Talk isn't cheap when many state inmates call loved ones

Gary Taylor
Sentinel Staff Writer
Posted August 17 2005

Adrienne Jones is ready to have a call block put on her telephone line. She has had it. No more calls from her boyfriend.

It's not that she doesn't like Roy McCray, or even that she doesn't want to talk to him. It's the $335 phone bill that arrived last week.

McCray is an inmate at the Seminole County Jail, where there is only one way to dial out: collect. And those collect calls can add up fast.

Seminole and other county jails charge more than $2 for 15 minutes of conversation. It's not the inmate who pays. It's the person the inmate is calling. And the jails and private companies operating the phones make a bundle.

Orange County earned more than $1 million in 2004. That represented 45 percent of the revenue made from its jail phones, where local collect calls cost $2.25 for 15 minutes.

Seminole, which charges the same rate, generated more than $520,000.

When inmates make collect long-distance calls, the charge for 15 minutes can soar to almost $20 for an out-of-state connection.

Officials of both jails are quick to point out that the money goes straight to their counties' general funds and offsets the cost of operating the jails. It costs Orange $77 a day and Seminole almost $60 a day to house each inmate.

Private companies install and maintain the equipment and provide accessories that benefit the jail, such as a device that records the phone calls, Orange County Jail spokesman Allen Moore said.

A nine-month investigation by The Associated Press found haphazard record-keeping in California jails in 2003 and revealed that the average charge for a 15-minute local collect call was $3.91.

According to the news agency, federal regulators looked into creating rules for telephone services in jails for about a decade but didn't take action.

Central Florida agencies provided detailed financial information, with most of the money going into the counties' general funds. The money helps offset the cost of running the jails, but the rates charged for the calls don't sit well with the folks who accept them.

"I don't think it's fair," Jones said. But she understands why her boyfriend calls her five or six times a day. "There's no kind of TV, no kind of entertainment. What else can they do?

"Karina Myers doesn't get any phone calls from her husband, who also is in the Seminole jail. She can't. Her phone was cut off several months ago when she ran up huge bills by accepting calls from the jail and was unable to pay them.

"It's outrageous," Myers said.

How often did her husband call? "Every hour on the hour," she said. Bills of more than $300 were common, she said.

Her husband now calls his sister, forcing her to deal with the bills, Myers said.

Charges vary from county to county. Lake charges $2.85 for local calls, which is higher than in most counties. Lake takes in an average of more than $33,000 a month.

In Volusia County, operator-assisted local calls are $2.25, and long-distance calls can cost more than $17 for 15 minutes. But prisoners who use debit cards that are offered through Volusia's commissary can place local calls for as little as $2.10 and pay no more than $5.83 for a long-distance chat.

Volusia took in more than $585,000 from its share of the collect calls in 2004 plus another $77,000 from the sale of debit cards. Money from debit-card sales goes to an inmate-welfare fund that purchases items such as televisions and board games.

The money from collect calls goes into the county's general fund, which is only fitting, county spokesman Dave Byron said.

"I don't know if the fact that we are generating some revenue is a good or bad thing," Byron said. But it does help offset costs, he said, because the jail's budget is the largest in the general fund.