Our new “best practices” guides show counties how to strike fairer contracts for jail services

Most "consumers" of telecom services in jails are families in poverty. Counties can and should negotiate contracts that treat them more fairly.

by Prison Policy Initiative, February 7, 2020

The average cost of a phone call from a Texas county jail is 44 cents per minute1 — which can add up to hundreds of dollars a month for families trying to stay in touch — but Dallas County may soon lower its rates to 1 cent per minute. How? The county is aggressively renegotiating its contract with jail phone provider Securus, prioritizing getting the lowest rate possible for the families making the calls.

For other counties wondering how to negotiate contracts that treat consumers more fairly, we’ve just published three “best practices” guides. Our three guides cover the three most common types of telecommunications contracts in jails: contracts for phone services, contracts for video calling technology, and contracts for electronic tablets.

The simplest and best policy for a county is to pay for these services out of its general fund, thus making communication free. (Otherwise, personal wealth determines which families can stay in touch and which families can’t.)

For counties that won’t go that far, though, it’s still possible to write a jail contract that holds the vendor accountable, and allows families to stay in touch without paying dearly. Our best practices guides show how smart agencies can:

  • Get the lowest rates possible for families by refusing commissions
  • Protect customers from predatory fees, such as unnecessary “account maintenance” fees or high deposit fees.
  • Make sure that vendors return customers’ unspent funds
  • Ensure that expensive technology is never used to “replace” vital (and free) existing services
  • Avoid excluding good providers from the bidding process by accident

During the contract award process, county procurement officials are often outmatched by their counterparts in the jail telecom industry — highly experienced businesspeople intent on maximizing their returns. Because of this imbalance, far too many poor families end up paying hundreds or thousands of dollars a month to stay in touch. But county governments that do their homework can get families a fairer deal.

To learn more, see our new best practices guides about:

And if you are new to these issues, see our research and advocacy about phone services in prisons and jails, protecting in-person visits from the video calling industry, and exploitation on prison tablets.

Footnotes

  1. Our survey of jail phone rates in 2018 found that the average cost of a phone call in Texas county jails was $6.53 for a 15-minute call, or approximately 44 cents per minute. For the complete results of our survey, see Appendix 2 in our report State of Phone Justice.



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