Despite a court ruling lifting caps on how much prisoners and their families can be charged to make phone calls from jail or prison, Tulsa County Sheriff Vic Regalado said he does not plan to seek an increase to prisoner phone call charges at the Tulsa County Jail.
On June 13, a federal appeals court ruled that the Federal Communications Commission overstepped its authority when it made rules in late 2015 capping how much jail and prison inmates could be charged to make in-state phone calls.
Alongside companies providing prison and jail phone services, Oklahoma law enforcement and corrections officials were among the first to file court challenges against the FCC prisoner phone charge caps.
However, Regalado told The Frontier that despite the in-state call charge caps being lifted, the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office does not have any plans to seek to increase the amount it charges prisoners.
Regalado also said he came to an agreement in June of last year with the jail’s inmate phone service vendor Correct Solutions Group to lower the rate it charges for calls from 45 cents per minute to 30 cents per minute.
“I felt like we were probably gouging inmates in the jail for those phone calls,” Regalado said. “I felt that by lowering it, we’re providing at least an opportunity for them to speak with lawyers and family without breaking them.”
Previous media reports show that the Department of Corrections charges $3 for a 15 minute call, or around 20 cents per minute, while the Oklahoma County Jail charged prisoners calls at around 27 cents per minute.
According to the 2014 contract between Tulsa County and Correct Solutions Group, the county is to receive 75 percent of all revenue generated by non-interstate phone calls to and from jail inmates.
Last year’s rate reduction in cost has not had a significant impact on the amount of revenue from prisoner phones the jail brings in, Regalado said.
Over the past two years, the Tulsa County jail has received nearly $1.9 million from prisoner phone revenue, according to figures from the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office. In 2015 the jail brought in approximately $949,000 from phone payments, and about $944,000 in 2016.
In the last two years, the jail also has also implemented a “video visitation” system through a company named Homewave. Though those who use the system installed at the jail are not charged for its use, those who use the service through their phone or other device to visit inmates at the jail are charged, said Tulsa County Jail Administrator David Parker.
According to Homewave’s contract with Tulsa County, inmates or those contacting the prisoner are charged 50 cents per minute for a video call, $1 to leave a 60-second video message, and a $2 “transaction fee.” The county receives 30 percent of the revenue generated from the service, the contract states, but use of the service for the jail’s free on-site visitation is deducted from that revenue.
The FCC approved the limitations on prisoner phone charges in October 2015 after numerous requests to the commission by family members of prisoners to place limitations on phone charges. The FCC called the rules an effort to “rein in the excessive rates and egregious fees on phone calls paid by some of society’s most vulnerable: people trying to stay in touch with loved ones serving time in jail or prison,” and cited examples of phone charges sometimes adding up to $14 per minute.
The rules would have capped phone rates — depending on whether the site was a jail or prison, the size of facility and the type of call being made — to between 11 and 22 cents per minute, banned flat rate calling, capped ancillary fees added to calls and discouraged “site commission payments,” which are payments from the phone companies to the jails or prisons they contract with.
The FCC later adjusted the per-minute caps to 13 to 31 cents per minute.
However, not all commissioners agreed with the new rules. In a statement after the vote, FCC Commission member Ajit Pai, who would later be named Chairman of the FCC by President Donald Trump, called the rules “unlawful.”
The phone companies filed suit against the FCC, seeking to overturn the rules, but in late January 2016, then-Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt filed suit on behalf of Department of Corrections Director Joe Allbaugh, then-Oklahoma County Sheriff John Whetsel and the Oklahoma Sheriffs Association seeking to overturn the regulations.
Though the rules were set to go into effect for prisons in December 2016 and March 2017, a court issued a stay on the rules until the lawsuits were resolved.
After Pai was named Chairman of the FCC by President Trump in January 2017, FCC attorneys told the court that it would not longer defend the rules in court.
When the Washington D.C. appeals court struck down the FCC rules on June 14, Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter, who replaced Pruitt after he was named by President Trump as head of the Environmental Protection Agency, called the ruling a “major victory.”
According to a media release from Hunter’s office, preventing the caps from going into place “is estimated to save the Oklahoma Department of Corrections around $1.2 million per year and the Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Office around $375,000 per year. Other sheriff’s departments around the state will see similar savings because of the ruling.”
“The excessive cost would have been detrimental to the DOC and sheriff’s offices,” Hunter said. “This ruling will allow for inmates to continue communicating with their families on the outside while ensuring the calls are properly monitored.”