Cost for a 15-minute phone call from jail: Anywhere from $2.25 to $14.10, more expensive than dozens of other states.
It's an amount that's led the Iowa State Sheriffs' and Deputies' Association to write the Iowa Utilities Board within the past month and ask them to help lower the cost of telephone calls from Iowa jails.
Sheriff Jared M. Schneider of Washington County, the association's president, argued in a letter to the IUB that "the high cost of calling home from Iowa jails puts unnecessary stress and burdens on the inmates and their families." He then goes on to argue that these high costs limit low income families from staying in touch which negatively impact recidivism rates.
Schneider's not alone in that argument.
Prison Policy Initiative Executive Director Peter Wagner has argued that the cost of calling home from prisons and jails is one of the leading complaints from family members. "It’s unbelievably expensive and there’s no reason for it."
Costs in the state
According to data kept by Prison Policy, Bremer County charges $14.10 for a 15-minute call. The cost for one minute of the service, provided by Securus Technologies, costs about $3.74 according to the same figures.
While that company doesn't have much of a presence in North Iowa, a similar outfit does.
But those in control in those county jail systems don't seem to be too worried about the costs.
"It’s something we hardly ever have to deal with or review. I’m pretty happy with it," Worth County Sheriff Dan Fank said.
According to Fank, there's no direct cost to the county for Reliance's service. He said that everything is handled by them. "They install it. They maintain it. And then we get a little bit of a kickback," Fank said.
Wagner said that that might actually be a part of the problem.
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"The companies compete not to provide the best service but to give a kickback to the facilities and then the facilities don’t realize the ways the companies rip off families," he said.
He added that facilities could change how they do things to fix the issue. "Facilities could negotiate better contracts. Don’t take a commission. Don’t let the companies bundle things you don’t need," Wagner said.
Winnebago County Jail Administrator Richard Caldwell disputes that notion.
"The county’s not really in the business of making money on the phone cards," Caldwell stated.
In fact, he said that he doesn't really spend much time thinking about the phone issue because it's not the most in-demand service at the jail. Texting is more popular. According to the Reliance website, the cost to rent a texting device is about $4 a month and messages run 9 cents a piece (though that's subject to change).
The state's part
In addition to facilities initiating change on their own, Wagner said that establishing rates for what companies such as Reliance and Securus can charge would be a benefit.
Iowa has taken steps in the past to lower the cost of phone calls from jail but Schneider from the ISSDA argued that it's not quite enough. He said "more action is needed."
In 2017, the IUB decided to not implement rate and fee caps for inmate phone calls despite requests from the ISSDA and others.
However, they did make it so that the phone service providers had to file tariffs that would then be reviewed by the board to determine whether or not the rates are reasonable.
But the 2019 tariffs, as of the sheriff's letter, haven't been decided on by the IUB yet.
So things are still in limbo.
And until there are changes at the county or state level, $7.50 will continue to be the norm in North Iowa.
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