This article originally appeared at Smile Politely on December 5, 2023; reprinted with permission. It has been lightly edited for style.
“He calls first thing in the morning just to say good morning,” said Blaine Sherase Lee, whose son was arrested in Urbana on a gun charge and has been in jail for two years. “Usually, he hangs up because he needs to eat and shower. Usually, he calls back maybe by noon. Then, after that phone call, he said they go on lockdown, I think around 3 p.m. for like an hour or two. He calls back maybe around six. And then again, right before he goes to bed.”
Over the two years, Lee estimated that she and other family members had spent around $3,000 on phone calls and commissary—additional food, hygiene products, and other supplies that can be purchased at inflated prices. “It’s extremely expensive,” Lee told me.
Champaign County is introducing free phone calls at the jail after activists exposed that Securus, a major prison profiteer, was charging a whopping six dollars for a 20-minute phone call. Sheriff Dustin Heuerman announced the new deal at a county board meeting on November 21, 2023. Under a new contract with Consolidated Telecom, Inc., those at the jail will receive two free phone calls a day.
Unfortunately, Lee’s son will not benefit from the free calls, because he is being held at the Kankakee jail due to a backlog of cases at the Champaign County courthouse since COVID, the closing of the downtown jail, and the wait for completion of a $20 million jail expansion project at the satellite jail on Lierman Avenue in Urbana. Bail reform in Illinois, which took effect in September, 2023, has had little to no impact on local incarceration rates.
Lee said her son “shouldn’t even be in there.” He had just graduated from Urbana High School and “had a lot going for himself.” The family plans to take the case to trial soon.
Champaign-Urbana has a history of participating in the national campaign for prison phone justice. Earlier this year, a small group of us formed the Community Justice Advocates to start a campaign for free phone calls at the jail. We have followed news around the country of states and localities adopting free phone calls in prisons and jails. In Los Angeles, as of December 1, 2023, 12,000 people incarcerated in seven different jails now have access to free phone calls.
After our lobbying effort, the sheriff released a request for proposals (RFP) for a new contract, and county board members Stephanie Fortado and Jen Staub were put on a committee to select the contract. We held a teach-in at the Unitarian Universalist church in Urbana and reached out to other local organizations like the ACLU and FirstFollowers to support the effort.
Back in May, a group of us had a Zoom call with activists in LaCrosse County and Racine, in Wisconsin, where they were working at the local level to provide free phone calls in the local jails. We also talked to Ameelio, a non-profit organization who said they could offer free phone calls at the Champaign County jail (ultimately, they were told they could not apply because of a no-subcontracting clause in the RFP).
Seven companies submitted proposals. The winner was Consolidated Telecom, Inc., a smaller and little-known company.
At his appearance before the county board to announce the news, Sheriff Heuerman said he was “shocked” that he found a company willing to provide free phone calls.
During public comment, Sandra Ahten, who played a leading role in the campaign, thanked the sheriff and county board members. “I’m so happy,” Ahten said, that there would now be free phone calls at the jail. She continued, “A lot of work and thought went into it for the sheriff, for his staff, meeting with Stephanie and Jennifer Staub, and we just really appreciate that you took the time to be really so considerate.”
Free calls are expected to go into effect in mid-February, as Farrah Anderson of Illinois Public Media has reported.
The latest development in the industry is to provide tablets to people and charge them exorbitant fees to watch movies, listen to music, and read books as they pass time in their cells.
They have tablets at the Kankakee County jail where Blaine Sherase Lee’s son is held. “You can make phone calls off the tablets,” she explained to me. “You can listen to music, you go watch movies, but you have to still pay for everything—you have to pay for movies, you know, everything you watch, and you also still have to pay for the phone calls. And they charge you rent just to get your tablet.”
Mass incarceration is still big business even in the face of a growing movement for prison abolition. Yet Champaign-Urbana provides a model for how communities can take on the prison-jail-industrial-complex and win!
Brian Dolinar has reported on criminal justice issues in Champaign-Urbana for almost 20 years.
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