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The cost of calls keep families disconnected and keep jails funded

Alvin Smith Undesirable Water, 2016 Acrylic on canvas
Courtesy of the Prison Creative Arts Project
Alvin Smith Undesirable Water, 2016 Acrylic on canvas

The day that Felisha married Terrence Moorlet in 2018 was also her 40th birthday, and so he always made sure their anniversaries were celebrations complete with cake and gifts, as well as some summer fun. “Between having water balloon fights and splashing around in a pool,” she said, “we would be doing something crazy.”

But this year, Felisha hadn’t even been able to talk to her husband, who had spent nearly two years in the Wayne County Jail awaiting trial. The Wayne County Jail shut down in-person visits when COVID-19 hit, and family and friends still can’t visit their loved ones. Barred from making free in-person visits, Felisha has had to rely on phone calls with steep charges.

“The cost of being able to even pay for a call, for us, even [being] in that same area code is ridiculously high,” she said.

For several weeks before their anniversary, Felisha didn’t have the money to call Terrence. She didn’t know that he had been offered — and accepted — a plea deal to serve 13 years in prison instead of going to court where a jury would determine his fate.

Terrence Moorlet at his home before he was arrested in 2020.
Courtesy of Felisha Moorlet
Terrence Moorlet at his home before he was arrested in 2020.

Felisha found out about her husband’s decision when his sister called to tell her. A month after he accepted the deal, she still hadn’t spoken to Terrence. All she can do is speculate: He was probably so tired of sitting in jail, he wanted it to be done with,” she reasoned. “And I can understand that. He sat there for two years.”

Felisha paused, sucked in her breath. “[It] hurts,” she said. “But I can understand.”

Jails are administered by county governments, and each one determines the cost of calls for those in custody, often striking revenue-generating deals with one of just a few telecommunications companies that service corrections settings. A 15-minute phone call from the Wayne County Jail costs $4.20 – among the highest rates in the state, according to figures reported to the Federal Communications Commissions and compiled by the Prison Policy Institute, a criminal justice advocacy organization. While federal regulation has capped how much jails can charge for calls across state lines, there is no regulation on calls within a state.

The costs have added up for Felisha. In the months just after Terrence was arrested, Felisha was able to talk to him a couple times a week. Then, she said, as time wore on and their savings dwindled, they could afford to talk only a couple times a month.

Felisha has four kids and a fixed income. Unable to work due to a medical condition, she relies on disability benefits. With Terrence in jail, she’s had to make due without his earnings — and add to her costs the mounting charges of phone calls.
“I have to take care of the house, I have to take care of the kids, and everything else,” she said. “It’s hard. There's nothing I can really do to even help in this situation.”

Looking at contracts 

Michigan ranked second in the country for the average cost of calls from jail, according to a 2019 report by the Prison Policy Initiative.

“Jails in Michigan have just chosen to contract with companies that charge extremely high rates,” said Wanda Bertram, a communications strategist at that organization, who added that county governments aren't losing money with those high rates. Instead, they’re bringing in money.

Michigan Radio obtained the contract for phone and video call services to the Wayne County Jail and found that it generates a “minimum annual revenue” of $1.75 million for the county. The contract with the for-profit company, Telmate, includes a list of earnings from every minute of every phone or video call made from someone in its custody, regardless of whether those calls are to loved ones or lawyers.

A portion of the Wayne County Jail contract with its phone and video call provider, Telmate, from 2021.
Wayne County
A portion of the Wayne County Jail contract with its phone and video call provider, Telmate, from 2021.

“At the end of the day, these are payments from a corporation to a government agency for the ability to have the contract for that agency, which essentially are just corporate kickbacks or what feels like legalized bribery,” said Bianca Tylek of Worth Rises, an organization that advocates for free communication for people in correctional facilities.

Most county contracts don’t deliver a profit the way the contract with Telmate does. Usually, a company gets paid for the service it provides — filling potholes on city streets or standing guard at public schools. When there are “revenue generating” contracts, they tend to be in contracts related to correctional facilities. The contract to provide food for the Wayne County Juvenile Detention Center is “revenue generating,” for example, and so is the Wayne County Jail’s commissary contract.

The reason companies are able to share so much revenue with the agencies they contract with is because of the high fees they charge incarcerated people, said Tylek. “It's certainly the government taking their portion, but the companies obviously also taking their portion. So … everyone gets to win at the end of the day, except for the people who are reliant on this communication service and have absolutely zero say about how it's administered.”

There are additional costs for phone and video calls from jail. The calls are monitored, and who gets called and for how long is tracked.

We wanted to ask the Wayne County Sheriff about its contract with Telmate — about the money it makes and how it spends that money. But the Sheriff’s Office declined to speak with us for this story.

A statement on the Sheriff’s Office website says: “the phone vendor and Wayne County will work together to optimize overall calling expenses to benefit the inmate.”

Lowering the costs

Some counties are doing things differently. In 2019, Washtenaw County officials significantly reduced the costs of calls for people in its jail system.

The county eliminated the $4.25 it used to charge as a “connection fee” to initiate calls made by people in jail, and reduced the per-minute rate for calls from 30 cents and 25 cents for local calls, to 21 cents for all calls. A 15-minute call from a Washtenaw County jail now costs $3.15, about a dollar cheaper than a call in neighboring Wayne County.

In February, the county began to reimburse people who had incurred debt during their time in jail, after finding that people had racked up $509,888 in debt for calls, as well as commissary items and haircuts.

“The burden of jail debt is an added negative factor that can undermine their attempt at reintegration and unnecessarily contribute to the cycle of incarceration,” Washtenaw County Sheriff Jerry Clayton, said in a statement.

One-third of families with someone in jail incur debt over the costs of calls and visits, according to a survey of more than 1,000 families impacted by incarceration published by a coalition of non-profit organizations in 2015. Studies have shownthat keeping in touch with family during periods of incarceration improves mental health while locked up, and reduces the likelihood of re-entering the criminal justice system.

Some jail authorities have recognized calls to relatives and friends as a right that should not have to be purchased. In 2019, New York City became the first major city to make all calls from its jails free. Last summer, Connecticut became the first state to make all calls from prisons and jails free. Soon after, the Massachusetts Sheriffs’ Association announced that it would make the first 10 minutes of calls from jail free, but many fell short of backing a proposal to eliminate all call costs due to a reliance on the money generated by telecom contracts, which many say go towards maintaining a functioning jail.

Waiting for a call 

For people like Felisha and Terrence Moorlet, there has been a huge financial toll for staying connected — and a personal one too.

As the day of her anniversary turned into night, Felisha still hadn’t heard from her husband. It had been nearly a month since she had spoken to him, and during that time, he made a life-changing decision that would keep them apart for more than a decade.

“I've been dealing with the 13 years [sentence]. To me, I can handle it. You know, I just could handle it and deal with it a lot better, if at least I could talk to him.”

Terrence Moorlet is now in a state prison. The cost of a 15-minute call from there is half of what it was when he was in the Wayne County Jail.

“Next week it'll be a month that he's been in prison,” Felisha said as crickets began to chirp around her. "And, I've been dealing with the 13 years [sentence]. To me, I can handle it. You know, I just could handle it and deal with it a lot better, if at least I could talk to him.”

Beenish Ahmed is Michigan Radio's Criminal Justice reporter. Since 2016, she has been a reporter for WNYC Public Radio in New York and also a freelance journalist. Her stories have appeared on NPR, as well as in The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Atlantic, VICE and The Daily Beast.
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