by a year, which means it gets to keep exclusive access to 9,000 detainees who make 160,000 calls a month. Under the new plan, detainees and their families will have fewer calling plans to choose from, but a 15-minute call will be $4 instead of $10 or $15. The price could come down even more if the county gives up its $3.5 million in yearly profits by 2014.

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