Updated: December 3, 2012 9:37PM
For too long, inmates in Cook County have faced a significant barrier to communicating with their loved ones: high-priced phone calls. Inmates and their families have been asked to pay incredibly high rates to talk on the phone, as much as $15 for 15 minutes.
Overcharging families for basic communication is inconsistent with my administration’s values. To that end, we have negotiated a new agreement with Securus Technologies, the Dallas-based company that provides the technology at Cook County jails, which will allow inmates to make more calls at a much lower cost. Prices will be cut in half and calls will be twice as long.
From now on, instead of a five-minute call at booking, inmates will be given 15 minutes worth of free calls; for paid calls we have extended the call time from 15 minutes to 30 minutes. We have also eliminated surcharges and reduced connection fees.
I realize some readers may not care what the calling rates are at the jail and may find inmates unsympathetic characters because they have been charged with committing crimes.
Let me explain why this issue is important to me. As I have often said, jails are the intersection of racism and poverty. African-Americans and Latinos disproportionately fill our cells.
One of the reasons they remain behind bars so long is because they can’t afford to post what would be considered relatively low bond amounts.
Reducing the price of phone calls also has the potential to help reduce the size of the jail population. The county pays $143 a day to keep someone in jail. That’s a high cost for taxpayers to pay because defendants are too poor to make their bond payments.
I remain committed to ensuring fair and equitable access to justice for all detainees. Giving them the opportunity to make phone calls to their families at reasonable rates not only provides a connection to loved ones — an important factor for successful reentry — but it’s the right thing to do.
It’s also worth noting that the contract provides several public safety benefits, another key goal of my administration. The phone system uses advanced technology, which allows the Cook County Sheriff’s Office to record and monitor all outgoing communication from the jail. It also incorporates voice recognition technology so inmates making calls can be positively identified. As part of our recent negotiations, the Sheriff’s Office will be given upgraded software to help enhance its investigations.
The county will continue to provide inmates free calls when they are booked and discharged. Calls to an inmate’s public defender also will remain free of charge, along with calls from the Juvenile Detention Center.
My administration is focused on cleaning up Cook County government operations and keeping a tight rein on contracts that previously lacked appropriate oversight.
In 2013, the County will issue a request for proposals for companies to bid on a new contract to provide phone calls at the jail. With the next contract, I will ensure that it is revenue neutral, meaning the rates charged to inmates will only cover the cost of installing and operating the phone system.
Until then, we will continue to aggressively manage this contract to ensure that families are able to connect at a reasonable price. While I am president, the price of calls at the jail will not be a barrier for friends and families who want to talk to their loved ones in trouble.