Study: Some Wisconsin jails charge high fees for phone calls
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Some county jails in Wisconsin are charging well over the national average for prisoners to make phone calls to family members and lawyers, according to a new study.
The Massachusetts-based nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative released a report last month that shows 15-minute phone calls at some Wisconsin county jails can cost up to about $22.
Wanda Bertram, the nonprofit's spokeswoman, told Wisconsin Public Radio that the state's jails average about $8 per 15-minute phone call, compared to the nationwide average around $5.61. Bertram said the costs vary widely by county.
Columbia County Jail in Portage has the highest rate for a 15-minute phone call in the state at $21.97, according to the report.
Bertram said it's important to note that the majority of people in jail are awaiting trial and haven't been convicted of a crime. She also noted that family members and lawyers receive the bill for the phone call fees, not the prisoners.
"And what that means ... is that if you want to call your lawyer, call your loved ones, call your friends, anybody that might help you prepare that defense before trial, you're going to have to basically send them a bill," Bertram said.
She said minority and low-income communities are disproportionately affected because research shows those groups are more likely to have a family member jailed or to not have a bank account, which can tack on more fees.
To accept a call from a jail, an individual needs to dispense money into an account for the phone payments. Those without a bank account will pay by transferring money through Western Union or Moneygram, which charges an extra fee, Bertram said.
The phone fees are so high in part because people in jail are a captive market, she said. The few major jail phone providers in the country compete for contracts by offering commissions and kickbacks to jails, who are often struggling to make ends meet.
Lawmakers across the U.S. have passed legislation to cap such phone call fees, but most often the measures target prisons not jails. The average rate for a 15-minute phone call from a Wisconsin jail is about four times higher than a prison, according to the study.
"The language that we've seen be really effective elsewhere is if the legislation says that correctional facilities must negotiate their contracts on the basis of the lowest cost of the consumer," Bertram said.