New jail phone service rules will gut sheriff’s inmate fund

The San Luis Obispo County Jail.
The San Luis Obispo County Jail. Joe Johnston

New federal regulations placed on jail and prison inmate phone services that came amid allegations of industry price gouging will have mixed repercussions for San Luis Obispo County Jail inmates.

On one hand, inmates and their families will pay far less to keep in touch through the jail’s phone service. On the other hand, commissions that the county makes through the service that once funded programs considered high priority for inmates’ well-being will be slashed by 70 percent.

Local officials don’t yet know what will replace the lost revenue, anticipated to be more than $162,000 per year on average.

On June 21, the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors approved a request by the Sheriff’s Office to amend the county’s contract with Global Tel Link Corp., which provides its telecommunications services. One of GTL’s services includes the inmate phone system, which allows inmates of the jail to make collect or advance-pay outgoing calls.

The contract amendment follows a November ruling by the Federal Communications Commission that created a tiered system of flat rates for the inmate phone services based on type of correctional institution.

On Friday, California Men’s Colony spokeswoman Lt. Monica Ayon said its administration was notified in October that California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation inmate phone rates were below the new FCC-mandated rates and that the decision would not affect the prison.

With respect to the consumers who pay the bills, (inmate phone service) providers operate as unchecked monopolists.

Federal Communications Commission, October 2015

The new regulations have been in the works for more than a decade. In 2004, a Washington, D.C., resident petitioned the FCC for relief from high phone rates she was being charged to contact her incarcerated grandson. The commission found that for families of the more than 2 million Americans behind bars and the roughly 2.7 million children who have at least one parent behind bars, maintaining phone contact has been hindered by “exorbitant” rates and ancillary fees placed on those calls.

“While the commission prefers to rely on competition and market forces to discipline prices, there is little dispute that the (inmate phone service) market is a prime example of market failure,” the FCC report reads. “(The market) is characterized by increasing rates, with no competitive pressures to reduce rates. With respect to the consumers who pay the bills, (inmate phone service) providers operate as unchecked monopolists.”

San Luis Obispo County entered into an agreement with GTL in 2011 to provide phone service through April 2018. Under the agreement, the county received a commission of 56 percent of the service’s gross revenue, which was the main source of revenue for the county’s Inmate Welfare Fund.

The fund pays for state-mandated inmate services such as legal resources and educational courses, as well as nonmandated but “high-priority” services such as counseling, substance-abuse treatment, vocational programs and transportation.

We’re very concerned about the (Inmate Welfare Fund). These are all very good programs, and we would hate to lose any of them.

San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Tony Cipolla

Under the new rules, the service will cost users a flat rate of $0.30 per minute, of which the county will now receive a commission of $0.05 per minute, or about 17 percent of the gross revenue, according to its contract with GTL. It is not clear if and when the FCC will re-evaluate or adjust the mandated rate.

According to a county staff report, the county generated an average of $227,000 per year from the commissions. The new rates mean an anticipated loss of roughly $162,500 per year, or roughly half of the average annual Inmate Welfare Fund.

In the 2015-16 fiscal year, the county’s Inmate Welfare Fund was $315,000, with about 67 percent of that — $211,000 — coming from the phone commissions, according to sheriff’s spokesman Tony Cipolla. The only other funding source for the fund has been the jail commissary, which sells inmates hygiene items, snacks, writing materials and other goods. Last fiscal year, the commissary took in about $104,000, roughly 33 percent of the total fund, Cipolla said.

The Inmate Welfare Fund will not be impacted this fiscal year, Cipolla said, but with an anticipated loss of roughly half its revenue in the 2017-18 fiscal year, sheriff’s officials are working to see where cuts or adjustments can be made ahead of budget planning for next year.

“We’re very concerned about the fund,” Cipolla said. “These are all very good programs, and we would hate to lose any of them.”

He said the Sheriff’s Office has two options: Reduce funding for those programs or go to the county Board of Supervisors for increased funding to keep them going.

In April, the Sheriff’s Office entered into a contract with GTL for the company to provide video visitation services to inmates. Under that agreement, the county will receive a commission of 15 percent of GTL’s gross revenue this year and 20 percent each year thereafter.

Those commissions also go toward the Inmate Welfare Fund, but it remains to be seen how much they will contribute. Cipolla said the video visitation system has not yet been very popular with the inmates and it is highly unlikely it will fully replace the revenue lost from the traditional phone services.

Prior to its November ruling, the FCC also stated that it would be reviewing costs and fees associated with the relatively new video visitation services, indicating that mandated rates could be implemented for those services in the future as well.

Despite taking in far less from the inmate phone system, the Sheriff’s Office will not be limiting its availability, Cipolla said, and the phone services, as well as video and in-person visitation, will not be affected by the change in rates.