This article originally appeared at Smile Politely on September 28, 2023; reprinted with permission. It has been lightly edited for style.
Phone calls are a lifeline for those incarcerated to stay in touch with their families and loved ones. The phone calls you and I make from our smart phones without a thought cost a person incarcerated at the Champaign County Jail six dollars.
Many bemoan the existence of private prisons, but Illinois has banned such facilities. Much more common are the prison profiteers like Securus, which currently has the contract to provide phone services at the county jail. Securus is what well-known local writer and activist James Kilgore has called a “carceral conglomerate,” owned by the investment company Aventiv, which is invested in electronic monitoring, computer management systems for jails and prisons, video visits, email, and JPay, a money-transfer company.
I first became aware of the overpriced calls during a hunger strike at the county jail which I reported on earlier this year. After I gave my phone number to one of the hunger strikers, I soon started getting calls from others at the jail which showed up on my statement, the first one costing $6.72.
A small group has since come together to advocate for free phone calls at the jail. It is circulating a petition to deliver to the Champaign County Board for free calls.
Champaign-Urbana first addressed this issue almost 20 years ago, when Sandra Ahten discovered the county was receiving $14,000 every month in kickbacks from the jail phone contract. She found this out after receiving calls from a family member who was locked up in the county jail. The newly formed community organization Champaign-Urbana Citizens for Peace and Justice, headed by Carol and Aaron Ammons, worked with Ahten to convince the county board in February, 2005 to renegotiate the contract to eliminate the kickbacks. Since then, the phone company has simply been pocketing the money; the actual cost of the phone calls was never reduced.
Ahten, who is also a part of the renewed effort, reminds us that one of the important factors in reducing recidivism is that people have contact with their families while they are incarcerated. “It’s a low point in their lives and can be a time when they can turn their lives around,” she says, “but not if their only communications are the high-stress interactions with other inmates.”
In 2016, State Representative Carol Ammons—with the help of local advocates, including myself—passed legislation in Springfield that led to penny-per-minute phone calls from all prisons run by the Illinois Department of Corrections. But the regulations do not impact local jails.
A recent article in Mother Jones covers campaigns across the country to bring an “end” to fees from jail and prison phone calls. New York, Miami, San Francisco, San Diego, and Louisville now have free calls at their local jails. California, Colorado, Minnesota, Connecticut, and Massachusetts have made calls free at their state prisons. Champaign County might be the next on the list to provide free phone calls, if advocates can convince elected officials.
In 2018, former Sheriff Dan Walsh signed a three-year contract to pay Securus $66,750 in “annual licensing and maintenance costs,” and $240,500 for the “one-time cost” of hardware. The total payment to Securus was $440,750 in taxpayer dollars from Champaign County. Additionally, Securus will make hundreds of thousands of dollars from phone calls by families and loved ones with a person in jail. This is how Securus makes millions from mass incarceration. They have contracts for some 3,500 jails and prisons across the country.
Sheriff Dustin Heuerman, a Democrat elected in 2018, has been rolling over this contract, until recently when community members started raising questions. Heuerman put out a request for proposals (RFP) for a new jail phone contract, which companies could bid on by the deadline of October 6. Due to community pressure, county board members Jen Straub and Stephanie Fortado have been appointed to a committee that will review the proposals. Ultimately, the sheriff decides who gets the contract, but the county board has to approve the decision as a final oversight.
Community members met with Sheriff Heuerman in April expressing their desire for free phone calls. Yet the original RFP made no mention of free calls. After community members raised the issue, an amendment was released for a “cost quote” of two free 20-minute phone calls per day for each person at the jail.
In recent media coverage, Sheriff Heuerman claimed that phone calls are currently 13 cents per minute, much less than what I was billed in February. He disingenuously suggested people could come to the jail to make free calls through video screens that have blurry images and frequently cut out. Before COVID, in-person visits were stopped, and replaced by the shoddy video systems. Rather than scheduling video calls at the jail, working people will more likely pay for the overpriced phone calls. To make one of the video calls from home costs a whopping $13, and some still pay the costs.
Also included in the original RFP is a request for voiceprint technology, the controversial collection of data on individuals at the jail—people who have not been convicted of any crimes. Voiceprint has been called into question by civil libertarians. The RFP explicitly says the service provider “must use a covert enrollment process where the voice print is created without the inmate’s knowledge.”
Barbara Kessel, also a part of the campaign for free calls, has flagged this issue. “The voiceprint is taken from about a minute of speech recorded by the technology,” she says. “The result is, like your fingerprint, a print of your voice is made that is supposedly unique to you in all the world. Once the data is gathered, it is instantly owned by the telecommunications company that provides the technology. Then the data can be sold off to other companies or governmental agencies for a large profit.”
Securus is one of two companies that possess voiceprint technology (the other is GTL, Securus’s main competitor). The requirement for voiceprint in the sheriff’s RFP potentially excludes other smaller companies that may want to apply.
It is overwhelmingly women, and Black women, who pay the costs for these calls. A 2015 study produced by the Ella Baker Center in Los Angeles found that 87 percent of the phone bills are paid by women. The 2022 annual report from the Champaign County Sheriff’s Office states that 59 percent of jail intakes were Black people.
Champaign County has a chance to implement free phone calls at the jail and lighten the load for families struggling the most in these trying times.
Brian Dolinar has reported on criminal justice issues in Champaign-Urbana for almost 20 years.
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