Graham Kilmer
MKE County

Board Debates Free Jail Phone Calls

Studies show it reduces recidivism. But could cost millions, with complicated practical details.

By - Feb 2nd, 2022 03:26 pm
Milwaukee County Jail and Milwaukee County Courthouse. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Milwaukee County Jail and Milwaukee County Courthouse. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

The Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors has plunged into a debate over its policy for phone and video communications for people incarcerated in the Milwaukee County Jail and the House of Correction (HOC).

In the fall of 2021, Supervisor Ryan Clancy authored legislation seeking to change the policy and expand access to free phone calls and video visitation

Initially, Clancy sought 75 free minutes of calling a week. He recently amended his resolution to allow 75 minutes a day of free phone calls for people in the jail and HOC.  His resolution was approved by the board’s Committee on Judiciary, Safety and General Services, and is headed to the full board for approval.

“We can really provide… a clear direction that we do not want to profit, we don’t want to build our budget off the back of what are historically some of our poorest residents, Black and brown residents,” Clancy said.

Throughout the policy debate that has played out across two committees, and will soon be taken up by the board, Clancy has noted that studies and public testimony have supported the positive effect increased communication has on recidivism rates and reintegration to communities after incarceration.

Clancy worked with a non-profit called Worth Rises, which describes itself as an “organization working to end the exploitation of incarcerated people and their loved ones.” It created a report using data from the county that estimates that inmates pay $5.1 million annually to contact friends and family members in the jail and HOC.

While part of this money goes toward paying the contractor, it’s also a source of revenue for the annual county budget. The county will get $2.5 million from this and that’s after the 2022 budget reduced the amount of revenue the county will collect from phone and video calls by $321,000.

Meanwhile, a new contract between the county and Inmate Calling Solutions, or ICsolutions, is also headed to the board. The three-year contract does improve upon the previous contract, increasing the amount of free calls offered and lowering the rate charged to inmates and their families for phone and video calls. It also provides enough tablets for every person in the jail and HOC to have one.

The tablets would provide options for instant messaging, email, educational resources, law library resources, and streaming of movies and television shows. However, the entertainment and messaging options would not be free, with charges per message or per streaming minute.

Clancy was not impressed by these offerings. ”The providers like this a great deal, because, yes, there are a lot of integrations into those tablets that provide them additional sources of revenue,” he said.

The Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office, jail commander Aaron Dobson and the Superintendent of the House of Corrections Chantell Jewell did not speak in opposition to free calling. But they are asking the board to approve the new contract with its charges for inmates because they are worried that failure to do so would jeopardize access to phone and video calling services in the jail. The contract with the current vendor expired at the end of December 2021.

“My main concern is that we don’t lose services for our residents,” Jewell told the board’s Finance Committee. “because that would be a complete disaster.” The superintendent also said, “We know that the free phone calls are on the table, but that’s not quite ironed out yet.”

Following a request-for-proposals process that began in 2020, the county rejected a bid from the contractor currently providing video visitation. “This subcontractor put in a bid for the entirety of the contract and did not win, and were not actually even eligible,” Commander Dobson said. “Based on that, they haven’t been able to provide or been unwilling to provide maintenance services in a timely manner so that we can maintain video visitation.”

At the board’s Finance Committee, Clancy made a motion to lay over consideration of the contract until the board had voted on his policy resolution. Clancy said he thought a one-year contract would be more reasonable, saying he thought it imprudent to move forward on a three-year contract when the board could soon alter the county’s policy toward communications in the jail and HOC.

County officials and other board members expressed a hesitancy to move forward without a contract for phone and video services in place, citing uncertainty about costs or the time it would take to set up a free phone calling system at the two institutions.

Lael MacLellan, manager for the county’s procurement services division, worked on the RFP for the contract that was awarded to ICsolutions. The entire RFP process that led to that tentative contract took 18 months. If the county undergoes an RFP for a contract for free phone calling services, MacLellan said, “The chances are very good that this RFP process, if we want to do it well, will take at least that long.”

Clancy disagreed, pointing to the report by the non-profit that indicated it would only take approximately nine months to set up a free phone and video calling program. County officials and Worth Rises also disagreed on how much a free system would cost.

The Worth Rises report operates on the assumption that the county will contract with another non-profit called Ameelio to provide video calling services, stop taking commissions on phone calls and negotiate a much lower rate. It estimates an initial cost of $3.2 million to implement the system in the first year, and an annual carrying cost of approximately $567,000.

The county comptroller’s office estimates Clancy’s policy would cost the county $4 million in the first year if the county worked with a contractor. If the county in-sources the service, the comptroller estimated it would cost $4.4 million in the first year and have an annual operating cost of $3.8 million. The comptroller figures included lost revenue in its estimation of annual operating costs.

CJ Pahl said the comptroller’s figures were conservative, and recommended a request-for-information process, also recommended by MacLellan, so the county can get “exact numbers” for what it would cost to implement.

Some supervisors expressed opposition to Clancy’s proposed policy based on the cost to the county, and the disagreement regarding what that cost would be. At the judiciary committee, Sup. Tony Staskunas said, “I get it, you’re looking at the numbers which work for you, which are from a non-profit from New York who doesn’t have to tell their constituents why their pool is closed in the summertime and why their park doesn’t have the grass getting cut or any services.”

Something Clancy kept returning to during the debate at the finance and judiciary committees was the estimated $5.1 million county residents and their families pay for phone and video services. “I keep underlining that number because it is so much bigger than anything that the county would pay, even in a worst case scenario,” he said.

Sup. Shawn Rolland said his position on Clancy’s legislation was “not a question of ‘should we?’ It’s a question of ‘how should we do this?’” Rolland said the board should pass the new contract and undergo the RFP process for a contract that aligned with Clancy’s proposed policy.

The contract and Clancy’s policy legislation are both headed to the board for approval.

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