Newton Kansan

Harvey County Sheriff T. Walton has concerns about how the detention center's budget will be affected by a recent ruling by the Federal Communications Commission limiting how much phone companies can charge for inmate calls.

By a 2-1 vote last August, the FCC put a cap of 25 cents per minute for collect calls from incarcerated individuals. With a 15 minute limit on call times, inmates would not be charged more than $3.75. Calls that are pre-paid or paid for with a debit card would be capped at 21 cents per minute.

Prison reform advocates see the ruling as a victory. They say phone companies have been charging exorbitant rates, which have hurt the mostly impoverished families of people behind bars. There have been claims that the prison industry has been getting kickbacks from phone companies.

"We're not lining our pockets," Walton said. "None of this goes to personnel. None of it goes to fringe benefits. All of it goes to inmate needs."

Capt. K.C. Kersenbrock, who runs the detention center, said all the blankets and hygiene items the jail provides for inmates are paid for through phone charges and what inmates spend at the commissary -- the in-house store where inmates can buy the more expensive hygiene products.

Walton said the revenue adds around $20,000 a year to the jail's budget, but "it's not like we're getting that $20,000 and getting a raise."

The phone companies charge a connect fee, which would no longer be allowed under the ruling. In Harvey County, the highest charges for inmate phone usage is a $4 surcharge for international calls at 50 cents per minute. With inmates calling family in Mexico, those charges do exist at the jail, Walton said.

Inmates are charged $3.70 for intrastate long-distance calls. At 16 cents per minute, the charges for these calls are well below the cap. However, the FCC has called 12 to 14 cents "just and reasonable rates." The agency has indicated that it will look with scrutiny on companies that charge higher rates.

Harvey County charges a $3.95 surcharge for interstate long distance calls at 85 cents per minute. The FCC has not ruled on interstate calls, but said it will at a later date. 

It is a good system for the jail to make a profit from phone charges, Walton said, adding that it saves tax payer dollars that would otherwise have to go to inmate needs.Kersenbrock said the reduced rates will cut down revenue for inmate provisions by half, if not more.

Walton said it costs to provide equipment for inmate usage and for things, such as equipment to record calls.

"This isn't just a telephone they're using," he said. "It's more than that."

Kersenbrock said there are multiple ways people can have contact with family members who are locked up. They can write to each other. There are also two visitation days a week. For families that live more than three hours away, alternative visitation times can be arranged.

"Noone's forcing them to use the phone," Walton said.

Reform advocates have said phone connection helps reduce recidivism and that children who get to talk by phone to an incarcerated parent fare better emotionally.

"That is true," Kersenbrock said.

Neither Walton nor Kersenbrock knew when the ruling would go into effect. Walton said he expects it will be appealed.