LINCOLN — Nebraska counties are charging excessive fees for phone calls made by inmates in their jails, and making excessive profits from it, according to a report issued Thursday by the ACLU of Nebraska.
Douglas County, which netted more than $600,000 last year, collected the most money from fees charged of inmates, the organization said.
The civil rights group said the “unconscionably” high fees for phone calls charged by counties impede a “basic need” of inmates — the ability to talk with their children, families and lawyers.
While an inmate in a state prison can make a 15-minute call for $1.50, those detained in the state’s county jails can expect to pay much more, from $7 to up to $19 for the same call, the report said.
Jails contract with for-profit telephone services that handle collect and paid calls by inmates. The contractors then share a portion of the profits with the local county, a practice that the ACLU compared to the “for-profit debtors prison” of the Victorian era.
“Most county jails in Nebraska use private, for-profit companies that literally have pictures of sheriffs swimming in piles of money in their advertising,” said Amy Miller, an attorney with the ACLU of Nebraska.
The “exploitation” of jail inmates is especially egregious because prisoners in county jails are typically poor and cannot afford to post bail or pay the phone fees, said Danielle Conrad, executive director of the ACLU.
“Incarceration should never be a profit generator for the government,” stated the 28-page report, titled “Profiting Off Lifelines.”
Lincoln County Sheriff Jerome Kramer, the president of the Nebraska Sheriffs’ Association, said he agreed that some of the telephone contractors are charging excessive and “hidden” fees that are unfair.
He said that prompted his county, earlier this year, to drop its contractor and sign up with one that didn’t charge extra fees for just signing up for the phone service or to deposit money in phone accounts.
“So we got ahead of the game,” Kramer said. “We’re not in the business of fleecing the public, even if they are inmates.”
But he said other counties may still be using phone services that charge extra fees.
Kramer said he also agreed with the ACLU that inmate phone use should not be a profit generator. He said the $37,470 that Lincoln County got last year from its phone provider was used exclusively to enhance programs and activities at his jail, including “pizza night” for inmates and better televisions, and not for general county purposes.
The sheriff said he also agreed with the ACLU that either the State Legislature or state phone regulators should enact limits on telephone charges for inmates.
“These other (phone) companies need to come around,” Kramer said.
The ACLU said its report was prompted by repeated complaints from families of inmates about the fees charged for phone calls. Some attorneys also protested that their private phone calls with clients either had been recorded or could be overheard in common areas, in violation of constitutional protections.
The ACLU said it surveyed the 64 county jails in Nebraska this summer and found that Douglas County — the state’s most populous county, where Omaha is located — collected the most money, $617,062, from inmate phone calls last year. Lancaster County collected $397,566, with Scotts Bluff and Sarpy Counties taking in $77,266 and $38,464, respectively.
By contrast, the ACLU said the State of Nebraska prohibits profiting from such phone calls via commissions from private phone contractors. The state corrections system, the report said, has one of the most affordable phone systems in the country.
The ACLU report said an inmate in either the Douglas County or Sarpy County Jail who made four 15-minute calls a week would pay about $42 a month for those calls. That, the report said, compares with charges of $168 for a Saunders County inmate and $318 for an inmate in the Saline County Jail.
The ACLU report named three for-profit companies that provided the bulk of jail phone services in Nebraska: Encartele, Protocall and Securus.
The ACLU report included a screenshot from an Encartele ad that showed a cartoon sheriff sitting in a pile of money, a reference to the fees a jail could earn from the company’s services.
Calls and emails left with Encartele, which is headquartered in La Vista, were not immediately returned Thursday afternoon. A representative of Protocall, a Kansas-based provider, said the company was still reviewing the report.
Kramer, the Lincoln County sheriff, said his county switched to a firm called Prodigy Jail Services earlier this year because that company doesn’t charge excessive fees like its previous provider.
Douglas County officials said they, too, were still reviewing the report. The county contracts with GlobalTel Link, an ACLU spokesman said.
The ACLU’s Nebraska chapter recently filed a federal lawsuit against the state over overcrowding in state prisons.