Graham Kilmer
MKE County

Board Okays New Jail Phone Call Policy

Amended resolution slowly lowers cost of phone and video calls for jail and HOC inmates.

By - Feb 7th, 2022 04:45 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 adopted a watered down version of the free phone calling policy proposed by Supervisor Ryan Clancy.

As Urban Milwaukee previously reported, Clancy authored legislation that would have reset the county’s policy toward phone calls for people incarcerated at the Milwaukee County Jail and the House of Correction (HOC). It would have directed the county to begin the procurement process for contractors that would allow the county to provide up 75 free minutes of phone calls and video visitation per day.

The policy essentially sought to make all calls and video visitation to and from the jail and HOC free for the inmates and their friends and families.

The legislation adopted by the board on Feb. 3, was altered by an amendment from Sup. Shawn Rolland. It changed some of the policy language in Clancy’s original legislation and also directed the county to undertake additional procurement due diligence with a process known as a Request for Information (RFI) before it underwent a Request for Proposal (RFP). The new resolution also committed the county to annually stepping down the amount of money it charges for these services

“I agree with Supervisor Clancy that it is immoral and irresponsible for us to balance our budget with expensive fees, charging families who are mostly low-income and mostly families of color,” Rolland said. But, given the concerns of county staff, Rolland also said “We should not mislead families and create a policy that our staff cannot actually bring to life.”

For Clancy, the version of his proposal that ultimately passed the board was a step in the right direction. But he still feels the county should be moving much faster to reduce the cost of phone and video visitation. “We don’t become a national leader by tying our hands and doing nothing for two to three years,” he said. “That is what this amendment would do.”

Clancy worked with a non-profit called Worth Rises, which describes itself as “organization working to end the exploitation of incarcerated people and their loved ones.” Worth Rises put together a report on how the county could transition to a system of free calling in the jail and the HOC. The report, based on data provided by the county, found that inmates and their friends and family members pay $5.1 million annually to use phone and video visitation services.

“This measure isn’t a luxury,” Clancy said, noting that in-person visitations aren’t allowed (they were banned in 2012 under Sheriff David Clarke), which make phone calls and video visits the only way for inmates to communicate with family and friends.

The Rolland amendment found support on the board as it called for a greater investigation by county staff of how to best implement and provide free calling. Procurement staff will undertake the RFI and “cast a wider net for information from a wider group of vendors who may be able to provide us this service,” Rolland said. “If our staff moves directly to an RFP, they will only include requests to the vendors that they already know and have vetted.”

Lael MacLellan, manager for the county’s procurement services division, told supervisors that it took the county 18 months to complete the RFP process for the latest contract for phone and video calling in the jail and HOC.

There was disagreement between Clancy and Worth Rises and county staff from the procurement division and the Office of the Comptroller over the budget impact of Clancy’s policy and the timeframe for contracting and setting up a new calling system.

The comptroller estimated that Clancy’s policy would cost the county at least $4 million in the first year. Given the county’s structural deficit, this budget reduction would have to be offset by cuts to other county services.

Rolland’s amendment slow-steps the county toward free calling. He said, “It’s gonna be very, very difficult if not impossible for us to eat this apple in one giant bite. We will choke on the apple if we try.”

Supervisors who expressed support for the amendment noted they liked the additional procurement due diligence, and that the county would not move toward a multi-million increase to the deficit without a plan for where the funding will come from. “We’re saying let’s do our due diligence and do this correctly,” said Sup. Anthony Staskunas.

The amendment gained the support of the majority of the board. Only Clancy and Supervisors Priscilla Coggs-Jones, Steven Shea, Russell Antonio Goodwin, Sr. and Sequanna Taylor voted against the amendment. Once amended, the legislation passed unanimously.

In a joint statement with Worth Rises after the board vote, Clancy said, “This amended resolution does not reflect the urgency of the situation, but is an important first step towards reducing the harm we have caused.”

The board also unanimously approved a new contract with ICsolutions to provide phone and video calling at the jail and the HOC. At committee Clancy sought to pause approval of a new contract until his proposal was considered. Leaders from the jail, HOC and Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office said they were worried that phone and video services could disappear, as the current vendor was operating without a contract, after it ended in December 2021.

One thought on “MKE County: Board Okays New Jail Phone Call Policy”

  1. keewaysservices says:

    Milwaukee County s. Should not use taxpayer dollars to support criminals who in some cases have committed murder ,theft domestic violence ,and could use the devices to harass and intimidate families and continue to run criminal operations and other illegal activities . Incarceration is not the time for leisure activities. use the money for education and psych services for the inmates .
    How does this plan decrease crime ?

    Use the money to provide trauma support repair parks and other activities. and give relief to taxpayer Pause this and focus on resident who have not committed crimes.

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