Rice County jails are facing scrutiny after being named in a Federal Communications Commission report for charging inmates for phone calls in excess of recommended guidelines.
Last year, the FCC capped interstate calls at $3.15 for a 15 minute call, with the goal of ensuring that incarcerated individuals can keep in contact with those who care about them. However, federal law does not grant the FCC authority to regulate in-state calls.
Along with the Chairman of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, Brandon Presley, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai wrote to the National Governors Association as part of a campaign to urge state and local leaders to reduce in-state calling rates.
Accompanying their letter was a list of every jail in the country that does not currently apply the FCC’s cost caps on interstate calls to in-state calls. Some of the jails listed were barely above the limit, while others exceeded it by a factor of four, five or even seven.
Twelve facilities made the list in Minnesota, with Goodhue County’s Jail in Red Wing leading the way at nearly $12 for an in-state call. Rice County didn’t quite reach that level, but at $7 it still runs at more than twice the limit recommended by the FCC.
Both Rice and Goodhue counties have long outsourced their jail communications technology to Securus Technologies. With more than 3,400 clients across the country, Securus is one of the largest providers of communications services for inmates.
Of the twelve facilities with in-state rates in excess of the $3.15 mark (counting the Rice County Jail and Jail Annex as one facility), 10 are clients of Securus, with the Mille Lacs County Jail in Milaca and Many Rivers Juvenile Detention Center in Rochester the exceptions.
Joanna Acocella, who serves as Securus’s vice president of corporate affairs, noted that Rice County has been a long-term client of Securus. She said that costs vary from community to community because of the unique challenges each presents.
“Securus is committed to making communications more affordable for incarcerated individuals and their loved ones,” it said. We know each community we serve has unique needs, and we will continue to work with all our government partners to balance their many priorities.”
According to Acocella, Securus has substantially reduced call costs during the pandemic, cutting the cost of an average call by 30% to 15 cents a minute and providing more than 26 million free calls.
Rice County Jail Administrator Jake Marinenko defended Securus, saying the services it provides have been invaluable. By recording and collecting call logs, Securus helps to provide a clear record of inmate conduct should issues arise.
According to Securus, the cost of providing operator assisted calling is significantly more expensive than that of providing overseas calling. Additional expenses include special equipment as well as higher customer service costs.
Marinenko said that for inmates who want to stay in contact with their family, a wide variety of options are available, including more affordable ones. An email can be sent for just a quarter, while texts are just a nickel apiece.
The American Civil Liberties Union is none too pleased with Securus and other companies highlighted in the report. Staff Attorney Dan Shulman said that rates should be kept low especially because many inmates are only in jail because they can’t make bail.
“People’s misery should not become a profit center for jailers and telecom monopolists,” Shulman said. “It’s disgraceful that jailers and telecom companies are using this as a means to extort payments from people who aren’t in a position to pay.”
Shulman is concerned that the high cost of calls could still interfere with the ability of some inmates to communicate freely with their lawyers, including attorneys in the Public Defender’s office.
“People have a right to talk to their lawyers and they shouldn’t be priced out of that right,” he said. “(These companies) are using fees to deprive people of their constitutional rights.”
To address the situation, Rice County could look at renegotiating its current contract with Securus or looking for another provider once the contract expires. While commissioners are still learning about the situation and assessing their options, Commissioner Galen Malecha said that’s a possibility.
“Certainly it’s something we can look into,” he said. “We want to allow inmates to be able to make those phone calls at an affordable rate.”